“Fit” and Christian Colleges

I’m wearing the Christian hat a bit more in this post: fair warning to anyone with a low tolerance for that kind of thing!

Most faith-based institutions of higher learning post their job ads in the same place as the ones without any religious element: the major disciplinary  lists like the MLA, sometimes the Chronicle of Higher Ed, etc. And when you’re looking at the postings, and even at the college websites, it can be hard to figure out what the relationship of an institution’s religious stance to a faculty member’s religious belief is supposed to be. These conversations come up from time to time on the job wiki and other places: do I have to be a [Catholic/Lutheran/Methodist/confessing Christian of some sort, regardless of brand] to work at X University? Some faith-based institutions don’t really care: it’s a historical relationship that holds little sway in actual practice. Other institutions want faculty members to agree to “support the mission” or something like that, but that can mean a wide range of things. Some “support the mission” institutions have a faculty that is as religiously diverse as you’d expect to find anywhere; some are very homogenous. It can be really difficult to tell which is which when you’re applying and even interviewing. Then there’s the kind of institution that actually wants its faculty to sign a statement of faith of some sort. These institutions are usually pretty forthright about this requirement because they’re obsessively interested in faculty “fit”; if you don’t believe what they believe, no one will be happy.

In my job searches, I applied to institutions in all three categories, and it was always the middle one I was anxious about: is this the kind of school where you mention religious affiliation in the cover letter, or not? I was never sure how to pitch it, and possibly I never got it right, because I never got an interview at any of those schools.

The schools that make it really clear what they expect you to believe, though? I didn’t worry about them. I read the statements of faith, tried to be as honest as I could (without openly jeopardizing my candidacy; if it was too much of a problem, I didn’t apply), and figured that this arduous “fit” process would help both me and the hiring committees figure out what was what. It seemed to work, too. In one case, a first-round interview effectively ended when the committee asked me if I believed X on a particular theological point and I said I did not. That was undoubtedly for the best, for all concerned!

Now, all academic hiring is obsessed with that nebulous, slippery thing called “fit.” It’s what people use to justify the insanity of a hiring process that involves the submission of scores of pages of written material, 48-hour interviews full of things that no self-respecting HR professional would dream of permitting, all in order to justify the hiring of Dr. A over the equally well-qualified Drs. B-ZZZ because, well, we just sort of liked hir better. Throw in the belief scrutiny that’s added to the mix in a faith-based institution of the third category, and it’s a particular nightmare. I’ve been asked for my religious autobiography in multiple forms in these sorts of interviews, complete with the kinds of personal questions that they know they’re not supposed to ask but can slip in as long as God is referenced. Many, many people would justifiably run screaming. I probably should have. But on the flip side, if you do fit, the hiring pools are much smaller, and it can be a good SLAC kind of gig.

You’d think that with all of that, it would be hard to end up with mis-matched faculty, yet here I am. When I think back to my interview process, I was honest (if not provokingly so, admittedly; I did not advertise points on which I suspected we’d disagree because they didn’t seem central). Yes, I have an evangelical background; no, I’m not an evangelical anymore; yes, I regularly attend church (have a clergy reference); yes, my church welcomes LGBTQ people and doesn’t really believe in hell. Etc.  At the end of the day, there were some points on which I had reservations (and I imagine the hiring committee had the same reservations about me), but the reservations were not enough to prevent them from offering me the job or me from accepting it. The belief statement I signed was largely the same creed I recite regularly in church, and any interpretive differences we might have had over what exactly we meant when we said those words were, thankfully, left ambiguous.

So how is it that after all of that obsession with fit, I still don’t? Some of it, perhaps, is that there’s honesty, and then there’s interview honesty, and I suspect that both they and I were more interview honest than we should have been (but if interviews involved a warts and all kind of honesty, would anyone ever be hired to do anything?). Plus, some kinds of desires outweigh others: I probably prioritized wanting a job, period, over making sure it was really a perfect fit. The hiring committee, too, may have decided the areas where I didn’t seem like a great fit did not outweigh the things they liked about me. But a lot of it seems, too, to have come down to some subtle cultural and theological differences that I, at least, had no idea I should have been looking out for until I was well ensconced here.

Over at Rachel Held Evans’s blog, there’s been an interesting conversation over the past few weeks about evangelical versus mainline Christianity (most recent post, with links to the previous ones, here). It turns out, all this time, when I thought I had an evangelical background, I was only sort of right (because John Wesley was kind of slippery like that). I hear “evangelical” and think one thing; my employers hear it and think something else (I’m still a little unclear about some of the details because, well, I’m not a theologian or a church historian). Then add in my decade of mainline Episcopalianism but throw into the mix the fact that there are some other Episcopalians on faculty here who are much more evangelical than mainline. You can imagine how this plays in an interview: “I’m an Episcopalian.” “Oh, so are Drs. X and Y!” Because no one in the room is an Episcopal theologian, no one realizes that there are these giant differences within the Episcopal church about what exactly one means when one recites the Nicene Creed, for instance.

Perhaps it comes down to this: I read and write about and teach literature. I took a theology class once and have read a few relevant books; I’m probably better theologically educated than your average person in the pews on Sunday, but I’m still not even close to being a theologian. Nor do I particularly wish to be one. All those people on the interview committee, caring so much about “fit”? Also not theologians. So we could have a good, concrete conversation about critical theory, or writing pedagogy, or Shakespeare, and we were–are–all on the same page (even when we disagree, we at least know we’re disagreeing). When we talked (and continue to talk, because these evangelicals seriously do not ever stop talking about Jesus, and it sort of drives me nuts) about faith, we were using the same words to mean quite different things. Yet in many ways, that was the important part of the interview. It’s easy to find an English professor (just post an ad; hundreds of obscenely well-qualified people will fall over themselves begging to come to the back of beyond to teach freshmen how to string sentences together). It’s less easy to find an English professor who fits into a particular institutional culture, especially when that culture is so narrow. Add to this the fact that English professors aren’t theologians, generally speaking, and the entire endeavor can go awry without anyone realizing what’s going on.

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2 responses to ““Fit” and Christian Colleges

  1. Hugh

    The issue of fit is a very important part of life at a religious school. My institution has both a statement of faith (basically the Creed) and an oath of fidelity. Both are worded in such a way that everyone from a dogmatically orthodox Catholic to a Modernist could comfortably profess them, though with radically different understandings of the meaning and, in the case of the Modernist, some mental qualifications. I have been on a number of hiring committees over the last few years, and with theology or philosophy department hires, these differences usually are evident from a candidate’s research interests and publications. With other departments like literature and history, they are not. In my case, when I was hired I had to agree with the statement of faith and mission and assure them that I would not be doing anything to openly undermine their mission, but had to reveal very few specifics about my beliefs.

    There is also the fact that people change over time, and someone who may have been a good “fit” at first may no longer be one several years down the road. I certainly have undergone a shift in my view of my institution’s mission and especially the oath of fidelity. And this can lead to the culture of hypocrisy you mentioned in an earlier post. Everybody pretends to be on the same page on all the issues, but in reality no one is. Even among those who are fully dedicated to a “proper” interpretation of the school’s mission, there can be minor but surprisingly bitter differences. With the intense focus on mission, there is often a good deal of suspicion towards those who are not supporting it in the “right” manner. This can then lead to an intense factionalism even among those who are basically on the same page doctrinally, sometimes all the more fierce because of the proximity of their views.

    • Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this, Hugh, because I’ve definitely been meaning to. Your second paragraph, about the way people change, is so important. My institution was recently reviewing the tenure policy, which has a clause about them being allowed to fire you if you demonstrate that you’re no longer in agreement with the statement of faith (this is not new to the policy, nor do I think it’s unusual in faith-based institutions). When it came before the faculty for review, the dean said, offhand, “of course, we hope it doesn’t ever come to that; if you find yourself in disagreement, we hope you’d just resign.” As if “just” resigning is an easy thing with any job in this employment market, and especially in academia–and even more especially in a small town where many people have built their lives but which offers few other employment options. I could “just resign” a lot more easily than a lot of my colleagues who have families–and I’m finding the prospect rather daunting, even as a single person who has been here less than a year.

      All of which to say, there’s a big incentive not to disagree, or at least not to appear to disagree, which essentially invalidates much of the free inquiry that’s supposed to happen in the academy (even in faith-based institutions, at least to my belief).

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