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The Blog of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship
March 11, 2013
Selecting the Right Leader
The Roman Catholic Church has a leadership challenge, and so does InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The challenges are different in a lot of ways, but as the world is focused on the Vatican and the transition taking place there, we can’t help but reflect on the transition process our campus chapters undergo every year.
For the Roman Catholic Church, the College of Cardinals will meet in the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday, and eventually a symbolic puff of white smoke will signal the selection of a new pope. The requirements for the job are well-known, the most basic of which is that the pope must be a baptized member of the church. No one but the most unenlightened would expect the Dalai Lama to be the choice of the College of Cardinals.
For InterVarsity, an evangelical campus mission with 900 chapters on 575 campuses across the country, there’s no Sistine Chapel and no symbolic puff of smoke, but every chapter selects a new leadership team each year. And over the past decade, a small but growing number of colleges have pressured InterVarsity to change its leadership criteria. In their view, it doesn’t really matter if the Dalai Lama ends up as the leader of an InterVarsity chapter.
The issue is whether a Christian campus organization can use Christian criteria for selecting its leaders without transgressing the school’s nondiscrimination policy. InterVarsity strongly affirms campus nondiscrimination policies as well as the goal of such policies: fostering a diverse campus environment. A truly diverse campus would make room for authentic expressions of religious faith.
However, in the guise of fostering a climate of tolerance, some college campuses are becoming intolerant toward traditional Christian faith. InterVarsity’s requirement that the leaders of our chapters affirm a basic doctrinal statement has led to the re-evaluation of our groups at a number of schools, particularly since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Christian Legal Society v. Martinez ruling.
But the trend began as early as ten years ago, when our Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship was one of the first to be challenged on its leadership standards. In a letter to the Harvard Crimson, the late Reverend Peter Gomes (then chaplain of Harvard’s Memorial Church) addressed the heart of the dispute:
Full participation in a club, logic would suggest, is consistent with pursuing the aims and ends of the club. Dogmatic professions of faith are what religious communities usually require of their members, and most certainly of their leaders. It does make an enormous difference to the integrity of a Christian club in the evangelical tradition if its leaders are unwilling to subscribe to the orthodox Christian beliefs to which the club is committed.
Thankfully, the Harvard-Radcliffe Fellowship was allowed to maintain its leadership standards. Other campuses have also recognized the obvious catch-22 and devised solutions. At The Ohio State University, for example, the student organization registration guidelines state: “A student organization formed to foster or affirm the sincerely held religious beliefs of its members may adopt eligibility criteria for its Student Officers that are consistent with those beliefs.”
The University of Florida, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Houston have similar provisions in their rules for student organizations. They recognize that strong leadership is key to the vitality and survival of any organization, and that leadership is derived from clear goals and strong support of the objectives of the organization.
Tolerance That's Intolerant
But a few other schools have decided against making an exception for religious organizations. During a public meeting at Vanderbilt University, after which 14 Christian organizations were forced off campus, an administrator actually suggested that the organizations open themselves up to the possibility of allowing students from other faiths to lead.
Similarly, at Rollins College in Florida, the InterVarsity chapter was derecognized last fall for requiring its student leaders to be Christian. Last month the Board of Trustees rejected an appeal of the derecognition.
The fact that a school would force religious groups to violate the doctrines of their faith in the name of nondiscrimination, and at the same time allow fraternities and sororities to discriminate on the basis of gender and athletic teams to discriminate on the basis of gender and athletic ability, is not consistent with the American tradition of religious freedom embodied in the First Amendment. It forces upon religious groups second-class status and fosters a climate of intolerance.
Why We’ll Keep Serving Students
Surveys show a majority of college students are still searching for meaning and purpose in life, and we have found that many still respond to the basic Christian message when it’s presented in a culturally relevant context. Although we aspire to be on good terms with the leadership of every campus we’re connected with, our work will continue even when we are deprived of campus meeting space and the other perks of official recognition.
In spite of the resistance of some campuses, or maybe because of it, InterVarsity is experiencing one of our most fruitful times in our 70 years of ministry on U.S. college and university campuses. Participation in our campus chapters is up by 20 percent from five years ago.
And despite the challenges, we are as committed to student ministry as ever, because students—similar to the next pope—will change the world.
Gordon Govier does web editing and media relations for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.