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The ministry of higher education

Ministry takes a variety of forms. Some are called to be pastors of churches, others, chaplains of colleges, hospitals, prisons or retirement communities. Still others are called to be what John Calvin referred to as “doctors” of the church: scholars responsible for the instruction of the faithful and the theological education of those preparing for ministry. Still others are called to be editors of Presbyterian news and resources. God calls us to many roles, each valid, each valuable to the body of Christ.

Humans have a habit of categorizing and ranking the value of certain professions over others, even certain people over others. Sometimes we rank pastors by the size of their church or the nature of their call. When I moved from parish ministry to college chaplaincy, I was surprised by people who were disappointed to hear I had “left” the church. In my mind, accepting the call to help Monmouth College reclaim its Presbyterian affiliation as its chaplain and introducing young adults to Reformed theology, our value of a liberal arts education and our commitment to social righteousness was crucial work for the church. If we are eager for young adults to engage with and participate in our mission and our ministry, we ought to talk to and support the chaplains, campus ministers and professors working directly with them, who know and love their students and are called to serve in this unique mission field beyond the four walls of the parish.

This issue highlights our Presbyterian colleges and universities as well as our UKirk campus ministries. I spent an inspiring hour and a half interviewing Marjorie Hass, former president of Presbyterian-affiliated Austin College and Rhodes College and the new president of the Council for Independent Colleges. Hass is a philosopher, a skilled administrator, a leader and a woman whose Jewish faith is very important to her. Educated at large public research institutions, Hass never imagined her future in Presbyterian-related colleges. But she believes that the genius of American higher education lies in the diversity of its missions. The ways that Presbyterian colleges and universities are able to teach to students’ whole selves – mind, body, spirit – in ways public institutions cannot; the small class sizes; the personal attention students receive from professors; the educating of students not just for a life of work but for a vocation, a call to service, convinced Hass to dedicate her career to the success and promotion of independent colleges. In her interview (found on page 24 of this issue), Hass rightfully calls on the Presbyterian church to celebrate their schools. “Because they use the church as their only measuring stick, Presbyterians often have a sense of decline or a sense of defeat,” Hass says. “But when you look at Presbyterian colleges and universities as brothers and sisters in mission, I think your readers would be amazed and delighted to see the ways that your tradition is shaping young people by the thousands.”

Another article in this issue by Marcheta P. Evans, the first Black and female president of Bloomfield College in New Jersey, highlights the social mobility a Presbyterian-related college can offer first-generation and marginalized students. Evan’s article is full of stories of how Bloomfield College uplifts not just their students but their families and the generations that follow.

I’m passionate about supporting our Presbyterian colleges and campus ministries. I graduated from Alma College in Michigan and went directly to seminary thereafter. I later served a Presbyterian-related college for ten years as chaplain. My life, my call to ministry and the way I think about my faith, the world and the complex problems we must solve have all been shaped by Presbyterian liberal arts education. The church and her schools have much to gain through a mutually supportive, collaborative relationship.

Presbyterians founded colleges across the country because it was important that our clergy be educated well, but also because we were aware of the liberating power of education. We can and should be proud of this history as well as the extraordinary work Presbyterian colleges, chaplains, campus ministries and professors are doing on our behalf.


Teri McDowell Ott