Editor’s note: It’s been 36 years — nearly a generation in biblical terms — since the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES) joined the PCA. Through the process known as “joining and receiving,” the RPCES agencies were folded into their PCA counterparts, except two: Covenant College and Covenant Theological Seminary. Both, of course, continue as agencies of the PCA.
It may be a good time — for the current generation’s benefit — to review the thinking behind that decision: What, at the time, was the rationale? And in the eyes of the college and seminary’s present leaders, do those reasons still hold?
BY NEARLY ANY MEASURE, Covenant College is an outstanding Christian liberal arts college. The school takes academics and faith seriously and produces graduates who almost always secure jobs or acceptance to graduate school. An astonishingly high percentage of alumni report that they are actively involved in a local church, too.
As a bonus, Covenant’s 400-acre campus atop Lookout Mountain in north Georgia provides a stunning location for life and learning.
Despite these positives, just 45 percent of the student body comes from PCA families. That seems low considering Covenant is the PCA’s denominational college.
It seems evident that strengthening the relationship between Covenant College and the PCA would help both institutions. If the PCA will provide Covenant’s future freshmen, the college will, in turn, produce the PCA’s future lay leaders.
Like Covenant Theological Seminary, Covenant College began in 1956 as the denominational school of the Bible Presbyterian Church, later the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod (RPCES). When the RPCES joined the PCA in 1981, Covenant College became the denominational college of the PCA, with its board drawn from ordained ruling and teaching elders in the PCA.
The Covenant College board is still composed of PCA teaching and ruling elders, though four seats are open to ruling and teaching elders from other North American Presbyterian & Reformed Council (NAPARC) denominations.
Today, the liberal arts college has nearly 1,000 students who come from 42 states and 29 countries. It offers 30 undergraduate majors and graduate degrees in education and teaching English.
Learning from Christ-Followers
Because of the small student body and unusual campus location, Covenant College has developed a campuswide culture of discipleship that includes the classroom. Students learn from 62 full-time teaching faculty who think seriously about their fields of study while demonstrating faithful Christian living.
“The single most impressive characteristic of the college is the quality of the faculty — men and women who love Jesus, are accomplished scholars in their fields, and seek out formative relationships with their students …” – Jim Drexler
With an average class size of 18, faculty can get to know students and open their homes to them. When students worship with faculty at one of 19 PCA congregations in the greater Chattanooga area, they see the faculty demonstrating their faith as worshippers, Sunday school teachers, and small group leaders.
Faculty members also sign a statement affirming their commitments to the inerrancy of Scripture, the Westminster Standards, and the college’s Statement of Community Beliefs. This last affirmation ensures that faculty support the college’s positions on issues such as abortion, marriage, and sexuality. The teaching is academically rigorous and rigorously Reformed.
Jim Drexler, a Covenant College graduate and dean of the school’s graduate school of education, believes the faculty is what distinguishes the Covenant College educational experience.
“The single most impressive characteristic of the college is the quality of the faculty — men and women who love Jesus, are accomplished scholars in their fields, seek out formative relationships with their students, and eagerly pursue a consistent and coherent biblical framework that guides study, teaching, practice, and research,” Drexler said.
After four years with these scholars, Covenant graduates leave the mountain eager to serve the Lord wherever He calls them.
Training Future Lay Leaders
In 2018 Covenant College surveyed its graduates, hoping to learn about their church involvement. When asked about church attendance, 93 percent of respondents said they are active in a local church, and 94 percent of alumni surveyed said they are faithful to the Christian faith.
Covenant graduates have developed such a love for Christ’s body that they also take on the responsibilities of lay leadership in their churches. Some 45 percent of respondents to the 2018 survey said they had served in a leadership capacity in their local churches.
Covenant College President Derek Halvorson appreciates that Covenant grads learn to love the body of Christ and take responsibility for it. “When you learn from and live with people, you learn to love the things that they love,” he said. “We have a brilliant faculty who are passionate believers.”
A Positive, Reciprocal Relationship
This ethos has defined Covenant College since its early days.
After years as an educator and journalist, in 1986 Joel Belz, Covenant class of 1958, founded WORLD, a news magazine dedicated to providing rigorous journalism from a thoroughly Christian worldview.
93% of Covenant College graduates are active in a local church
45% have served in church leadership
Belz has also invested himself in the PCA as a ruling elder who strives to attend every presbytery meeting. He was also moderator of the 31st General Assembly. A North Carolina resident, Belz and his wife, Carol, whom he met at Covenant, also invest in the PCA’s work at Ridge Haven in North Carolina and at its new Iowa campus.
But Belz has always maintained a close relationship with the college, serving on its board for nearly 40 years. Four of his five children attended Covenant, and four of his 16 grandchildren have attended the school.
To Belz, Covenant is a natural place for PCA children to prepare for faithful Christian living. Graduates leave with the academic preparation and worldview to distinguish themselves in the workplace or in graduate school. He has talked with employers who have been so impressed by the quality of Covenant graduates that they commit to hiring only graduates from the school.
“Covenant College makes the PCA look good,” Belz said.
Supporting Covenant College
So how can the PCA better support an institution that makes it look so good?
“Churches can make their students aware that the PCA has a college that is great by most every standard,” Halvorson said. If the PCA sent more of its children to Covenant College, the college would have more than enough students to fill each class.
Financial support helps, too. Halvorson noted that fewer than one-third of PCA churches support Covenant College. And only one-quarter of supporting churches support at the suggested level. Churches that financially invest in the mission of Covenant College can open up scholarships for their students, too.
“We are very grateful for that relationship [with the PCA],” Halvorson said. “And we long to see it be a fruitful one for both of us in the years ahead.”
Note: A previous version of this piece said the 19 PCA churches in the Chattanooga area were all planted since Covenant College moved to Lookout Mountain. While there were no churches in the area belonging to the RPCES denomination when Covenant College relocated in the late 1950s, there were other Presbyterian churches in and around Chattanooga. And some of those churches later joined the PCA.
ILLUSTRATION BY CHRISTY LUNDY