Many of the great universities in the United States began as Christian colleges. If it is Harvard founded by the Pilgrims, Yale, and Presbyterian Princeton, Etc. We see the American landscape littered with institutions that once had a strong religious connection being given over to secularism. Why did this happen? It certainly was not maliciousness for the most part. It was done with the best of intentions. “Make the college more accessible to people of different religious backgrounds.” “Have only the best faculty regardless of the religious affiliation.” “Provide a more stable financial basis for the institution.” “Have a positive influence on students who come from different religions.” Well, one could go on and on. The point is that these institutions were not stolen from their church bodies. They were given away with the best of intentions.
That leads me up to what is going on in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS). Someone once called the colleges and universities of the LCMS its Crown Jewels. While that may be a bit over the top they are something that has been a great asset to the church and something in which we may take pride. We are not immune to the dangers of what has happened to the universities of other church bodies. There are several overtures in the convention workbook that I believe could be one more step down that road of secularization.
Overture 5-29 wishes to change the qualifications to be on the board of regents of one of the colleges or universities “Persons elected or appointed to a board of regents should possess several of the following qualifications: be knowledgeable regarding the region in which institution is located; possess an advanced academic degree; have experience in higher education administration, administration of complex organizations, finance, law, investments, technology, human resources, facilities management, or fund development.” Notice the emphasis on money management, money raising and administration. There is nothing in this list that could not be listed as the qualifications for the regents of a state university. What about ministry? What about theology? We can hire people who know money. Is this overture an admission that the people we hire to run our colleges are incompetent? The people giving direction to the university should have expertise in the mission of the church, proclaiming Christ. They should be people who represent the synod’s interest in the institution. All of the institutions were built by all the people of the synod and all of our children are recruited to attend them.
Overture 5-30 and 5-31 puts the election of a university president in the hands of the Board of Regents and relegates the President of Synod, the Board for University Education, and the local district president, all of whom currently have a vote in the election, to a role of veto on names placed on the list by the Board of Regents. This combined with 5-29 above means that the “money people” and not those charged with the ministry of the church as a whole will choose the institutional president.
First, Overture 5-32 changes the role of the institution president from one that is currently both administrative and spiritual to one that is just administrative. The proposal does say that the president is to ensure that spiritual care is provided to the community. This could be done simply by appointing a chaplain. Currently, the president is charged with being the “spiritual, academic, and administrative head of the institution.” I can only guess that this change is to allow laypersons to serve as presidents. Yes, a Lutheran layperson may have great talent that could be utilized, but if our universities are to remain part of the ministry of the church as a whole should they not be lead by someone with training in the ministry of the church? In any case can you really delegate the spiritual authority of the president? Is not the hiring of a theological faculty member a spiritual decision? What about the Chaplain? Even budgets can affect the spiritual care and atmosphere on a campus. The head of the institution ought to be someone qualified to exercise spiritual authority over the institution. Is seems nothing would do more to move us to secularization than the adoption of this overture.
Secondly, a more subtle but important issue in the responsibilities deals whose policies they are to carry out. Currently, presidents are required to carry out their responsibilities “pursuant to the rules and regulations of synod.” Under this proposal he would be required to implement “the mission of the institution in accordance with the decisions of the board of regents, utilizing faculty and staff to execute day-to-day activities.” It is easy to see the disconnect from the church body here.
Overture 5-35 does two things. First, it removes the statement that “Ordinarily candidates for full-time teaching positions shall be rostered members of the Synod.” The rational is that in some disciplines it is difficult to find qualified people. That may be true and I think that could be considered extra ordinary circumstance. The current bylaw says that we need to have rostered ministers teaching in our institutions. We still need to hold that out as the ideal if we are to keep them as ministries of the church. It is interesting that institutions that one would think would encourage elementary schools to call synodical graduates would not want to do the same themselves. Secondly, it removes the requirement that laypersons be required to teach according to the policies of synod. The policies of synod are established by convention resolutions. We do not have doctrinal statements on issues like abortion and homosexuality, but we do have convention resolutions. If this were adopted any lay teacher at our institutions would be free to teach positions contrary to those of the synod on these and other issues. If the convention would want to clarify the phrase “policies of synod” by changing it to the “doctrinal resolutions of synod” it might offer some clarity.
We are at a crossroads for the future of the university system. The decisions we make this summer may well decide if the system will remain a ministry of the church or continue to drift off into a quasi religious secular system. The secularization that has occurred in our colleges up to this point has been unplanned and unintentional. If these overtures are passed they will be a program of planed secularization. Is that what we want for the crown jewels?
Rev. Roger Gallup
Bethlehem Lutheran Church
River Grove, IL