Put together the plethora of majors from which to choose, the constant stream of fine arts events, the massive sports venues and programs, the multi-ethnic mix of international classmates and the anonymity a city-on-a-campus allows — and one can well understand why so many high school seniors choose to enroll at huge state universities.
However, this editor would choose a small, church-related college any day. In fact, that choice becomes even clearer when peering into ways many PC(USA)-related schools of higher education are helping students discern God’s call upon their lives.
For generations, these liberal arts colleges and universities have married specializations to generalizations. Their core course programs overview a broad expanse of subject areas while their majors equip with specialized understandings and skills. Hence, their graduates know not just a lot about a little; they also know quite a bit about a lot.
Further, the small community experience engages everybody together, thereby preventing the introverts and the insecure from disappearing into isolation.
Further still, these church-related colleges rend the veils between the invisible and the visible, the transcendent and the tangible, the ultimate and the contingent. That is to say, they talk about God. Without embarrassment. Without apology.
Of late, many of these schools have found a new bridge between such divides by paving paths into vocational discernment.
One impetus for such initiatives comes from that grand benefactor, the Lilly Endowment. About 10 years ago, Lilly gave 88 church-related colleges (including nine PC(USA) schools) about $2 million apiece to develop initiatives that would either encourage students to consider careers in ministry or to think about how faith might influence their career choice, whatever that choice might be. The initiative was called “Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation.”
That effort produced a wealth of resources on the subject of vocation, many of which can be found at ptev.org. Many of the PTEV schools wanted to stay connected, and many other schools wanted to join them in exploring vocation. That led to a new collaborative initiative — the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) — overseen by the Council of Independent Colleges with another generous grant from Lilly.
NetVUE is promoting three major initiatives:
- Program development grants to create or expand campus programs for the intellectual and theological exploration of vocation,
- Chaplaincy conferences (there will be two in 2014), and
- The creation of scholarly resources related to vocation.
Currently 24 PC(USA)-related schools are members out of 178 (and counting) NetVUE schools across the denominations.
Carter Aikin directs the Center for Vocation, Faith and Service at Hastings College (Hastings, Neb.), which has participated in both PTEV and NetVUE from the beginning. “We caught the top roll of the wave of the generation of high school grads wanting to be making an impact” on the world, he told us.
Hastings, in fact, searches nationwide to find prospective students who have already shown such service interests in their high school years. Many of them add to their chosen major a Christian ministries minor that includes several areas of discipline to equip them to engage in faith-based service beyond the college years, perhaps even to move on to seminary upon graduation.
They also provide Imagine Grants to offer “genuine good in the community.” A few years back one Hastings student launched Food for Thought, which sends low-income students home on Fridays with food in their backpacks to increase their nutrition through the weekend.
The winds of academic freedom and ecclesiastical self-absorption have frayed some of the ties that once bound congregations to classrooms, but the development of programs of vocational discernment holds great promise to re-tie those strands. May they do so, if only for the students’ sakes.