The coronavirus challenged compassion-providing ministries in new ways
It’s been another six busy months since my last installment, but it took a commercial to jar me into starting another. The TV ad has a wife asking a husband how his day at work went, and his only comment is: Another day closer to retirement. Given the satisfaction that God-ordained work can bring, what a depressing sense of defeat!
Christians should feel that pain even more strongly, because the Bible says nothing about retirement: God calls us to use the talents He gave us until He either superintends their decline into nonproductivity or summons us home. But some middle-aged and older readers have asked me: How do you decide to make a radical change in employment? Decisions made out of necessity are sometimes easy, but when we’re in a good situation, is leaving it a sign of sub-Christian discontent?
So here’s my story: In 2007, with our four sons all out and about, it was time to assess 24 years of teaching at the University of Texas at Austin, and to wonder whether to stay for an additional 24 or so, should God give me the strength.
The material advantages of staying were manifold. Tenure at a big state or private university offers full-time pay for part-time, part-year work until death (or utter decrepitude) cometh. Six classroom hours per week. The joke is that a Texas legislator asked a professor how many hours he taught. Six, the prof said, to which the legislator replied: Should be eight hours a day, but I guess you have to spend some time preparing.
The kindness of Texas taxpayers left me lots of time to edit and write for WORLD. Plus, as one of a handful of outspokenly Christian professors out of 2,000 on the UT campus, I had some classroom usefulness. In my journalism history courses, students would learn that America’s past contained more than racism, capitalist exploitation, and religious tyranny. In courses I taught on journalism and religion, students who didn’t know anything about Christianity could learn a little bit.
The road to teaching that religion course is a lesson itself in campus craziness. In 1997 campus leftists had pushed for courses that required students to learn about non-Western cultures. They were victorious, only to realize they had been like a German Shepherd chasing a car: Once its teeth clamp down on a bumper, what then? It turned out that no one in my journalism department knew anything about non-Western cultures or wanted to take time to learn, so I could teach journalists-to-be about three non-Western religions—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism—and also Judaism and Christianity.
“Journalism and Religion” also showed the marginalization of Christianity in America. Only a handful of the several hundred journalism students in the course over the years had any knowledge of the Bible. The few who had taken Religious Studies courses—usually taught by those who see their calling as shaking the faith of evangelical kids—were often the worst off because they thought they knew something. So teaching students in a way that didn’t disparage Christianity was a positive, although the rules of a secular campus constrained me.
Against that upside sagged a substantial downside. Students in my writing courses improved their prose, but since many espoused anti-biblical positions I started feeling like Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) building a great bridge for the Japanese in The Bridge on the River Kwai. He belatedly asked at the end, “What have I done?”
Plus, the closing exclamation in that movie—“Madness! Madness!”—rang in my head. When I had come to UT in 1983, my colleagues were generally cynical liberal craftsman who offered plenty of entertainment. Over the years radical ideologues who understood deadly theories but not press deadlines became dominant. Some were particularly weird: A professor one floor down from me declared, On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I am male. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays I am female.
This all led me to meditate about usefulness. My small notoriety as a conservative evangelical made graduate students hoping to be hired as professors steer clear, so my potential usefulness there was gone. I couldn’t be useful in the university generally: Once, at a faculty senate meeting, I had argued against having condom machines in freshman dorms, and seen venerable professors react like snickering teens.
In March 2007, Jerry Falwell called with a surprise request: Come to Liberty University, start a journalism school, be its dean. Potential usefulness? Much. Susan and I flew to Lynchburg during UT’s spring break. We met with Falwell and various administrators, professors, and students, and even went around with a realtor. It ended up not feeling right. We considered it for a while, until one morning I called and said no, sadly.
That very afternoon Stan Oakes, president of The King’s College, a small Christian liberal arts school in New York City, called. He asked if I’d come to Manhattan and explore becoming provost, the college’s academic vice president with authority over faculty and curriculum. I knew Oakes slightly and knew almost nothing about King’s, except that it had been on a pastoral campus north of New York City, slid toward theological liberalism and financial decrepitude, and shut down in 1994—only to reopen five years later in the Empire State Building, and then successfully battle New York state authorities who wanted to decertify it.
I told Oakes my prime work commitment was to WORLD, and I’d only be interested if the goal was for King’s to be a strong evangelical college. He said he loved WORLD and had the same goal. Susan and I flew to New York, where the obstacles immediately became apparent. The director of admissions had just left. The remaining staff had floundered, leading to an entering class for 2007 of only 50. That worsened already severe financial problems: Running a college in mid-town Manhattan is much more expensive than doing one in Manhattan, Kan. Also, I had been used to working with and relying on a WORLD board of directors with strong theological commitments, and I didn’t know how strong the King’s board was in that way.
More: The academic and business sides of King’s were at war. Oakes had privately and publicly fought with the provost who had just resigned under pressure, after two years on the job. No previous chief academic officer had lasted more than two years, in part because the curriculum kept spinning like a wheel of misfortune. King’s in its first several years of reincarnation officially had 27 majors, even though most of them had no professors and many of them had no students. Oakes in 2004 wiped the slate clean and set up only two majors.
Overall, this looked like another “mad mission,” to use the language of Austin singer-songwriter Patty Griffin. Susan and I had been on mad missions before, helping to start a crisis pregnancy center, church, anti-poverty program, and Christian school, but always with a professorial safety net paid for by the taxpayers of Texas. Austin friends said giving that up was crazy.
Balanced against such good advice were the stories of Christmas and King’s, and some church history. Jesus had voluntarily left the most beautiful place imaginable, heaven, and entered a mucky world. King’s had moved from a beautiful campus to messy mid-town Manhattan. Early Christianity had radiated out from cities like Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. Evangelicals in the 20th century had largely abandoned cities. Town-dwelling Christians from the 17th to the 19th centuries had dominated colleges and media. That influence had disappeared and was unlikely to return unless Christians returned to academic and media centers.
The many King’s negatives—dissension, finances, a degree of difficulty like an Olympic dive with 3½ twists in the tuck position—were practical, low on the ladder of abstraction. The positives—footsteps of Jesus ideals, historical significance—were abstract, high on the ladder. That was certainly a warning signal, but while Susan and I were in New York a startlingly concrete development occurred: Stan Oakes suddenly headed to the hospital, where doctors found a cancerous brain tumor.
King’s was without a president, a provost, and an admissions director. It wasn’t far from closing its doors, leaving professors jobless and students up the East River without a paddle. Did I want to be useful, and trust God rather than government? How do you decide? I wrote down pluses and minuses on a piece of paper and concluded that the chance of success at King’s was at best one in three.
That suggested a “No sir” response to King’s, but then I thought of the way God writes history and we build our own lives. God doesn’t make it easy for us. We need trampolines, not hammocks. Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress would have made little progress had he not had to overcome difficulties.
God gave me no word of knowledge to guide decision-making, except one I had learned years ago: Go to the Bible. I looked at biblical examples of people much older than me, such as Abraham and Moses, who disrupted their settled lives to serve God. I remembered how kind God had been in every instance in my own life when job decisions became matters of faith at ages 27 and 33—so why become fearful at 57?
Before making a final decision, I consulted with some friends in Austin. They were unanimously against it and particularly cited the college’s financial shakiness. I talked with my grown sons: They were unanimously for it, emphasizing the adventure of living in Manhattan. Susan knew it was no fun to work among hostile colleagues at UT, and she was ready to move. We prayed.
What advice do I have for well-established people considering a radical move? I’m no expert, but it seems to me that once movement without disrupting kids’ lives is possible, why not go for the challenge rather than play out the string? Yes, make a list and check it twice, distinguishing between naughty and nice, but don’t think another day closer to retirement. Don’t decide on the basis of status and money—but also don’t turn down jobs just because they yield such things.
Much depends on motive. Here are three clarifying questions: First, where can I be most useful to the cause of Christ? Second, where will I be most challenged to live and think as becomes a follower of Christ? Third, what will I love doing? Once we know ourselves, chapter 3 of Proverbs tells us what to do: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your path.”
At the end of the process, I threw away the sheet with its pluses and minuses. Singer/songwriter Patty Griffin: “It’s a mad mission / But I got the ambition / Mad, mad mission / Sign me up.” In June 2007, Susan and I moved from 3,400 square feet in Austin to 800 square feet of apartment space across the street from Macy’s in midtown Manhattan. The King’s College and me: true love.
Of course, not every romance has a happy ending.
Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.