Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What the Church Can Learn from the University

I’ve spent a lot of time on university campuses. A lot of time and a bunch of campuses. The University of California, Riverside. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Johns Hopkins University. North Carolina Central University. Duke University. Shaw University. And now, I am in my third year as the Episcopal Chaplain at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Now before I go any further, I have to mention that Guilford College, which I also serve, is conspicuously absent from this list. So is Virginia Theological Seminary, from which I actually got a degree! Never fear all you Quakers and seminarians. Your time is coming. This column is specifically about universities, which you are not. That column is coming.

I’ve been a student, faculty, staff, and chaplain at these institutions, occasionally serving in more than one capacity, even at the same time. I know universities. Let me just say for all the church people one thing I know you want to hear: Universities are incredibly screwed up places to work. The faculty intrigue about tenure and promotion, the jockeying for control of a department, the utter lack of concern about meeting student needs, the bizarre and failed attempts to come up with a coherent and consistent alcohol policy, the borderline personalities, the extreme political correctness, the panic over publishing, the funding shortages coupled with wasteful spending, I’ve seen it all.

But now that I’ve castigated universities for their wackiness, I have to say that they get a lot of things right that we in the church cannot. Universities, for all their failures to protect the rights of minority groups, are so far ahead of us in the hiring process that it is a tragedy. For one thing, universities tend to be a lot more honest in stating who they want to hire and why. For example, a department that is all male will openly state it is looking strongly for women to apply for an open position because it believes a woman teaching in the department will be good for students, and will balance the type of research being done, and maybe even that the lack of female hires is an indication of a problem. When a gay person is hired, there is often as much attention paid to finding his or her partner a position as there would be for a heterosexual spouse.

In the Episcopal Church, we’ve made great strides in much of the country when it comes to the calling of women to lead churches. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are still areas of the country in which women cannot get ordained, much less called to lead churches. And it is still probably true that a black priest has a better chance of getting elected bishop than of being rector of even a medium sized predominantly white church. African Americans advance their careers by becoming diocesan staff or appointed deans of cathedrals. We clamor for Spanish speaking clergy but fund the positions we have for them at the absolute minimum. And for gay clergy: good luck. There are places that will take you, but….

People in universities will be happy to tell me about their poor track record on the road to equality. Don’t bother. The Promised Land may be a vague blur on the distant landscape for you, but we’re still back at home loading up the truck. For all the times your car breaks down, at least it is on the road. We’re still arguing over whether or not the trip is a good idea. You have some pretty good road maps. We’re trying to decide if the world is flat or round.

A second example: Universities have built it a system of evaluation and accreditation that involves outside visitors, a standardized evaluation plan, and a schedule that everyone knows years in advance. It is a great deal of work and everyone hates going through it. But every academic department goes through it.

Churches are individualized enclaves (even those that are part of a denomination). In some cases, clergy get moved at the whim of a denominational leader whose information may or may not be accurate. In other cases clergy outstay their welcome for years because no one knows how to challenge their authority. Evaluations are done sporadically at best, with criteria that are developed on the spot—and the congregation’s responsibilities for getting the ministry done are rarely acknowledged. It’s all the clergy’s fault if things do not go well.

I seem to vaguely recall that one time there was a connection between the church and the university. Oh, wait, now I remember. We started most of them. Given our current state of confusion, it is no surprise that the good universities have largely disassociated themselves from the churches. Maybe they noticed who was getting things done.

It would be great to get screaming angry letters from university folk about how wrong I am about this. Unfortunately, hardly anyone is reading me yet.

Oh, in case you were wondering, the next post will be "What the University Can Learn from the Church." But that is another day.

No comments: