How one PC(USA) college embraces their denominational affiliation while meeting students’ needs

As the president and the chaplain of Austin College in Sherman, Texas – one of the 54 member institutions of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities (APCU) – we work with our board of trustees, students, faculty, staff and Presbyterian partners to articulate and live out our school’s covenant relationship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the 21st century. 

Each of the 54 APCU schools enact Presbyterian-relatedness in their own way. At Austin College, we conceptualize our mission based on the Bible, the PC(USA) “Book of Order” and our shared language with Presbyterian partners, especially the APCU and the Presbyterian College Chaplains Association. As we articulate in the chaplain’s report to our board’s church relations committee every year: “Austin College believes our historic and ongoing relationship to the Presbyterian church may be most fully seen through consideration of what that relationship enables us to offer — to all our students, to the church, and to the world.”

The Bible

Paul’s words in Philippians 2:5-7 have provided helpful language for our conversations about what being a Presbyterian-related college means today.

The passage begins, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Paul is instructing us to think about ourselves like Jesus thought about himself. The root of the Greek word that Paul uses – the one translated as “same mind” – is phronesis. It means “mindset” or “attitude.”

Now consider the full passage:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself [that is, poured himself out; the Greek root is kenosis, which means “emptying” or “self-offering”]
taking the form of a slave [but “servant” is a better translation because Jesus’ act of emptying himself was his choice — he was not coerced] (Philippians 2:5-7, NRSV).

We believe that Presbyterian-related schools like Austin College can appropriately read Philippians 2:5-7 as an invitation to think about ourselves like Jesus thought about himself. For example, a college could fear that a relationship with the church would result in things like religious requirements or restriction of academic freedom. Instead, we at Austin College choose to think about what our historic and ongoing relationship enables us to offer — to all our students, to the church and to the world.

These considerations have led Austin College to adopt kenotic, or self-emptying, language as we articulate our Presbyterian-relatedness and live out our covenant with the PC(USA). Our focus is on what our Presbyterian-relatedness enables us to offer.

This understanding of church-relatedness differs from what Austin College commonly understood through its first century of existence. Like many other Presbyterian-related colleges, Austin College spent decades educating only white, Christian students. Chapel attendance was required for all students from 1849 to 1968. The presumption was that the president of Austin College would be a Presbyterian man, preferably a minister.

When Austin College built its Wynne Chapel in 1958, the college had never had a Black student or faculty member. All students were required to attend two Christian chapel services every week. And there were no non-Christian religious organizations on campus. 

Six decades later, we have a much bigger, more inclusive, more diverse understanding of who belongs at Austin College and in Wynne Chapel. We have a bigger vision of who Austin College is for and whom we are called to serve. That bigger vision has led us to focus on what our Presbyterian-relatedness enables us to offer.

The “Book of Order”

“The Great Ends of the Church” is a foundational passage in the “Book of Order” of the PC(USA) and is one of the Presbyterian church’s most concise statements of who and what it is. 

The six “Great Ends of the Church” are as follows: 

The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind
The shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God
The maintenance of divine worship
The preservation of the truth
The promotion of social righteousness

The exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world (“Book of Order,” F-1.0304)

Examining each “Great End” shows how this foundational passage can provide useful guidance for APCU schools like Austin College as we conceptualize and live out our Presbyterian-relatedness. The ways in which Austin College and other APCU institutions promote the “Great Ends” vary based on the history, culture and circumstances of individual institutions.

1. The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind

Austin College proclaims the gospel for the salvation of humankind in a variety of ways. We host weekly Communion worship services in our chapel for all interested students and campus community members. These services are planned and led by students and the college chaplain and are conducted in accordance with the PC(USA) Directory for Worship. The chaplain leads a weekly lectionary-based Bible study that focuses on the following Sunday’s worship service. The religious life program also supports and promotes weekly Bible studies and worship opportunities led by other student religious groups from a variety of theological perspectives.

Beyond worship and Bible study, Austin College and other APCU schools support the proclamation of the gospel by maintaining relationships with local Christian congregations. We provide opportunities for interested students to engage in ministry in local churches. We promote and encourage our students to engage with different PC(USA) camp and conference centers. We promote the PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer program. We provide support for students interested in pursuing ministry or other religious vocations. 

2. The shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God

Austin College and other APCU schools promote the shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God in many ways. We work to treat each student and other campus community members with humility, hospitality and honesty:

“Humility” means that we do not presume to tell any student or other community member whether they should have religious faith at all or what that faith should be. 

“Hospitality” means that we help interested students find religious congregations and communities that are authentic and appropriate for them.

“Honesty” for APCU institutions means clearly embracing our unique relationship to the Presbyterian Church while also embracing pluralism on our campuses. We celebrate our Presbyterian-relatedness. We support and pursue the Great Ends of the Church, but we do so in a way that welcomes and supports all members of our campus community.

We also shelter, nurture and promote the spiritual fellowship of the children of God by providing holistic care for each student and every campus community member, regardless of religious commitments and beliefs. This includes providing health and counseling services and academic support, providing space for campus religious groups, encouraging interfaith activities and dialogue and maintaining safe and inclusive social spaces and opportunities for all students.

3. The maintenance of divine worship

In addition to providing regular weekly worship opportunities for students, Austin College and many APCU institutions maintain divine worship through services of public worship that occur regularly as part of our institutional lives. We conduct commencement, baccalaureate, lessons and carols, opening convocation and other institutional events as services of worship and gratitude that are as inclusive as possible of all members of our campus community.

4. The preservation of the truth

Austin College and other APCU institutions contribute to the preservation of the truth by maintaining academic freedom and acting with institutional and individual integrity. Preserving the truth on our campuses involves respecting free speech, encouraging civil dialogue, embracing pluralism and articulating and embodying clear institutional values.

5. The promotion of social righteousness

Austin College promotes social righteousness by encouraging and facilitating civic engagement by students, faculty, staff and alumni. Our religious life program includes the Service Station, a student-run office that promotes and facilitates local, regional and national community service opportunities for our students. Every fall, Austin College’s first-year students engage in a service activity before they ever go to class. The Service Station’s board also works with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to organize annual alternative spring break service trips.

6. The exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world

Austin College and other APCU institutions exhibit the kingdom of heaven to the world by constructing and maintaining a diverse campus culture characterized by integrity and commitment to service within and beyond the college community. We help religious students learn how to articulate authentic faith in the multi-faith contexts in which they will spend their adult lives. 

Presbyterian partners

Each APCU school has its own rich heritage and unique opportunity to serve the world by serving its students and communities. Likewise, each APCU school stands to benefit from ongoing interaction with other Presbyterian-related institutions and with local, regional and national Presbyterian bodies. 

The “Statement on Church-Relatedness” that was adopted by the Presbyterian College Chaplains Association (PCCA) in 2013 and was endorsed by the APCU in 2019 is another significant and influential resource for Austin College’s understanding and articulation of our Presbyterian-relatedness. That statement serves as a good summary of and introduction to the work and mission of Austin College and the other 53 unique and independent colleges and universities of the APCU.

As the 2013 PCCA “Statement on Church-Relatedness” reads: “Because we are Presbyterian-related, APCU institutions honor the dignity and worth of every person and value learning, faith, service and connection to each other, the church and the world.”

Close reading of specific words in this statement yields significant insights regarding the nature of Presbyterian-related higher education.

“Because”: APCU institutions do not value learning and all faith traditions represented on their campuses despite our church-relatedness. Rather it is because we are church-related that we value and cherish all inquiry and welcome and encourage all faith communities. 

“Honor”: Efforts to live out our common commitment to learning, faith, service and connection take place in the context of APCU institutions’ commitment to honor the dignity and worth of all people. Each member school is a resource and instrument through which the PC(USA) serves the world, as we serve each of our students in all their magnificent variety and particularity. 

“Learning, faith and service”: The order of these words is important. APCU institutions are schools, not churches. Our primary mission is education. Nevertheless, as Presbyterian-related institutions, we nurture the faith of interested students and educate whole people for the whole world. Following the guidance of 1 Peter 4:10 (“like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received”), APCU schools invite, encourage and enable each student to identify, develop and share their gifts. We encourage our students to think about how their unique giftedness can be good news for the world. 

“Connection”: APCU institutions value our relationships with the Presbyterian Church and with other schools that share a similar relationship. We are not, and do not wish to be, identical institutions. Yet, we benefit from mutual relationship and are grateful for the historic and ongoing support of the Presbyterian Church.

“World”: The connection of APCU institutions to the world is both social and environmental. We seek to serve the whole world through our service to each student. We are all part of a global community of teaching, learning and inquiry. We work to exhibit, embody and encourage environmental responsibility on our campuses and beyond. 

In a nation and world that grows more diverse every day, it’s an exciting and challenging time to consider what it can mean to be a Presbyterian-related college or university. We have found guidance and insights from the Bible, the “Book of Order” and other Presbyterian partners who are wrestling with similar questions about what it means to be Presbyterian-related today.

The heritage of Presbyterian-related higher education is abundant and varied. We can articulate and enact that relat1ionship in multiple authentic ways. Our PC(USA)-related institutions represent some of the most significant ways our denomination has served the world in the past, and they remain an important way we can continue to serve a changing world in the present and future.

John Williams is Austin College’s chaplain and director of church relations.

Steven P. O’Day became the 16th president of Austin College in 2017.