Editor’s Note: From its inception, the women in the PCA have loved on and supported the denomination in practical ways. One way has been through the annual women’s ministry love gift. This year, the women’s ministry of the PCA is praying for and partnering with the different agencies and committees of the denomination regionally. Throughout the year, we will highlight the committees and agencies to learn more about what they do and how we can pray for them.
I recently interviewed Derek Halvorson, president of Covenant College.
Christina: Can you share a bit of the history of Covenant College? How did it come to be the PCA’s college?
Derek: Covenant College was founded in 1955 in Pasadena, California. (There is a longer story about its founding that I won’t tell now.) In 1956, the college moved to St. Louis and took up residence on the same campus as the newly established Covenant Theological Seminary (so the college is the “older sister” institution). In 1964, the college moved to Lookout Mountain. (Again, there is a longer story about the move.) The college came into the PCA as a part of the 1982 Joining and Receiving between the PCA and the RPCES. It’s because of that older tie to the RPCES that the college has always drawn students from places—like Seattle/Tacoma, Colorado, Philadelphia, Delaware, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.—that are outside of the PCA’s historic areas of concentration in the South.
Christina: What is the college experience like at Covenant? What makes it unique for students who attend?
Derek: In some respects, the college experience at Covenant is very much like that at other colleges, and particularly at elite liberal arts colleges. Our students take learning seriously, and not just in the classroom. There are a lot of lively conversations going on all over campus. And our students are also very active—involved in intercollegiate athletics, intramurals, musical performances, theater productions, student ministries, or just taking advantage of all of the opportunities presented by our beautiful mountaintop location and the dynamic city of Chattanooga.
There are features of the student experience at Covenant that are distinctive, though perhaps not unique, but when you bundle them all together the package is one-of-a-kind. Our students enjoy the rich relationships with their faculty and their peers that come with a residential campus environment; they benefit from rigorous academic preparation in a setting where professors are eager to mentor and disciple them; they receive an education that is anchored in the authority of Scripture and grounded in the theology of the Westminster Standards; and they are formed in an context where every dimension of the student experience is intentionally designed to grow them as followers of Jesus Christ.
In terms of what is truly unique about the student experience, I don’t know that you’ll find another college that holds as high a view of the Church. That commitment to the local church is fundamental to the ethos at the college and is a big part of why our students and our graduates demonstrate remarkably high engagement with the local church (higher than any other engagement numbers I’ve seen reported by other colleges). I also don’t know that you’ll find another place that balances so well the three features of the Reformed tradition that historian George Marsden identified: commitment to doctrinal fidelity, commitment to personal piety, and commitment to cultural engagement. I don’t know of another academic community that provides first-rate academic preparation while also sharing our commitments to Scripture and the Westminster Standards and modeling a healthy embodiment of the Reformed tradition. And, one of the things I love about the Covenant College community is that students, faculty, and staff seem to find a lot of joy in pursuing this work together. We are having a lot of fun!
Christina: What are some misconceptions about attending a Christian college?
Derek: I think the biggest misconception people have about attending a Christian college is that they’ll be going to school in a bubble. As a Reformed institution, we are committed to wrestling with hard questions and difficult problems. That means that we read and listen to people with whom we disagree, people who might challenge our assumptions or beliefs. We do so in light of the truth of Scripture, which gives us a firm foundation from which to engage in these debates. But, fearlessly and courageously wrestling with challenging issues still isn’t easy. This is a sometimes uncomfortable but absolutely necessary part of a good education.
I think a second, and perhaps related, misconception is that if you attend a Christian college you are necessarily compromising on the quality of your education. No doubt, this is true in some places—the history of evangelical higher education has a spotty record when it comes to this concern. However, there are a handful of Christian colleges (not surprisingly, many are in the Reformed tradition) that believe academic excellence to be a means by which to glorify God. We believe that doing first-rate intellectual work honors God, and that when it is truly done well, it will contribute to our appreciation and reverence for the sovereign God who created all that is.
A final misconception is that attending a Christian college means attending a Bible college. Our students all study the Bible in our core curriculum and the truths of Scripture are brought to bear in every academic discipline and every dimension of the student experience at Covenant. But we prepare students for a wide array of professional callings, most of those in careers that would typically not be considered “ministry.” We really are interested in bringing faith to bear on every field of endeavor.
Christina: What are some of the pressures and challenges you see facing college students today?
Derek: There is a growing body of research that suggests that today’s college students suffer from greater levels of anxiety and depression than prior generations, and that they are also more risk-averse. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind, is really helpful on this subject, as is Jean Twenge’s iGen. On top of those general characteristics of the generation that is heading off to college now, Christian students have to deal with the fact that they find themselves a distinct cultural minority. For much of the history of American higher education, some version of Christianity or the Judeo-Christian heritage was the accepted cultural norm. That is no longer the case. When I went off to college (in the 80s), the Cold War was on. We all knew the Communists were the bad guys, and the Communists were Atheists. Today, as the mainstream media would portray it—and, sadly, as much of our society seems to believe—the really dangerous people in the world are religious fundamentalists, people who really believe their theology. This attitude presents a real challenge for young believers as they seek to go into the world and function as salt and light.
Christina: What are some exciting things coming up at Covenant this school year?
Derek: There are a number of exciting things going on at Covenant, particularly on the academic side of the college. We’ve added fantastic new faculty in chemistry, Spanish, and psychology. We are launching a political science major this fall (which happens to be the most research-methods intensive of any poli sci major offered by a Christian college). Perhaps most excitingly, our faculty have been hard at work over the last eight months at reshaping and refining the core academic experience at the college. This work has involved the development of a universal mentored capstone experience and the launching of a number of new certificate programs. These initiatives, when intertwined with the college’s core curriculum, provide all of our students with a distinctive educational experience in which faith and learning are integrated and students are given opportunity to develop the full potential of their God-given gifts.
Christina: While Covenant is the college of the PCA, the majority of its students are not from the PCA. How can we encourage more students from the PCA to attend?
Derek: Perhaps the most important thing folks can do to encourage PCA students to consider Covenant College is to make them aware of the college’s existence and the strength of the education we offer. It’s disheartening whenever we hear that we missed out on a well-qualified student because that student had no idea the PCA had a college, or wasn’t aware that Covenant has the sort of educational outcomes that it does. Families need to know that their children can receive an outstanding undergraduate education that doesn’t compromise on biblical orthodoxy, and at a price that makes Covenant an excellent value.
Christina: What are some ways women in the PCA can pray for Covenant College this year? How can we support the work of Covenant?
Derek: Whenever folks ask how they can pray for Covenant, I always ask that they pray first that God would keep us faithful. We are in no danger of abandoning our commitments, but most everyone knows the history of higher education in America—that hundreds of colleges that were founded as Christian institutions have given up on the faith—and the last thing our country needs is another formerly Christian college.
Second, please pray for our students. I mentioned already the particularly challenges the current generation of college-going students face. Our students, while they are all professing Christians, are not immune from those challenges. So please pray that we would be effective in caring for and appropriately challenging the young men and women who come to our campus.
Third, please pray for our faculty and staff. They do outstanding work, but it can be exhausting. Our prayer is that God will sustain and inspire them, so the education Covenant students receive will have a profound transformative effect on them for the sake of God’s kingdom work in the world.
Finally, you can always pray that God will bring the right students to Covenant and will provide the resources we need to continue in pursuit of our mission.
Christina: How can alumni of Covenant get more involved?
Derek: I always ask alumni to do three things: pray, advocate, and give.
Pray that God would prosper the college in every respect, that he would continue to use it to transform lives and educate thought leaders for global impact, and that he would keep it faithful.
Advocate for the college, particularly by making students who would be a good fit at Covenant aware of the value of a Covenant education. Our alumni, who have experienced Covenant for themselves, know as well as anyone the type of thoughtful, committed, creative student that will thrive at the college.
Give back to the college—financially, by volunteering to help with local alumni events, by representing the college at college fairs or in youth groups, or by pointing a student toward Covenant.
About the Author:
Christina received her undergraduate degree from Covenant College and her Master’s Degree in Counseling from Palm Beach Atlantic University. She writes for a number of Christian ministries and publications including TGC, Revive Our Hearts, Desiring God, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and Ligonier Ministries. She is the content editor for enCourage and the author of A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope Through the Psalms of Lament , Closer Than a Sister: How Union with Christ Helps Friendships to Flourish, Idols of a Mother’s Heart and Sufficient Hope: Gospel Meditations and Prayers for Moms. Christina serves on the advisory board at Covenant College and is on the national women’s ministry team as Regional Adviser of the Southeast. She prefers her coffee black and from a French press, enjoys antiquing, hiking, traveling, and reading. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two boys. You can find her at www.christinafox.com, @christinarfox and on Facebook.