For an Evangelical school, the statement of faith is the first job qualification. A search committee may have the perfect candidate, but ultimately, if the person cannot sign the faith statement, he or she is disqualified. This faith distinction is often what’s behind news reports of faculty at Evangelical schools losing their positions over views of LGBTQ rights and identity or creationism.
When stories like these hit the news, non-academics often ask me: if these faculty aren’t a good fit, why don’t they just leave and pitch their tents elsewhere? It’s a valid question.
But it’s also extremely complicated. As a professor who just voluntarily gave up his faculty position at a Christian seminary, primarily over a faith statement, I can explain why it is so difficult to leave.
Over the last year, as I was writing a book on academic freedom in religious schools, I decided I could no longer continue on at the seminary in good conscience. The more I engaged my field in a purely academic form, and not as an advocate for a belief system, the more my perspective changed, and the less of an adherent I became. It was no longer healthy for me to stay, and it wasn’t fair to the faith expectations of the institution or its people.
I'm also aware of faculty at other Christian schools who are wondering when they should leave. They’re finding it unhealthy to stay, but they have family relying on their income and school loans or mortgages to pay, and the job market is meager at best.
I came to my decision after asking myself three big questions. Honestly answering these may prove helpful to others as well.
Question #1: How much have you changed?
Not all changes happen overnight. Many -- especially those that affect employment, financial stability, or family relationships -- take longer to sink in, accept, or act on. My own changing perspective took years. I tried to hold on to what I could of my beliefs and keep the rest in a constant state of agnosticism, but the day came when I could no longer deny that I had changed. In a seminary, professors are expected to be theological advocates -- even historians of religion like myself -- and I could no longer do that.
The bigger the change, often the greater the difficulty in “coming out” about it. When it comes to faith-based schools, leaving or staying can hinge on the minutest of details and the slightest parsing of words. A faculty member may agree with the language of a faith statement, but his or her colleagues may insist they also agree on an interpretation.
While not all hills are for dying on, if your institution requires its faculty to affirm patriarchy or to say that being gay is a sin — and you cannot — then it is time to recognize that you are no longer a good fit.
On the other hand, if the difference is minor, don’t borrow trouble by making something insignificant bigger than it needs to be. If, however, you have fallen out of the acceptable bounds of a school, then be honest with yourself about it. You are likely to be happier at a place that accepts you as you are.
Question #2: Did your institution change?
There are cases when a religiously affiliated institution makes unexpected changes that force a turnover of faculty and staff who might have reasonably felt their jobs were secure. Recently, Bryan College decided to enforce a stronger creationist perspective with additional “clarifying” statements all faculty had to sign.
Two years ago, Shorter University took long-term faculty and staff by surprise with new lifestyle statements forbidding public drinking and demanding already openly gay members to reject their identities. Prior to these conservative shake-ups, faculty at these institutions may have had no reason to consider their positions at risk.
If your institution has a long tradition of accepting people like you, but the rules change mid-game as the result of a new president, an overzealous board, or a heavy-handed donor, then you need to decide if you are you willing (and able) to stay and fight for the place you and others call home. But keep in mind that it is a fight you are unlikely to win.
When a president and board are dead set on making changes, there is often very little a professor can do. If the reason for the dispute is over doctrine, or can be parsed in that form, even the U.S. court system will refuse to judge those religious matters. The question is, what action can you live with when it is all said and done?
Question #3: Do you have an exit strategy?
You may not be planning to leave. But if you’re teaching at an Evangelical school, history suggests it’s wise to be prepared for sudden change. In the case of Bryan College, faculty had very little time to prepare. In another situation, a Ph.D. student (in ABD status) was offered a faculty position at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, only to have it revoked when the president discovered the candidate was married to a divorced woman — a Southern Baptist sin. It is not possible to see everything coming.
And it’s hard to miss the fact that the faculty majority at liberal arts colleges, universities, and community colleges are now considered so-called “contingent faculty,” with a strong number of those as adjuncts who barely scrape by. Academic life has fallen on hard times, which means creativity and fortitude are helpful components of a solid exit strategy, should you decide you need one.
In crafting your way out, consider not just other open faculty positions, but also alternative or related directions you might take your career. Find out if your professional association has an alternative academic career center available. Talk to peers who have made significant changes. Network with colleagues and train yourself to spot unexpected opportunities.
Whatever your situation, learn to live deliberately, rather than letting life happen to you. Know yourself, know your institution, and know when (as painful as it might be) to walk away.
Brandon G. Withrow is adjunct lecturer in religious studies at the University of Findlay and co-author of Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education (2014). He blogs at brandonwithrow.com.
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