My second private university job in two years was in jeopardy. I had transitioned from pastor to Christian university professor just at the outset of the Great Recession and was one of the low people on the totem pole at two different schools during deep cuts in budgets — and ethics.
In one position — in a very progressive-minded program — I had seen multiple prospective students actively deceived in order to gain their enrollment. When I objected to admitting students who showed little to no hope of legitimately completing their degrees or being able to work in the field, I was told the admission form only said, “We the undersigned were present for the admission interview” — that it did not say I was agreeing to admitting the student, so I wasn’t lying.
A well-informed colleague advised me to keep my head down and wait for the right timing to safely “clean up” the program. I waited. But one day a lie to an applicant was so flagrant I refused to grant my signature even to just say I was present for the interview. It was to no avail, and multiple students wound up in my office or at my house crying because of their deep debt, inability to find a job in their field, or sense of being misguided into classes that unnecessarily extended their program and expenses.
“A well-informed colleague advised me to keep my head down and wait for the right timing to safely ‘clean up’ the program.”
That was just the beginning of traumatizing and disheartening experiences in Christian higher education across the theological and political spectrum. One day, in the midst of more workplace tension, I got a call out of the blue. Several years before at a conference, I had befriended a person who was now provost at a Christian university with a nationally recognized program. His university was starting a new program, and he wanted me to lead it. I was flattered but wary. I knew my friend was quite conservative in ways that I am not and would likely only be provost at a school that was conservative in ways that I am not.
I went online, read their statement of beliefs and was only a few sentences in when I thought, “No way.” I emailed my friend a thanks-but-no-thanks.
He called me, curious why I so quickly declined. I told him I had visited the university’s website and explained: “I think you’re making some assumptions about me based on what you think you know about me. I can tell I would not be a good fit.”
“Are you talking about our statement of beliefs?”
Chuckling, he said: “Oh, Brad. We have faculty from every major denomination. Don’t let that statement sway you. Do this for me: I want you to talk to the chair of the department you’d be in. She will assure you of our diversity.”
“Don’t let that statement sway you.”
She. Well, maybe they were more broad-minded than their belief statement seemed to indicate.
A few days later the department chair called me. I said, “Before we start, let me say that I understand you are in an awkward position. When your provost tells you he’s interested in someone, I suppose you feel compelled to be interested.” She laughed and said: “Our relationship is not like that. If I don’t like something he says, I tell him. I’m not calling you because he’s interested in you. I’m calling you because I am interested in you. I’ll go further. Your resume describes exactly what I’m looking for.”
I said, “Did he tell you what I’m nervous about?”
“Well, if I may, let’s get the deal breaker out of the way first. I’m left of center on a lot of theological issues. And based on the university’s statement of beliefs, I don’t think I would be a good fit.”
“Oh, heavens. Don’t worry about that belief statement. We are a very diverse community with faculty from several denominations. I think you’ll be surprised at how progressive some of them are. Please do not let that belief statement be a hang up. Let’s do this. The dean of the division will ultimately make the hiring decision. I’ll set up a call with him, and he will be able to set your mind at ease.”
My phone interview with the dean was a few weeks later. In the meantime, I did lose my second job in two years after a change in a state policy led to an $8 million loss of revenue.
My daughter was a month-and-a-half from starting college, and I was an unemployed college professor — in June. And because I no longer was employed at a private consortium school, we were losing her tuition waiver, the one benefit that offset our inability to save money. Now, with almost no savings, we were looking at paying for college.
The phone interview with the dean fell while I was attending my daughter’s competition at the national high school speech championships (where she finished in the top 60 in the nation, dadbragit). As I talked to the dean, I was pacing a chain-link fence surrounding a massive urban high school in Kansas City, Kan., the heartland of America.
I told the dean the same thing regarding my being a potentially bad fit based on the belief statement. He responded the same way as the other two — that the school was quite diverse and no one paid attention to the statement. But he added: “We who teach here realize that the statement was written by laypeople (several decades ago). Those laypeople lacked an understanding of the nuances of theology. We understand that they did not word it well, so we sign off on the document.”
“Those laypeople lacked an understanding of the nuances of theology. We understand that they did not word it well, so we sign off on the document.”
I was aghast. “Wait a minute. Faculty have to sign a document affirming the belief statement?”
The dean matter-of-factly replied, “Yes. Each year.”
“Yes. We have an opening chapel service, and all faculty sign the statement in front of the student body. We feel called to teach at a Christian university, and we realize that in order to fulfill our calling that’s just what we have to do. Otherwise we wouldn’t have jobs and be able to do what we feel called to do.”
Did I mention I was aghast? Did I mention I was unemployed? And my daughter was starting college in less than two months?
I said: “So, let me get this straight. The statement of belief asserts that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. That Bible says not to bear false witness. So, I’m not sure how you square that. As for me, I will not sign a form saying I believe something I don’t believe. How can we positively influence young lives if our influence is shackled to a lie?”
When the dean spoke, his tone was icy with apparent hostile resentment of my judgment. “Well, we all have to follow our conscience. And those of us who are here understand that the statement was poorly written.”
I asked if any effort been made to change the statement.
“Well, maybe this is my calling in life right now. You can tell your trustees you missed out on a good candidate because of the belief statement, and maybe that will help bring needed change.”
“In spite of my conviction about not lying, there are many other ways to sin.”
Now, I seriously doubt our conversation made it past that dean’s ears. But I know this: In spite of my conviction about not lying, there are many other ways to sin. I walked away from that conversation jaded and terrified of being unemployed. Unfortunately, there at the national high school speech tournament, I ran into my daughter while I was in that horrible mood. Having lost my job, I was pinning my sense of self on her success. In a selfish attempt to motivate her, I said some harsh and stupid things that deeply hurt her. Honestly though, I can’t blame the bad mood. It was just my usual impatience on steroids. To her and to anyone else to whom I have been unkind — I am so very sorry, and I will forever strive to keep improving my behavior.
I also know this: Shortly after that phone call with the dean, I posted a vague version of the interview story on Facebook. The first phone call I got in response was from a colleague at a Christian university. He asked if I had passed up a job because of a belief statement I couldn’t affirm. I said I had. He said he had just asked his wife what they would do if they found themselves in that position. I wondered why there was even a question.
The phone rang again. It was a friend in yet another state. His voice was angry. “Am I to take it from your post that you passed up a job because they required you to sign a faith statement you don’t agree with?”
He bellowed, “BRAD, you have to provide for your family! Sign the damn form or I’m going to fly up there and kick your ass!” I said, “(Johndoe), the best way for me to provide for my family is to be a person of integrity. And even if it means I end up flipping burgers, I WILL NOT sign a statement saying I believe something I don’t believe!”
A few days later, I got a call from a state school offering me an instructor position a notch above adjunct. And now, on Sundays, I explicitly worship according to my conscience. And Monday through Friday and at Saturday classes, I strive to live my faith. Honestly.
Of course, there are many Christian educators doing the same at a host of schools — including the Christian schools with which I and others have had negative experiences. Even at churches with secret pedophiles, there are many, many sincere people. However, just as multiple denominations need to come clean about sexual exploitation by clergy, we must also become aware of and stop the financial, intellectual and spiritual molestation of students by disingenuous programs and personnel.
“We must also become aware of and stop the financial, intellectual and spiritual molestation of students by disingenuous programs and personnel.”
Such injury happens through deceptive recruiting and retention and the stumbling blocks of oppressively constraining and dishonestly endorsed creeds. By stumbling blocks, I mean that when students realize our hypocrisy, they often leave the church or abandon faith altogether. We blame secular culture rather than looking in the mirror. If you want to talk to them about it, you will have to go outside your church, because they’re not there anymore.
Even though I am in a non-tenure track position making not much more salary than I did 10 years ago; even though the stress of job loss and job searching certainly exacerbated many other problems in my life, I love what I do, where I’m doing it, and how I get to do it. Because ultimately, I think our callings are not to a job at a place but to a way of being.
So, as for refusing to affix my signature to those lies: I was not, I am not, and I never will be, sorry.
Brad Bull is an ordained Baptist minister, licensed marriage and family therapist, and a lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville, Tenn. He is the author of Restacking Caps and Loving the Monkeys Who Took Them — Blunders, Conflicts, and Redemption in the Early Journey of a Peddler of Soul Mending. When not working, he is usually biking, watching a movie, or playing full-contact Scrabble.
Editor’s note: The original version of this essay was delivered at a TenX9 Nashville storytelling event where the theme was “Sorry.” This adaptation was prompted after yet another conversation with a colleague at yet another school experiencing circumstances similar to those described.