Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What Small Colleges Can Teach the Church

A while back, I wrote a piece about what universities could teach the church. I attended two universities as an undergrad and have served as chaplain for three others. I also did graduate work and taught at one.

Now I find I am also chaplain to a small liberal arts college in addition to the large state university I work next to. I also went to a stand alone seminary, unattached to any larger school, which had a total of about 200 students. Here are just a few things I have noticed--and yes, this will sound a bit idealized. I know things are not actually this smooth.

Small colleges have departments that are sometimes only one person. A big department might have five people. The big exception might be the English department, particularly if the school has a required writing course. Otherwise, faculty tend to have to be generalists. While they may have an area of focus, they usually find themselves teaching well beyond their degrees.

What I have noticed is a heck of a lot more cooperation between fields at small schools. For one thing, they all work in just a few buildings and probably eat in the one school cafeteria. For another, it would be a lonely existence to stay within your department.

When a department is up for outside review, the whole school pays attention and lends support. When money gets tight (like now) everyone feels the pain. Talk about expansion is tempered with a desire to continue to serve the students well. Students and faculty know each other. Teaching is actually valued as part of the tenure process.

On the other hand, salaries suck, teachers have to teach more classes than at big schools, and they are still expected to do research. Lots of people get hired prior to finishing their dissertations, so they have to try to get that work done too. Libraries are small. Tuition rates are just as high as top ranked research universities.

Still the competitiveness seems to be much more muted. The trend towards specialization is confronted with the needs of the teaching load. And small school really know what they do well and target those potential students who will fit their particular niche, rather than trying to be all things for all people.

Now on that last one, I should mention just how much I dislike the church growth movements that suggest that we identify a particular group and aim our programming at them. For some reason, the group everyone targets is middle class suburbanites! A group of people who are all alike is not my idea of what church is about.

However, choosing particular ministries to concentrate our efforts on is not a bad idea. Most churches cannot do everything, and it is especially a mistake when smaller churches spread their efforts too thin. Better to do a good youth program (especially if it reaches beyond the congregation) than to do a mediocre job with youth and homelessness and mission trips and singles and....Well, you get the idea.

So what can small colleges teach the church collectively and Christians individually? Cooperate. Never see the world as only being your myopic interests. Do a few things well. Resist growing for growth's sake (growing because you are being successful at evangelism is a whole other issue.). Know what your mission is. Be okay with other churches doing some of the things you are not doing. Know one another. From time to time, take on tasks that will stretch you. Lend a hand when someone else's schedule gets full.

Next up: what colleges and universities can learn from churches.

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