The Ten Commandments of How Jesus Wants You to Fire a Colleague

I wanted to follow up a bit on my recent post citing Larry Hurtado’s prophetic denouncement of the increasingly common acts of injustice toward Christian faculty members.

The following are reasonable parameters to follow when administrations find themselves, for whatever reason, at odds with a colleague, who is also a brother or sister in Christ.

1. Christian colleges and seminaries have every right to establish theological parameters that are consistent with their mission and understanding of fidelity to the gospel. Academic freedom does not mean “anything goes.”

2. Those institutions should be open to exploring the legitimacy of internal critique of their theological traditions, lest they ossify and come to exist not to further the mission of God but to preserve their identity no matter what.

3. Faculty who feel they may be approaching the perimeters of theological parameters, or who want to explore issues in a more hypothetical manner, should remember they are part of a system and are obliged to engage their institutions in conversation.

4. Leaders of these institutions, as academic institutions, have an obligation to create and support such cultures of engagement so that faculty who enact #3 are not held to be immediately suspect or dangerous.

5. Leaders who deem a colleague theologically unfit to continue must follow not only common decency and secular law, but must go far above and beyond such minimal measures and uphold the law of Christ, where his followers think the best of each other and are determined to seek the good of the other as if they themselves were subject to criticism.

6. Faculty manuals must include a grievance  procedure, to protect all parties, and all parties, particularly those in power, must be scrupulous in following these procedures to the letter, even going the extra mile to insure protection of the faculty member.

7. As difficult as it is to raise funds for higher education in our current economic climate, short-circuiting justice and godliness in favor of the private demands of often unnamed “influential” members of the constituency, whether board members or donors, is immoral. Similarly, threats of withholding financial support, or threats of political backlash, channelled through presidents or other high ranking administrators violates not only common decency but a fundamental requirement of any person in positions of influence in Christian institutions: that they model for faculty, administrators, and students, what a godly life looks like. Backdoor politicking, which invariably involves gossip and slander, is to be condemned.

8. At no point in the process should a perceived quest for power over the institution be tolerated by any party.

9. If it is deemed just that a faculty member needs to move on, in no way should any party agree to anything other than communicating the truth to the school and constituency, though without offering details that might unnecessarily lead to unnecessary and harmful speculation or undue harm to either party. If the previous steps are adhered to, #9 will fall into place easily.

10. Throughout the process of termination, particularity in view of the volitile economic climate, the faculty member must be shown due care and consideration for financial stability during a typically trying transition. A fair settlement must be offered (laid out publicly in the faculty manual) rather than fought for tooth and nail, with the understanding that it can take at least a year or two before reasonable and reliable alternative employment can be secured.

From what I have seen over the years, these parameters are hardly the rule of the day among those who claim to be laboring in the kingdom of God, which is marked by humility and love.

Something is very wrong with this picture.

 

  • Paul Brassey

    #8 violates Paul’s (my) principle of church conflict: it is always about power, who wields it, and by what authority. It is never about theology, although the power struggle is frequently framed in theological language. I’m not saying this is how it should be, it is simply how it invariably is.

  • Pete Head

    Thanks Pete, plenty to think about here. Do confessional institutions in the States typically claim that there is “academic freedom” for faculty? I don’t see why they would or how they could. Is not a claim to “academic freedom” basically a claim to rational autonomy; and if so it is difficult to see how this would be encouraged under even the feeblest, let along the strongest, confessional statement. You said that ‘Academic freedom does not mean “anything goes.”’ But if it doesn’t mean that what does it actually mean?

  • RJS

    Pete Head,

    Academic freedom is a concept that insures that displines are able to “self-govern.” It arose in an environment in the US where powerful persons were demanding that professors in economic, business, sociology … who favored things like labor unions and occupational safety be fired … or else. So in the form of a Christian institution it should mean that Christian biologists explore and pass judgment on evolution without pastors declaring it out-of-bounds and crying for someone’s head. Christian OT scholars can explore the interpretation of scripture without being held accountable to the big donor’s favorite interpretation.

    I agree with Pete (Enns) – academic freedom does not mean anything goes, not by any means. And Christian institutions do have a right, even a responsibility, to maintain Christian integrity (although this should be thought about carefully – it does not mean we should fossilize the attitudes of a specific time, place, and culture).

    And then beyond the question of what is within acceptable bounds or beyond the pale for a given institution … there is a Christian responsibility to treat people fairly.

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  • Walter Brown

    The denomination I’ve worked with for most of my life, the Southern Baptist Convention, has a long history of firing people for so-called theological reasons, and the treatment of faculty members in many of those cases reflected anything but Christian treatment. But what I address here is another premise for eliminating faculty in an unchristian manner—the declaration of financial exigency (essentially declaring financial emergency that allows administrators to fire anyone they want without giving any specific reasons). I am not denying that institutions might have to make such a declaration (although the action at my former instiution is suspect on many counts), but even if legitimate, it should be done according to an established board policy, its basis should be supported by hard data, and whatever actions are required should be decided in a deliberate manner, involving legitimate input from academic units to be affected, and certainly giving Christian consideration to the individuals who will lose their jobs.
    A number of my colleagues and I were the victims of such action at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary where I was a tenured Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew for over 22 years, until Aug 1 of last year. Here is a summary description of my experience: I was on sabbatical, my third with the institution, just before my 60th birthday, so I was out of the loop, not aware of any rumblings about changes at the institution. I got a call from the president’s office one morning, instructing me to make an appointment with the president and the vice president for business affairs the next day. After finding out from my division chair that he knew nothing of the meeting, I made the appointment. The next morning, I walked into a meeting in which the president began by saying, “this is not going to be a very happy day for you,” then he proceeded to say that “cooperative program support (the Southern Baptist denominational financial support avenue) was down by 8%, we have to make adjustments, so as of Aug 1, we no longer need your services.” Including a brief comment I made, and a question I asked the president, which the business manager deflected for him, the meeting took about 5 minutes. This event took place in March after the president had declared in December of the previous year that the seminary had more cash reserves on hand than it had ever had in its history.
    As I looked back on that experience, one clear conviction was that the action followed a blatantly corporate and secular model; it was cold and calculating; nothing about it was Christian at all. I was blindsided, treated as if I were a criminal, summarily terminated and, although given a period of 6 months before the termination was effective, was harassed by HR repeatedly asking when I was going to turn in my computers, when I was going to vacate my office, when I was going to turn in my keys, etc. And when Aug 1 came, my email was closed down, causing me to lose messages and all my contacts (I’d naively assumed the school would work with me to get that information. In addition, the president later reneged on an administrative promise to allow me to do adjunct work, because I had spoken out about how I was treated).
    The president and business manager made no positive comment about me or my service. The administration did nothing to recognize any of us. In fact, they barely spoke our names. Except for a listing of people fired and reduced at the next faculty meeting, with the requisite emotional display of grief by the president, no mention was ever made in any public statement of our names. The administration has acted since that time as if we were never on faculty, as if we never existed. The administration claimed that they couldn’t give names because this was a “personnel matter” (of course, its business).
    A couple of my colleagues with long term relationships with the seminary were fired after the president had hired two people into their same division, replacing them, but declaring that these new hires were not replacements but were put in “mission critical” positions! Clear evidence exists that these two people were fired because they disagreed with the president’s wife on an academic decision in their division, an area of study for which she has no academic credentials. Other people affected also relate instances of differences expressed to the administration on certain policy issues. As silly as it sounds, my firing was influenced by the fact that I wore blue jeans and a jacket as teaching attire rather than slacks! (Interestingly, a dress code appeared in the Faculty Manual after administration concern about what to wear became so important). The indication is that declaring a financial emergency was cover for personal and petty differences with targeted faculty members, with actions shrouded, calculated, secret, behind closed doors (the only thing missing was the smoke since we’re good Christians, of course, and we don’t smoke!).

    • peteenns

      This is horrible, Walter, but unfortunately a plan of attack used at other conservative seminaries. I know stories that parallel yours well. The rhetoric and the quest for power is unnerving and, to state the obvious, not what Christians should be doing.

      Legally, schools need to demonstrate financial exigency AND demonstrate why certain faculty are being let go and not others. I can assume there were non-tenured faculty that remained. This is deplorable.

      • Walter Brown

        A good inclusio, Pete, horrible . . . deplorable, for a very bad thing. And little or no outcry among those who now know what has happened. And of course, your main point, and Larry’s, is that the horrible and the deplorable ought not to be the product of “Christian” leaders.

    • Stefan Stackhouse

      Realist cynic that I am, I am also inclined to think that the fact that you are 60 years old (and thus more costly to the institution’s health insurance plan) was not totally irrelevant to their decision. Age discrimination is every bit as rampant in “Christian” institutions as it is in the secular marketplace. Biblical Christianity doesn’t have quite as strong an emphasis upon respect for the elderly as Confucianism has, for example, but there certainly isn’t a basis for the disrespect of elders that has become a widespread cultural value in our society. Sadly, you wouldn’t know that at most of our “Christian” educational institutions these days.

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  • Rev Herbert W Johnstok, B.S.

    Speaking of heretics, has anyone ever been fired for being a dispensationalist?

  • Rev Herbert W Johnstok, B.S.

    By the way, I’m glad that you used the picture of Donald Trump with this article. Mr Trump is a fine example of a humble servant (of Mammon).

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