Religious College Interviews
Susan VanZanten offers advice on some questions that may differ from those you would be asked at secular institutions.
Interview processes at colleges and universities typically cover three areas — scholarly goals, teaching abilities and collegial potential — but if you land an interview at a religiously affiliated institution, you may find some additional emphases, unusual twists, and unexpected encounters. Here’s what to expect and how to prepare:
Questions about faith: Perhaps the most surprising experience for some candidates occurs when they are asked personal questions about faith and religious life. At religiously affiliated colleges, these kinds of questions are legally permitted, although inquiries about spouses, marital status, and children are off-limits. If religious faith is deemed an essential part of an institution’s mission, a right to raise questions of personal faith and practice is recognized in law, by accrediting agencies, and even by the American Association of University Professors. It’s controversial but true; religious institutions are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religious faith.
So at some point during the interview process, you will probably be asked about your faith commitments and activities. If the application process involved writing a spiritual autobiography or faith statement, you might be asked to elaborate on or to explain further these comments. You also face questions about your church participation and involvement, or what kind of volunteer and service work you’ve done. Other queries might concern the religious tradition in which you were raised, if any, and how you currently view that tradition.
If the college expects that its faculty be supportive of, rather than profess, its religious mission, you may hear questions about how you would respond to a hypothetical hot-button situation. It’s helpful to consider how you might act when your personal beliefs differ from the institution’s position. Are there ways in which you can, with integrity, hold a different opinion without undermining the college’s mission? Are you willing to do so? If you are pro-choice on abortion, would you be willing to work at a Roman Catholic university? On what issues would you agree to disagree respectfully, and what issues are deal-breakers for you or the college?
Questions about teaching: Because most religious colleges are primarily teaching institutions, you will probably face more questions about your teaching than about your scholarship. Although many graduate schools prepare job seekers for an initial question about their dissertation, at a religious college, it is far more likely that you will be grilled about your teaching experiences, strengths, weaknesses, and philosophy. I often open an interview by asking candidates how their specialized dissertation work is going to influence or affect their teaching, and I’m sorry to report that this question has stumped many.
Other unexpected questions might concern the ways in which you anticipate bringing questions regarding faith, religion, ethics, or morality into the classroom and advising. Are you able or willing to draw on some of the resources of the sponsoring religious tradition (Catholic social thought, Reformed culture-transformation, or Jewish ethics) in your lectures and course material? Will you engage your students in service learning and ethical reflection? Talk about your own struggles with faith? How would you deal with a student who came to you experiencing a crisis of faith?
These questions aren’t reasons for you to pretend to be what you aren’t — many religious colleges will not expect you to share the faith of the institution. So don’t fake it, but do think through these issues in advance as they may be new to you in the context of college education. Research and refer to the campus resources on which you could draw in such situations, such as the college chaplain or the department of religion.
Questions about collegiality: Because religious colleges emphasize their communal identities, issues of collegiality may play more of a role here than at other kinds of institutions. Faculty, such colleges hope, will want to join the mission, become part of the community, pull for the greater good rather than solely achieve individual success.
While overt questions about collegiality may be few, be aware that you will be constantly under scrutiny as a potential colleague. Obviously, you will be expected to do your share of academic advising and committee work, and you should indicate your willingness to do so. But a religiously affiliated institution will also want to know if you are willing to work with students in other extracurricular ways, such as advising a campus Amnesty International club, helping students organize a community garden, or leading a prayer group. Even at institutions that expect everyone to share the same faith, there are a variety of ways to become involved in holistic education; not every faculty member will be expected to speak in chapel or lead Bible studies.
Questions you should ask: During the interview process, you will, of course, be given opportunities to ask questions. Do some preparatory work so that your questions will go beyond basic information about the religious tradition and mission that can be obtained from the college website. Ask questions in such a way as to indicate that you are familiar with the college’s religious affiliation but are curious to learn more.
For example, you could ask, how are faculty expected to contribute to the college’s religious mission? To what degree should faith-related issues be addressed in the classroom? What are the expectations that faculty be involved with extracurricular programs? Is faculty scholarship expected to be implicitly or explicitly informed by faith perspectives? Are there faculty development opportunities to learn about the college’s tradition? How are trustees selected?
If you are interviewing at a "critical mass" institution, one where a segment of faculty are required to adhere to a specific religious tradition, and you would be one of the "outsiders," ask to speak with a current "outside" faculty member. You need to identify the degree to which an in-group/out-group dynamic operates. Feelings of marginalization can occur on either side. Faculty outside the religious tradition may feel marginalized ("They always give the best teaching assignments to the Baptists!") but faculty identifying with the tradition may feel exploited ("Why do I have to serve on every new committee — just because I’m a Lutheran?").
Kinds of interviews: Expect a variety of groups to be asking mission-related questions; religious colleges will often have an all-campus interview committee discussing faith, teaching, and community involvement. Representatives from the School of Theology or Religion or an administrator in charge of the religious mission may also be involved. It’s highly likely you will speak with many people outside the department and its dean. Be honest, be open, and be curious.
Susan VanZanten is professor of English at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian institution with a statement of faith. Her new book is Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Faculty (Wm. B. Eerdmans). Her previous essay explored the reasons some academics may want to apply for jobs at religious colleges.
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