The Religious Option

Faith-based colleges may offer good job opportunities -- and, in some cases, you need not share the faith of the college, writes Susan VanZanten.

May 4, 2011

According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 900 American colleges and universities describe themselves as "religiously affiliated." Collectively such institutions enroll about 1.5 million students annually. Most identify with some part of the Christian tradition, although there are a few Jewish and Muslim institutions. While you may be immediately tempted to rule out applying to such institutions, especially if you do not share the institution's religious tradition, faculty positions at some of these schools might actually provide not only a viable but also an attractive opportunity. The mission, culture, and faculty expectations at religiously affiliated institutions come in a variety of flavors, and there’s a good possibility that one of them might be the right place for you.

If you are committed to teaching undergraduates, think that character development is a crucial part of higher education, are interested in social justice and volunteer work, and are willing to address undergraduates’ concern for spiritual and vocational issues, a religiously affiliated college might be for you. Religiously affiliated institutions are not all fundamentalist bastions, conservative Roman Catholic enclaves, or controlled Mormon societies. The strength of religious affiliation at a college differs considerably, from a token historical connection brought out solely at convocation and commencement to a strict adherence to a particular religious order, church, or denomination.

Most religiously affiliated institutions are liberal arts colleges or comprehensive institutions, with only a handful of research institutions, such as the University of Notre Dame, Baylor University, and Georgetown University. Therefore, most religious colleges tend to have mission statements focused on teaching and learning; some research will most likely be expected of faculty, but not at the level of an R1 institution. Such colleges are strongly committed to providing their students with a holistic education that involves intellectual, emotional, communal, spiritual, and ethical emphases. Their educational outcomes move beyond imparting knowledge and skills to assisting students in developing moral commitments and ethical practices. Such institutions may strive to graduate involved national and world citizens, people of good character, or effective servant-leaders, to name just a few of the more common values-related outcomes.

Furthermore, such institutions tend to take seriously today's undergraduate interest in spirituality and religiosity. The 2003-2010 HERI Study of Spirituality in Higher Education reveals a high degree of student interest in spiritual development, values, service, and belief. While few faculty members in public institutions believe that addressing these issues should be part of their role, private religiously affiliated institutions more typically expect faculty to actively explore these issues with their students.

Religious traditions inform and affect these institutions in a variety of ways. At some, connections with a religious tradition do not impact faculty hiring; such institutions deliberately cultivate a plurality of religious positions, including non-belief, among faculty. Yet all faculty might be asked to agree "to support the mission" despite their own religious convictions. Such support might include becoming familiar with the institutional mission, respecting its contributions to campus life, and not denigrating the religious tradition in front of students. Pluralistic institutions often opt to maintain their religious identity through campus organizations or programs. They might have a vice president for mission who advocates for the tradition and contributions of a founding religious body, or a mission-related center that runs co-curricular service and worship programs, or a curricular requirement so that students learn something about Lutheran liturgy, or Jesuit theology, or Mennonite service. Chapel services, spiritual formation programs, community service requirements, and residence hall rules are other areas that might reflect a pluralistic school’s religious identity.

At other institutions, hiring processes do take a candidate’s faith tradition and practice into account. Some colleges attempt to hire a "critical mass" of faculty with a certain faith commitment while others require all faculty to profess a common belief. What constitutes a critical mass can range from three-quarters of the faculty, to a bare majority, to a strong minority. But institutions with a critical mass policy regularly consider and hire candidates who don’t personally embrace the college's religious tradition.

The kind of faith commitment required can also vary. Among institutions with Christian ties, some require either all or a critical mass of their faculty to belong to a specific church, denomination, order, or theological perspective (the exclusive college); others require all or most of their faculty to subscribe to a general statement of Christian faith (the evangelical college); still others are looking for committed members of any Christian church, whether Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant (the ecumenical college).

Before applying to a religiously affiliated institution, you should identify your own position on faith. An honest self-assessment of whether you are a person of faith, respectful toward faith, open-minded about faith, or hostile toward faith is mandatory. Consider whether you think issues of religion, spirituality, character, and ethics have a place in higher education or not. Then investigate the ways in which the college embodies its religious affiliation. If a job announcement mentions the institution’s affiliation or quotes its mission statement, pay special attention. Check out its institutional history and mission statement. Colleges with explicit requirements for denominational affiliation or statements of faith will highlight such expectations in their initial job postings.

Critical mass institutions will say less about their expectations for faculty and more about the goals and values of the institution. Pluralist colleges might not even comment on their religious affiliation. A brief conversation with the departmental chair can clarify the institution’s position. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions if you are uncertain. A search committee chair at a religious college will respect you for being honest about trying to figure out if you will be a good fit.

Don’t be surprised or alarmed, however, if you are asked to write an account of your own spiritual journey, understanding of faith, or religious affiliation as part of the application process, even at pluralist institutions. It may not be necessary to be a practicing Catholic or Presbyterian or Baptist to teach at a Catholic or Presbyterian or Baptist institution. Just be honest. On the other hand, if a college states that it requires faculty to affirm the Nicene Creed and be a practicing member of a Christian church, don’t write a long statement about your Wiccan beliefs. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.

And don’t sign a faith statement unless you truly agree with it. It’s neither ethical nor wise, as any pretense will soon be revealed and you will not be fulfilled by living a lie.


Susan VanZanten is professor of English at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian institution with a statement of faith. Her new book isJoining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Faculty(Wm. B. Eerdmans).


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