A Day in the Life of a Christian College Professor

If your image of Christian higher education is a Donald Trump commencement address or a scandal-plagued football team, let me share a sample day in my life as a professor at Bethel University. Yesterday was atypical in a sense (no classes, since it was the study day that breaks up our final exam week), but it still provided numerous reminders of why I’ve become such a staunch proponent of this model of education (especially as it has been shaped by Pietism):


The day began at a local pancake house for our annual breakfast with our undergraduate teaching assistants. Not everyone could be there (one was interviewing for a teaching job at a local high school, for example), but it was a good reminder of the central role students play in my work. Not only did we get to celebrate the students who work most closely with us on teaching and research, but it served as a mini-reunion of my favorite course: the World War I trip that I led this past January. (Four of the five TAs had been on that trip. The other would have, but instead chose to study at Oxford.) And all but one were seniors who had presented their capstone research projects two nights before, on topics ranging from cookbooks to corsets, numismatics to Mormonism. I don’t think this is necessarily unique to religious institutions, but I love working at a college that is small enough to enable such faculty-student relationships, and to give students so much autonomy and responsibility.

Connor Larson and me in front of the Arc de Triomphe
In Paris with my TA, Connor Larson ’17


After breakfast, I turned my attention to editing a guest post at the Anxious Bench blog. One of our regular bloggers has been on sabbatical, so I’ve had the chance to introduce readers to the work of people from our department. Earlier in 2017 my colleagues Amy Poppinga and AnneMarie Kooistra reflected on teaching Islam and sexuality, respectively, at an evangelical college. Then yesterday I got to turn the spotlight on one of my former students, Noel Stringham ’07, who studied African history at the University of Virginia and just finished his first year on the faculty of Wheaton College, one of our peers in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. Reading Noel’s post, on how living among the Nuer people of South Sudan has shaped how he thinks about history, peace, and the Bible, made me feel a familiar emotion: the disproportionate pride of a professor who got to play a small role in the development of an enormously gifted young scholar.


Stacey Hunter Hecht
Stacey Hunter Hecht (1968-2015)

In the middle of editing Noel’s post, a colleague at Bethel shared a link to a story in City Pages, Minneapolis’ popular alternative newspaper. In it, an alum named Ben Olson reflected on his former advisor, our dearly departed friend Stacey Hunter Hecht. It would be enough simply to be reminded of Stacey, more than a year after her death, but I so appreciated reading Ben’s particular perspective: as a gay Bethel grad whose life was changed by his professor. “Going into it, I held out a little bit of hope she would join me in condemning Bethel’s stance in the press,” Ben recalled of preparing to come out to Stacey. “What I feared was her telling me to drop out because I was a disgrace. What I got was reality, compassion, and thoughtfulness.” I don’t know how well Christian colleges like ours do by our LGBTQ students, but I’m glad that readers of City Pages got to see Bethel in a different, more complicated light.


I’d skip past my main task for the day: grading. No one can love everything about their work, after all. But I did enjoy going through one electronic stack… In preparation for their final essay on vocation, I had students in our Intro to History course to explore a potential career path by conducting an informational interview with a Bethel History alum. To prime the pump, back in March I had contacted about fifty alumni from business, health care, education, nonprofits, government, law, and other fields; before the day I was out, 40 of them had already replied that they’d be happy to share their experience with first-year students. (Note to university administrators: alumni are thrilled to contribute to their alma mater, especially if they’re asked for something other than money and if they can give back to their faculty and department, not the university as a vague whole.) And everything I read from the interview reports affirmed what we tell ourselves in times that have been challenging for humanities professors: that our courses and programs do indeed prepare alumni well for a wide variety of careers… but importantly, that they grow as “whole and holy persons,” for whom work is only one calling.


In the midst of these other tasks, I was plugging away at two writing projects, since even a teaching-intensive institution like ours expects and enables professors to engage in scholarship. First, Mark Pattie and I polished off our responses to the copy-edited draft of our manuscript, moving us that much closer to the September publication of The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity!

Then over lunch I went through yet another draft of an essay I’d been invited to write. It’s a tricky topic (how Christians should — and shouldn’t — participate in the civil religious rituals of Memorial Day), and I’m still not sure if it will see the light of day. But the editor was encouraging and helpful, and it’s been good to remember that, nearly fifteen years into my career, I still have much to learn about writing and publishing.


I returned to campus to attend West by Midwest, an informal summit on innovative teaching that my colleague Sam Mulberry has been organizing for five years now. I’ve already written at some length on the importance of my frequent collaborations with Sam, but this time I got to be nothing more than a spectator and student. And media member, if you count live-tweeting as reporting.

Traditionally, WestBy has focused on the intersection of teaching and technological change. (Its name reflects the fact that the first such event introduced our colleagues to the online version of Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture course that Sam and I developed.) And we heard from an English professor using the video app FlipGrid and a computer scientist who uses the Raspberry Pi device to help her students master the rudiments of programming. But we also reflected on the value of “toggling” between digital and analog activities and tools, and my colleague Charlie Goldberg reported on a Roman Civilization assignment that started with cleaning ancient coins and ended with digital mapping.

WestBy is one of my favorite moments of the whole year: coming at the very moment that we’re weariest of teaching, it reminds us that our faculty is deeply committed to what they do — in part because of their faith. (It’s the rare faculty development session where you’re as likely to hear Incarnation mentioned as constructivism, Miroslav Volf as John Dewey.)


Finally, I headed upstairs to join colleagues and alumni in celebrating the career of Mike Holmes, who has taught in our Biblical and Theological Studies department for thirty-five years. A world-renowned expert in both the Greek New Testament and Apostolic Fathers, Mike is retiring from Bethel in order to focus on his new role as executive director of research at the Museum of the Bible.

Mike Holmes publications
The table showcasing Mike’s scholarly output — plus a recent StarTribune article that featured Mike’s Intro to Bible course

I’ve had the good fortune to work with Mike twice: when he returned — nearly thirty years after he helped create it — to teach CWC, a “foundational course at Bethel” (so said Jay Barnes, our president, in his comments on Mike as a “culture-shaper”). Mike is also famous for having taught Bethel’s Intro to Bible course ninety-nine times; his thousands of BIB101 students included at least a couple of future colleagues.

While Mike claimed that he taught such courses simply to minimize his prep time, I think our colleague Samuel Zalanga was right to say that those commitments reflected Mike’s deep-seated humility. Mike, said Samuel, exemplified how one can use power and influence well: “to empower other people.” (I can offer a small testimony to that effect: whenever I feel the onset of impostor syndrome, I remind myself that Mike Holmes called me his colleague.)

Retirements like Mike’s always fill me with equal parts joy and dread. The former because you see such abundant evidence of the impact of one life upon many others; the latter because it seems unfathomable that Bethel can go on without such a pillar of its community.

Bethel University: Community Life Center and Benson Great Hall
The Community Life Center and Benson Great Hall at Bethel University

And yet we’ve done this before, and Bethel continues: both the same and not.

In wrapping up his remarks about Mike, Jay quoted from the apostle Paul: “…it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (1 Cor 4:2; Jay used the NIV, but I’ll use the NRSV, which Mike helped to translate). That seemed appropriate to me: we’re all stewards of a kind of education that we inherited from predecessors and will pass on to successors, a kind of education in which we all of us entrust our mission to each other, knowing that no one — president, professor, student, alumnus — can succeed on their own.

Thanks be to God.