A few weeks ago, I officially stepped away from a career in Christian higher education, a career that I had thought would take me to retirement. As I move in a different direction in ministry, I thought I would share some parting thoughts on Christian higher ed.
So, here goes.
I first felt called to a career in academics because of a few undergrad profs I had who embodied deep spirituality and a keen intellect. They were crazy smart and unusually kind. They made me think that Jesus must have been a bit like this. I knew the church needed more of this and hoped I could contribute something along those lines.
So, in one constant stream of classes and textbooks and papers and projects, and starting it all in my mid 30s, I went from undergrad, to graduate studies, to a PhD-without pause.
But something began to slowly, subtly shift after I got my PhD. And it happened at an almost imperceptible rate.
Somewhere along the journey, the goal became less about being a kindly and compassionate embodiment of Christ-likeness and more about proving my own worth as a member of the academy. I convinced myself that I wrote books and published articles because I had important things to say, things that in some small way moved the needle on how we think about Pentecostal missions. Maybe that was true to a degree.
But looking back, I see with the clarity of hindsight that many of my efforts were grounded in justifying my existence to the various academic societies to which I belonged. I wanted, no–needed, to prove that I was truly one of them, that I had what it takes to rightly be called *professor*, that I wasn’t an imposter (as I secretly believed).
Eventually, I got to the point where I found myself increasingly jealous of my colleagues success, whatever that success looked like, and constantly felt as though I needed to measure up. Rather than being able to celebrate their publications, their new jobs, their promotions, their academic and writing awards, I came to see my friends and colleagues as the competition, the people I had to to beat out if I was going to amount to anything in the world of Pentecostal academics. And I started to hate who I was becoming.
And of course, the thing about this way of doing life is that it doesn’t work.
When you live to prove yourself, then nothing, no amount of success is ever enough and you find yourself caught on a merry-go-round of need and affirmation. And I came to realize that I desperately needed Jesus to calm the storm. And he did that, I think, by opening a door for me to move in a different direction in ministry.
I think that a big part of the problem in academia is that it too easily lends itself to egoism because we forget the inherently communal nature of true scholarship. We forget that we think, write, process, and hypothesize within a vast and ancient community of thinkers who shape our understanding of theology and its environs. In our publications we make symbolic nods to these realities in our “acknowledgements” sections, but deep down inside it becomes all too easy to secretly harbor the notion that we are truly pioneers and that Jesus is lucky that we finally came along to set the church straight.
My advice to anyone venturing into academia as a profession is this: above all else, guard your heart (Prov. 4:23). There is an extremely fine line between producing knowledge because you want to help the church rediscover its greatest strengths, and producing knowledge because you think you are one of its greatest strengths.
It turns out, Jesus really did know what he was talking about when he called us to daily take up our crosses and follow him, to daily die to self so that our lives would reflect and glorify Christ.
For the last four weeks, I have been in training to be a Navy officer. I feel like a complete child in that on most days, I hardly know how to dress myself and sometimes struggle to do a simple task like saying good morning. These have been some of the most challenging weeks of my life. In a program designed to make 25 year olds weary and exhausted, this 52 year old often feels like I’m barely getting by.
But maybe this was just the medicine my soul needed. To go back to the basics of what it means to follow Jesus. To step from a position of authority to one of obscurity. To let go of my need for affirmation and rediscover my need for Jesus. My need for Him every minute of every day, just to get from sunrise to sunset and do it all over again the next day.
I’m not sure what the future holds for me academically. I do hope to do more writing and more teaching but what that will look like is anyone’s guess. But I do feel like the Lord is teaching me how to make following Him less about me and more about Him.
And for now, that’s enough.