Tending to the Life of Young Minds
By Megan Fowler

Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College. Photo by Jimmy T on Unsplash.

The PCA is one of the few denominations of its size to have both a denominational college and seminary. Covenant College has a student body of 800 full-time students and offers 23 undergraduate programs. Covenant Theological Seminary offers nine degree or certificate programs. And while it’s the largest supplier of pastors to the PCA, the seminary serves students from several denominations and has alumni serving in all 50 states and more than 100 countries. 

We have these institutions of higher learning because education, thinking, and reasoning matter to God. It may be true that “Not many of [us are] are wise by human standards” (1 Corinthians 1:26), nevertheless, Scripture takes a dim view of intellectual neglect. There’s a reason God wants us to know that Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s household where he was “instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). He makes a point of telling us that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego showed “aptitude for every kind of learning.” It’s important for us to know that the Apostle Paul was “educated at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). And that “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure” (1 Kings 4:29-34).

The writer of Proverbs 1:22 isn’t pleased when he asks, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?”

Christians, knowing they’re created in God’s image, take the life of the mind seriously. It should come as no surprise, then, that PCA members and leaders are at home in academia. And that at least four PCA members now serve as college presidents, and thereby set the course for a handful of our culture’s most formative institutions: Philip Ryken (Wheaton College), Paul McNulty (Grove City College), Stephen Briggs (Berry College), and Ben Sasse (University of Florida), 

Ryken’s training is in pastoral ministry and church history; McNulty’s is in law; Briggs is a trained psychologist; and Sasse most recently served as a U.S. senator from Nebraska. In each man’s case, the Lord issued a new call to a new institution to serve students and Christ’s kingdom.

Pastor President

Phil Ryken, son of longtime Wheaton English professor Leland Ryken, graduated from the school in 1988 and pursued pastoral ministry, most notably at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. 

Ryken served Tenth at the side of James Montgomery Boice. When Boice died in 2000, Ryken was there to take the church through its season of grief, and then to lead the search for a new leader. Ultimately, the search committee turned to Ryken, who became the church’s seventh senior pastor in its 200-year history.  

But Ryken, author of more than 50 books, didn’t leave ministry when he left the pastorate. “I told Wheaton the only college president I could be is one who views this as a form of pastoral ministry,” he said. He is a member of Chicago Metro Presbytery serving out of bounds at the college. And though Wheaton is a broadly evangelical institution, Ryken is quick to point out that the campus statement of faith is “explicitly Reformational.” 

The single biggest difference between pastoral ministry and college presidency is that the presidency doesn’t offer the same opportunities for vision casting, Ryken says. He shares his vision with students during chapel and with faculty during the course of routine meetings. But he doesn’t have the consistent opportunities that a pastor gets each Sunday. 

As he looks ahead, Ryken doesn’t believe Wheaton’s greatest challenges come from a hostile secular culture. The most difficult challenge for Christian colleges, he says, is when we’re “divided amongst ourselves.”  

“The only college president I could be is one who views this as a form of pastoral ministry.” – Philip Ryken

That’s why, in part, under Ryken’s leadership the liberal arts curriculum was revised to reflect the school’s Christian convictions more clearly. And Wheaton increased the number of ethnic minorities enrolling at the school; more than a quarter of Wheaton students are now ethnic minorities or non-resident aliens.

“College president” is a kind of pastoral ministry that agrees with Ryken. Of all his responsibilities, Ryken says he particularly enjoys catching up with alumni who are growing in the Lord, serving the church, and making an impact in the world. Now that four of his children have attended Wheaton, he sees how the Lord uses their college years to shape them intellectually and spiritually. 

“It’s a microcosm of what we’re doing as a college, and it’s encouraging to see that as a parent.”

A Christ-centered Campus

Paul McNulty’s 30-year legal career included a few stints as “chief”: chief counsel during the Clinton impeachment, chief prosecutor for the September 11 investigations, and chief operating officer for the U.S. Department of Justice, in charge of its 100,000 employees. 

But being chief has never been as important to McNulty as being a churchman. He served as a ruling elder at McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Virginia, and at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia. Now, as president of Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania, McNulty has helped the college cement its Christian identity.

By the 1970s, Grove City College had drifted from the Christian mission set at the college’s founding in 1876. Board President J. Howard Pew hired Charles MacKenzie as president and tasked him with correcting the college’s spiritual course. By the time McNulty came to campus as a freshman in 1976, MacKenzie had changed the college’s culture, McNulty said, but not every aspect of college life conformed to Christian values.

By the late 1990s, Grove City College described itself as “thoroughly Christian.” It was one of the school’s central tenets, along with affordability and quality education. McNulty, who attends Hillcrest PCA in Volant, Pennsylvania, wanted the college’s mission statement to reflect Christ’s preeminence more clearly. He and the board tweaked the statement to read, “A Christ-centered, academically excellent, and affordable learning and living experience.”

During his tenure, McNulty wants people to see that “Christ impacts everything on campus. This is what authentic Christianity demands,” he said. 

This Christ-centered identity is far less appealing in American culture than it was in previous generations, McNulty acknowledges. Yet even as the culture grows more hostile to conservative Christianity, applications to Grove City College have risen to the highest levels in 20 years. 

But the worldview conflict is not the biggest challenge facing Grove City College. Echoing Phil Ryken, McNulty believes the bitter disputes among Christians are more of a threat than pressures from the secular world. In 2021 and 2022, the college endured a highly-publicized debate over critical race theory — whether some at the college promoted the theory or related topics — and its place in a liberal arts education. 

In the aftermath of the controversy, McNulty wants the college to focus on bridging differences. “How can we become peacemakers or strengthen our calling as peacemakers so that even with differences of opinion, we don’t undermine the mission of the college?” 

A Campus in Tension

Whereas Ryken and McNulty lead explicitly Christian colleges, Stephen Briggs leads an institution with “a strong Christian current” but no formal association with a church or denomination. Briggs is the president of Berry College in Rome, Georgia, a post he has held since 2006. 

Berry was founded as an interdenominational Christian school guided by Christian principles, but the absence of a statement of faith creates a tension: it is not definitively secular or Christian. While some people might want to resolve the tension between the two identities, Briggs is happy to have it. He wants Christians to work side by side with non-Christians, and he hopes the mutual respect leads to rich conversations. 

Briggs has found common ground with non-believers when he presents his ideas as promoting the common good rather than a theological viewpoint.

Even before coming to Berry, Briggs had spent much of his teaching career at non-Christian colleges. He wants students to consider not just what they want to do when they graduate, but why they want to do it. And if religious conversations emerge in the process, that, Briggs says, makes for a great educational experience.

Under Briggs’s leadership, Berry reemphasized its LifeWorks program, which gives students the opportunity for eight semesters of paid work in their fields of study. The work experience makes college more affordable while giving students professional experience, marketable skills, and exposure to new career fields. The experiences also help students see their work as service, not just a means to make money. 

According to Briggs, “The Berry mindset helps students see that good work means meeting someone else’s needs; it’s about much more than [a paycheck]. We’re educating the whole person,” he says, “an ‘education of the head, heart, and hands.’ People understand the value of pulling these essential elements together.”

Briggs’s Christian commitments inform his priorities and the values he promotes in his public speaking. He has found common ground with non-believers when he presents his ideas as promoting the common good rather than a theological viewpoint. “You have to make cases not just because of what Scripture says but because people agree with the principle you’re arguing,” he said. “You start with moral intuition and assumption, things they agree would be good, and then proceed from there.” 

Mr. Sasse Goes to Florida

Ben Sasse, a former U.S. senator from Nebraska, became president of the University of Florida in February 2023.

Sasse, who’s been a member of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Fremont, Nebraska, served as president of Midland University in Fremont before running for the Senate. He earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Yale. During his first bid for Senate, he won all 93 counties in the state.

As a former history professor, college president, and legislator, Sasse has opinions about what is ailing America’s young people and what will help them succeed. “Most young Americans never earn a college degree, and far too many of those who do are poorly served by sclerotic institutions that offer regularly overpriced degrees producing too little life transformation, too little knowledge transmission, and too little pragmatic, real-world value,” he wrote in The Atlantic in May 2022.

Sasse has also written extensively about the value of hard work and helping children mature into responsible adulthood. He has written two best-selling books: “The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-Of-Age Crisis – And How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance” and “‘Them’: Why We Hate Each Other – And How to Heal.”

He also possesses a rich theology that he articulates whenever possible. In 2017 he gave the commencement speech at Gordon-Conwell Seminary and offered the keynote address at The Gospel Coalition Conference.

In his 2019 commencement address at Grove City College, Sasse reminded graduates that because of the changing economy, they might spend much of their working lives moving from town to town, job to job. As they move, they can model radical hospitality in the places where God calls them, and labor for Christ’s kingdom, not their own.

“And that means not that you deny this world and this age, but rather that you can be stewards of this world in this age, even if the communities to which you’re headed over the next decade  may be two- and three-year stops at a time,” Sasse said. “You’re not yearning to establish a permanent kingdom in those places. You know that Jesus is establishing the permanent kingdom and you get … to live a life of gratitude to him by being responsive with the unbelievable gifts of hospitality.”

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