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In the twenty-second episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Joseph Creech, the Executive Director of the Lilly Network of Church-Related Colleges and Universities. Creech begins by talking about the history of the Lilly Network, its service as the first ecumenical organization of Church-related colleges and universities, and its focus on providing professional development opportunities for faculty as well as senior leaders. Ream then asks Creech about his own calling to the Christian academic vocation and how such a calling informs the efforts Creech leads with the Lilly Network. They then close their conversation by talking about the important role the Church plays in shaping Church-related higher education and examples of how to improve the relationship shared by the churches and colleges and universities.    

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Joseph Creech, the Executive Director of the Lilly Network of Church-Related Colleges and Universities. Thank you for joining us.

Joe Creech: Thank you for having me. It’s so good to see you, Todd.

Todd Ream: The Lilly Network seeks to strengthen the quality and shape the character of Church-related institutions of higher learning in the 21st century. In many ways, it was established in response to a mounting awareness toward the end of the twentieth century that the quality and character of Church-related college colleges and universities were vulnerable to the forces of secularity. 

In your estimation, how have those forces changed since the establishment of the network?

Joe Creech: Oh, that’s a great question. Um, if you don’t mind, I am a historian by training, so I’ll maybe start to set to set up the latter part of your question that I do intend to get to maybe by sort of clarifying why the The Lilly Network, formerly The Lilly Fellows Program, sort of came into being along with a lot of other organizations in the early 1990s. 

So in the early 1990s, you’re right. There was a lot of conversation about the secularization of Church-related higher occasions. Of course, George Marsden was the key person here in his book, The Soul of the University. This idea that through various processes, Church-related institutions could lose their mooring in their institutional homes and essentially become, for all intents and purposes, no different than public institutions, except that they charge more tuition. 

But I would say, while there’s real truth to that, and certainly the twentieth century saw a sort of de-protestantization of particularly cultural institutions. That’s not really, I think, what the burning question for the Lilly Network was or the funders like the Pew Charitable Trust and Lilly Endowment that we’re putting a lot of money into a lot of similar organizations, to strengthen Church-related higher education is a roundabout way really of strengthening the Church. I think what the really driving question then was, what does it mean to be Church-related?

So the real crisis in many ways, let’s take for example, Catholic institutions, and one of the great markers of the Lilly Network has always been that it’s ecumenical. And I should just say we are about faculty formation and strengthening institutions through formation. We don’t do advocacy. We don’t sponsor research. We don’t have an office in Washington, DC. Uh, we’re really about strengthening institutions through strengthening the people who make up those institutions. 

But back to what the really, the burning question for us was, and that is, what does it mean to say we’re a Church-related institution? And once we figure out what that means, is it something worth preserving?

So for example, let’s take Catholic institutions. They may have been founded by the Jesuits, a Marianist order, a Benedictine in order. And if you were to ask in, say, 1970, Jesuit president of a Jesuit school, what did it mean to be a Jesuit institution? They would say, have a bunch of Jesuits here. Right? And, and at present you know, the president’s a Jesuit, the provost’s a Jesuit. Half the professors are Jesuits. So the same would be Marianist or Benedictine or or or anything else. Right?

Or alternatively, these Catholic institutions arose to educate Catholic students who for either formally or informally often, had difficult times entering regular universities.

Uh, my own institution, Valparaiso University. Uh, if you were to say in 1975, why are you a Lutheran university? What does that mean? Besides having a Lutheran minister as president, they would say we educate Lutheran kids. Right? Uh, Lutheran schools send us all of their students. We’ve got a bunch of Lutherans on campus. And then similarly, I think you had these sort of answers that almost like it was a ridiculous question. Right? I mean, we’re a Marianist school. We have a Marianist monastery on campus, right? 

But by 1990, of course, that was changing. If you were to look today at Valparaiso University, I couldn’t give you the numbers, but I know they’re more Roman Catholic affiliated students than there are Lutherans on campus, and that’s really even been since I came here in 2000. We all know that the religious orders are losing members, that the representation of those orders being on a campus isn’t going to sort of guarantee that that campus is that and maybe those the answers to those questions really weren’t the best answers anyway.

And so in around the 1990s, the question was, what did it mean to be Lutheran? What did it mean to be Catholic, Marianist, evangelical, like at Westmont or at Wheaton? And the answer really was to sort of look at this thing called mission. Say, what is the mission that we’re doing? Um, so even if we’re in Wheaton and and everyone who teaches here is- or sign on the dotted line that they’re a Christian believer, does that make any difference in what you do in the classroom, you know? 

You had the same sort of formation as a graduate student that someone teaching at Bradley did or at Virginia Tech. So what are you doing in the classroom that is different? What is student life doing that’s different? Obviously, there’s a chapel or something like that. But what does it mean to say this? 

To say that we have a Marianist charism and that is shaping how we’re doing education or that, always trying to pin down Lutheran theology like nailing jelly to a wall. But not like the Calvinists. They can tell you what they believe. Lutherans are like this is what we- we’re just not Calvinist, right? But what is shaping us? And so that was the real question. That was the puzzling question. And I think the answer for the Lilly Fellows program was formation.

You know, every school is going to define their mission based on sort of what their animating principles are. But then how is that mission carried out? And what the Lilly Fellows programs sort of fell on and and the Lilly Network as a consortium of schools to think about this together in an ecumenical setting and learn from one another, was really that the people who make up your institution had to have a sort of personal formation in that mission. And that was really what we were aiming towards doing. So that was the question in 1990.

I think jump jump forward to 2024, I think, in many ways if if John Schmalzbauer and Kathleen Mahoney are right in their book on the Resilience of Religion in Higher Education, if the Jacobsens Rhonda and Douglas Jacobsen and their work are right- I mean, there really has been a renaissance in the last 30 years, not only in Church-related higher education, but more broadly in the sort of the acceptance of religion as a subject of study and a and a sort of tamping down of the sort of heat of skepticism towards religion and and the university at large. 

Uh, but that said, I think we’ve had success. I would say, though, that success is is limited, though, in that often, there might be strong centers of missional activity on our campuses. Number of schools now have mission directors or their chaplaincy has really taken on that role. Um, but it’s often siloed. It’s often in little places. It’s in a theology department or at the chapel. It’s not often really connecting to all parts of the curriculum and co-curriculum.

But what’s different today, I think, is the problems that I think all of higher education is faced. They go through a prism that makes it a little different for Church-related institutions. I think I can just mention three. Uh, one would be the general skepticism towards higher education that is really unprecedented. I mean, there have always been pockets of it, anti-intellectualism and that sort of thing, but a general skepticism. I think oftentimes well-earned skepticism against higher education in the United States. And, of course, that gets inflected with a religious dynamic in churches and so forth in skepticism of Church-related higher education. 

I would say the second thing is that fundamentally the business model on which private education functions is broken. Schools like Valparaiso University or Indiana Wesleyan, really can’t charge the amounts of tuition that we’re charging and and and increasing at any sort of sustainable pace. Um, and I think that ties into the skepticism of higher education.

I mean, we’re not building lazy rivers and climbing walls. We’re trying to pay the staff. You know? It’s it’s it’s it’s a business model that isn’t working, and and it needs to be fixed.

And I’ll say the third thing, and this is, I think, more, unique to Church-related higher education. I would say my primary interlocutor over the last couple years, the most important interlocutor has been Willie James Jennings at Yale Divinity School. I know you interviewed him a while back and talked to him about his book, The Christian Imagination and, and After Whiteness. I won’t go into all of Jennings’ arguments, but I will say this, I I think that largely the project of Church-related higher education has been connecting habits of thought and habits of practice coming out of Christianity with intellectual formation.

In that formula, I don’t think many of us have really questioned the ethical and Christian implications of that intellectual formation. We’ve taken it for granted, particularly in the liberal arts. I think of course, many of our schools are very much into professional education, but because the liberal arts are about formation, intellectual formation, I think we’ve looked for ways to connect Christian formation with intellectual formation. 

And what Jennings does is calls into question our very definition of intellectual formation. So not just for Church-related schools, but for higher education more generally. And, of course, his suggestion is that our intellectual formations, the models of it we’ve inherited over the last hundreds of years, are deeply flawed. And he would even say sinful, envisioning the formation, the endpoint of our formation, that it’s a really malformed image.

And then he implicates, I think, Christianity even more so as to say, part of the reason it’s so malformed has been, problems from coming out of the Church and the theological tradition that had informed that intellectual formation. 

So I would say that that’s the challenge that I think is most arresting for me. I feel like I’m doing your readers a disservice if you’re not familiar. So I would just say go back and listen to Jennings’ interview with Todd on that. 

Todd Ream: No. That’s that that’s very helpful. 

Along those lines in terms of formation and formation for mission, the network is defined by three key initiatives, with the first being the national network of Church-related colleges and universities, sponsors a variety of activities and publications designed to explore the Christian character of the academic vocation, and to strengthen the religious nature of those institutions. In what way has that network evolved over the years?

Joe Creech: I’ll start by not answering your question. The things that haven’t changed about the network are its commitment to breathing the same air. As I alluded to earlier, we’re not an advocacy group. We don’t sponsor research. We bring people together into rooms and let them learn from one another. 

It’s one thing to read about Marianist higher education. It’s another to spend 2 or 3 days at a Marianist institution and get to know the folks there and see what they do and meet the students. And so what we encourage is collaboration and breathing the same air. 

Uh, the other thing is that I’ve just alluded to, we’re we’re we’re ecumenical. And we’re really the only organization that provides that ecumenical space. Not just among different Christian traditions but also for the full spectrum of views on political issues and social issues and so forth. We really bring a wide range of people together to really get to know each other. So that’s what the network has done. 

I would say initially, the network was small. It’s gotten bigger. Well, it was founded by a bunch of humanists and artists. And so it was the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts. We’ve since expanded to professional and STEM fields and beyond that. And we’ve initially really worked with faculty, but we’ve also expanded to working with administrators as well. And one of the most important things we do each year is have a workshop for senior administrators. 

Um, I would say the other thing that has changed is working with graduate students sort of across the board. So initially our fellowship program was rooted here at the postdoctoral fellows program in Valparaiso University, and then that expanded out to working with graduate students. We’ve retooling that group. Initially, we just worked with graduate students in the humanities, arts, and some social sciences, but we wanna open that up also for STEM and STEM fields. And so that’ll be really interesting.

Todd Ream: Yeah. Great. If I may, I want to ask you a couple of questions now about your own formation and would you please sort of share with us a few details about your own formation for the Christian academic vocation?

Joe Creech: Yeah, sure. 

As a teenager I I sort of had a radical conversion experience in 1980, my sophomore year in high school in the Assemblies of God and and was sort of wanted to be a minister. That was my goal in life. Um, I’d always done really well in school, but I certainly wouldn’t say that academics was something that was a deep interest to me. 

I did well in school. I had a lot of curiosity about things, particularly in the sciences. I was really more of a STEM person. But I wanted to become a minister, and so I became a religious studies student major. Um, I went to two undergrad institutions, Davidson College and UNC Chapel Hill. Long story there I won’t go into. 

Um, but so the Christian part sort of established itself very, very strongly there. Um, and I wouldn’t say I was an anti-intellectual, but I certainly wasn’t an academic until my first philosophy course at Davidson College. And I sort of had a second born-again experience, but this time, reading David Hume, of all people. Reading David Hume’s takedown of the argument for the existence of God based on design. 

And I had this experience in reading this. You know, I was every professor’s worst nightmare. I was ready to explain to you how every animal could have fit Noah’s ark.  I mean, right? Um, but I read this argument full of I’m just gonna endure this because it can’t possibly be right. And by the end of the article, I was utterly convinced that he was right. 

And I’d never had that experience before of actually reading an argument and completely changing my mind and realizing he’s right. Uh, that this argument doesn’t hold water. And that was a real awakening for me. I think that was an awakening to the examined life, at least in the intellectual part, that I began to take academics very seriously. I wanted to sort of test all of my opinions, right? And and and put them to the test. 

The second part of an intellectual awakening happened at UNC Chapel Hill my junior year in a course on American religion, with a person who had become a real mentor to me, Grant Wacker whom many of your listeners will know. It was in his course we read the Southern slave, pro slavery arguments. These were the arguments advocating that slavery was not a necessary evil, but an actual Christian good. And I was simply floored by these arguments and for two reasons.

The first was the people writing these arguments and agreeing with them, love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. They loved Jesus, and they were dead wrong.

The second was their arguments actually made sense. Um, as Mark Noll has argued, if you were to take the sort of evangelical baconian hermeneutic of the time, the Southern proslavery arguments were more Biblically well-reasoned than were the abolitionist arguments.

I just thought I had this idea that if you love Jesus with all your heart, you wouldn’t be deceived by error. Right? Um, and yet these people were. And yet and and it wasn’t as if they were reading illogical arguments. They were actually logical, and they made sense.

And not only did I understand that I probably could very well have been persuaded by those arguments, but, again, they were completely wrong. And how could these folks believe something that by all lights was completely wrong? And so that was really an awakening to history. 

And I realized, grace to you philosophers out there. But there was more than just good arguments. Right? There were reasons at work, historical contingencies that were shaping these people. 

And so I went on into ministry, but then I went to Duke Divinity School to get an MDiv. And it was there that I really realized that what I sort of thought was a pastoral call, really was a call to be a teacher, that was my vocation and to be a historian. I went on and got a PhD at Notre Dame in history and then have taught that since.

I think like a lot of folks who sort of had a deep love for Jesus, but then also a love for the academy, I sort of segmented those two things. Um, I don’t ever think I thought once how that should impact what I do in the classroom, other than just sort of love my students and pray for them, right? Um, it really was when I started teaching at the Christ College Honors College at Valparaiso University that those questions really began to sort of- I think my own formation that sort of prepared me for this work started there.

It’s not surprising that’s our institutional home. The Lilly Network really emerged from Mark Schwehn’s leadership there as dean and as the founding director of what was then called the Lilly Fellows Program.

Todd Ream: In terms of that home and the role that you now fill, what led you to embrace your appointment as the executive director of the Lilly Network?

Joe Creech: Yeah, well, for a lot of reasons and family commitments. I was always a contingent faculty member here. Um, I knew that I had to stay in this area. I was geographically bound. And so I was always teaching on a one year contract. I became the assistant director here, and then the opportunity arose to become the director. 

And at that time, I had a book out on populism and religion that was being well received and really thought the sort of reasons I had been geographically bound were no longer there, and I really thought, okay. Now is the time. I really wanna get out there and become a tenure track faculty member.

Uh, but this opportunity, I think I decided to take it really for two reasons. One, I had been teaching for a long time at that point. I’ve been teaching for 9 years. And I think I had begun to really- the questions the institutional questions had really begun to pull my interest, that is not just how could I best teach a subject or this thing in my class or write on this thing, but how do you get students to really learn rather than just get information? And how do you help faculty do that? And how do you develop a curriculum that interacts with the other leadership development stuff that folks are doing? Those institutional questions were the things that I was becoming much more interested in. 

I know I went to a Lilly conference and then to an academic conference sort of back-to-back one time, and that’s when I sort of realized, I’m kinda more interested in these other, not not the historical minutiae as important as all of that is, my interest is going elsewhere.

But then second, I sort of and I realized the cost. The cost would be I would never be tenured and that would shut off a lot of other opportunities in higher education. Uh, this is not a tenured position. But I did realize In some ways, I had been really well prepared for this. Um, the questions interested me.

I knew I would come in every day and be thankful and excited about sitting at this desk. Um, I knew that I had sort of my background. I’d come out of an evangelical background. I’d been educated in a mainline denominational seminary at Duke and knew that world. And then at Notre Dame, I sort of had been introduced to Catholic higher education at that point.

Then my own interest in American religious history, I think, equipped me well for being able to sort of understand where most of these schools were coming from. So it was one of these things where I knew there was a cost involved, but it really seemed like I was… it sounds too proud: I was the person for the moment, but it seemed like I was sort of well prepared to take that at the time. It was daunting, though. I was pretty young pretty pretty pretty early in my career when I took this position.

Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. When you think about your own formation and the formation of the scholars with whom you’ve worked over the course of the years, what advice would you offer the next generation of Christian scholars? What are things that you would encourage them to focus on in terms of their time and energy and efforts?

Joe Creech: Well, I’ll think about folks who are going to graduate school. I think that’s probably what you have in mind there. And I’m thinking mostly probably for folks in the humanities and the arts that’s- I think it would also apply particularly to STEM fields and bench sciences, but I would say I mean, the advice everyone gives, right? Fully going eyes wide open to the reality that most people getting PhDs are not getting tenure track jobs and so don’t take on any debt. You know, go go with a full full ride.

I would say the second thing is remember that the vocation of a professor is both teaching and research and service. You know, you meet a lot of folks who they’re just obsessed with Roman coins. Right? You know, they just wanna dive in or learn Hittite or something. Right? You know? Or people just I just wanna teach. I wanna teach. I wanna teach. You know? It’s both of those things, and they feed on one another.

And so I think it takes real discernment to know you want to do both of those things, that you are very happy spending 3 days without seeing another soul simply staring at books. Right? Or in archives or digging up something. Right? But you also wanna teach because really the vocation is not one or the other. It’s really both. 

And then the final thing I would say is when you go to get a PhD, it’s not a continuation of your undergraduate education. It’s something entirely different. PhD programs emerged out of preparation for legal, medical, and pastoral careers. It’s professional education. What counted as success as an undergraduate grades, doesn’t really mean much in graduate school. 

Um, it’s a time of professional formation. What means something in graduate school is, are you publishing? Are you learning how to teach? Are you getting good teacher evaluations? Are you discerning subject matter that you know is publishable? Are you networking at conferences? 

A lot of folks continue on into graduate education because they love their undergraduate years and they love the sort of reinforcement that that gives. But you’ve got to understand that that’s not what graduate education is. It’s an entirely different animal. And I think, I mean, a lot of the formation that we do is I think you probably do come out of graduate school a little deformed.

 No. I think in our graduate fellows program, the things we do is we highlight for folks to sort of. We make them aware and call it out and give them eyes to see in a sense the professional formation that they’re undergoing, which is beautiful and lovely. Um, I’m so glad I was formed as a historian, you know? It’s great. 

But there are also costs to that. You lose a sensitivity to interdisciplinarity because you’re so focused in your sub sub sub discipline. You lose track of the bigger questions that animated your own interest in this subject, the bigger even the bigger questions in your own discipline. 

And I think you really lose touch with what the goals and purposes of undergraduate education are because you’re in an R-1 institution surrounded by graduate students doing graduate education. You don’t really understand… 

You know, I mean, if you just look at our curricula for most of our majors, it looks like we’re doing PhD work, right? It doesn’t look like we’re doing formation and intellectual formation, right? So I think a lot of what we do is try to couple an awareness of the sort of formation that’s going on with us. And it’s good, but there are costs as well and we gotta make folks aware of that.

Todd Ream: I was going to spend my afternoon reading Hittite today, but I think now you’ve given me some other things to think about, too, in addition to that.

Thinking about Church-related higher education, you mentioned the great diversity of institutions that make up the Network uh, today as it exists. When looking across the spectrum of those institutions, are there any habits, practices, cultural mores, etc… that allow some schools to advance their missions at higher levels than some of the others?

Joe Creech: Just to state the obvious, I think excellent leadership is critical here, both in the formal administration, but especially on faculty. So I would say I think the thing that really sets schools apart for me is faculty leadership. 

Um, we have this beautiful thing, I say that tongue in cheek, beautiful thing of um, shared governance. Um, but in many ways, I I think the administration sort of shepherds and cares for and is attentive to the mission while the faculty shepherds and cares for the curriculum. 

But to have faculty that also sort of take ownership of the mission of the school, the Church-related components of it, and can lead their fellow faculty in that, I think when you say it, you should go to this school because the mission really runs deep there. That’s usually what I have in mind, is that there’s faculty leadership for that. 

And, of course that’s got to be cultivated, I think, by the administrative leadership in many ways through hiring practices and through formation, practices of mentoring, and so forth of the faculty.

Todd Ream: Uh, in terms of leadership then, on what do the most successful leaders spend their time?

Joe Creech: Not sleeping. That’s sort of a joke, but I think it’s true. That’s what separates people who want to be CEOs and presidents is they just don’t need much sleep. 

Todd Ream: That’s why I got washed out myself, actually. 7 to 8 hours just you know?

Joe Creech: You know, that got me little sleep, got me behind till I hit a ball at about 45, and then I realized I would never be a college president.

Um, I think, I don’t know. I’ve seen good leaders and I’ve seen bad leaders. Um, I think a lot of leadership is good leadership across the board. Um, and I think in many ways, it comes down to being well-formed, virtuous people who embody the sort of theological and cardinal virtues that they’re- they embody through their own formation, faith, hope, and love, as well as courage, justice.

I should have thought of these before. I’ll just say prudence and temperance.

Over and over again, that just seems to be critical there. But I think for administrators at universities, it seems to me that the most successful ones really understand shared governance. I’ve heard it said that they can speak faculty, that they understand and love faculty, and that they know how to lead faculty.

And I think I’ve seen administrators on the side of being too cautious and not providing enough leadership or on the other extreme, just sort of becoming dictatorial. You know, my way or the highway. Um, I’m just gonna run rough shot over the faculty.

But to the people who do it well, I think, somehow the faculty know that these leaders care about them, listen to them, hear them, but then they also funnel their energy, right? In a particular direction. You know, some colleges just sort of amble along but once and I think we’re in a time when a lot of colleges need to do more than amble. Good leadership knows how to listen, but is also courageous and will move people forward.

So I I that sounds very general, but when I think of successful leaders or unsuccessful ones that really I mean, yeah, who knows what fate will deal always. But that seems to be in my experience. Someone who’s always saying, what am I not hearing? What am I not seeing?

Joe Creech: Talk to me; I wanna listen to you.

Todd Ream: In terms of those leaders then in their relationship with, for lack of better term, their subordinates, the relationship that they share, what do they encourage and on what do they encourage their subordinates to invest time and energy?

Joe Creech: Hopefully, they’re really good subordinates. That’s number one. Again, Todd, I think it’s sort of leadership 101.

You find out where their energies are, and you trust them. Um, you sort of set up some guide rails which we would call vision or goals and and and that sort of thing. And you let them be self self-motivated and do that work themselves. And so that’s assuming you’ve hired people that have a lot of drive and work. I think that that seems to be the most successful thing.

I mean, some people say my job as a leader is to unleash other people’s talent and capability, that seems over said, but there’s a lot of truth in that. Um, people- no one wants a taskmaster, right? Everyone wants to come into work every day and and and be creative and and and and and follow what they believe is the good path here.

I mean, if you’re the leader you’re providing direction so that you don’t just amble along.

Todd Ream: Shifting topics then now, to the nature of Church-related. Um, the Network is defined by Church-related colleges and universities, and the relationships they share. I now wanna talk about the relationship that they share with the Church. 

So what role, if any, do you believe the Church plays in strengthening the religious nature of Church-related institutions of higher education?

Joe Creech: I think that’s a question that’s in tension right now. I mean, if you ask the reverse of this, which you might what can churches or the institute universities provide for churches? But that relationship, I think, for many colleges is strained to broken to nonexistent right now, which I think is a great tragedy. And it’s something that I know we as the Lilly Network is really turning our attention towards. 

Um, I would say, at least in setting goals for what I would like to see as a sort of recovery, I mean, I think that all institutions need to think about who their audiences are? Who are their primary stakeholders? When we say that we’re advocating and working towards the common good, who comprises that common good? For all of us, it’s the churches that founded us as a fundamental part of that.

I think a lot of institutions, either have sort of forgotten that or actively try to forget it. Right? Um, again, there there’s a spectrum on which this is sort of intention or broken. Um, but what I would hope is that at least to start, the Church grounds us as universities. 

One of my sort of the guiding lights of my life has always been, Flannery O’Connor. And one of my favorite statements and probably my favorite writing of hers, The Violent Bear It Away, is there’s a character in there named Raber who is a school social worker, and that’s not a good thing. And at one point, one of the sort of prophetic people in this story says of Raber, he thinks you can change a kid’s diaper in your head. 

And that’s his fundamental problem. It’s a problem of incarnation, right? It’s a problem of working out things in your head and not being in touch with the reality of sort of being incarnational, being in the flesh. 

And I think, the degree to which we connect to real people in the pews, in our churches, our pastors, all of our conversation about our Church-relatedness can just be changing diapers in our head. All of sudden, I realized this is a really bad metaphor. But I think you get the point, right?

We’re we’re we’re making out a religion that’s a fake religion. It’s a religion in our brains. It’s theological commitments and formation that’s in our brains, and it’s we’re not actually engaging in it outside of their university. So I think what we could gain from reconnecting, for many of us reconnecting with our churches is that connection, that I think as universities, we need desperately.

Todd Ream: You know, one of the comments from previous guests, Alister McGrath, that has haunted me is that theology must be both intellectually interesting, but also existentially meaningful. I think in college and university settings, we often do the former at an adequate level. Um, the Church does the latter at an adequate level but I think we would do both at greater than adequate levels, if we worked in closer proximity to one another or harmony with one another.

Joe Creech: Now well well put. Uh, that’s exactly what I was trying to say. Leave it to Alister McGrath to say that.

Todd Ream: Yeah. Yep. Thank you. I want to ask you as you intuited the reverse of that question then. What role, if any, do you believe Church-related universities play in strengthening the nature of the Church?

Joe Creech: Well, I think there’s the old saying.

I’m not sure who said it, but the Church-related university is where the Church goes to think. And I think I can just leave it at that. There’s a lot to sort of be critical of where religion is these days. 

And a lot of it is, I think, tied to inadequate intellectual formation. Being able to distinguish truth from untruth. Um, those sorts of things. And we’re the folks that do that really, really well, hopefully.

I think this is sort of at the heart of this, there there are long sections of Cardinal Newman’s work, really trying to to find that fine line of where does sort of formation in the Church, what what’s the sort of domain of formation in the Church, and what is the domain of formation in the in the academy? 

And there’s certain things, right? That the Church really can only do; there’s certain things that the academy really only can do. And, again, Willie Jennings’ thoughts on this not aside, the one thing that the university really can do is intellectual formation. And so I think the Church should be able to draw on that.

Todd Ream: You mentioned that the state of the relationship between the Church and Church-related colleges and universities in general is strained.

For those of us who serve in Church-related college universities, what challenges, if any, do you think we’ve learned to avoid that may have caused some of that strain? 

Joe Creech: We’ve really fallen to about every flavor probably possibly could, where there are good leaders in either Church or or in institutions of higher education who, again, sort of carry out the cardinal virtues and theological virtues. I think you see good working relationships. Again, it so much comes back to leadership.

Todd Ream: Yep. Are there any opportunities that exist that you think that we need to pursue, in order to begin to mend the relationship between the Church and Church-related colleges and universities?

Joe Creech: Yes. I think there are. There’s a program that’s been funded by Lilly Endowment. I would suggest that you consider interviewing Dr. Darin Davis at Baylor University who just recently stepped down as a director of the IFL. And the name of this program has completely slipped me. So if you can edit it in at some point.

But, essentially, it’s it’s it’s pastors of several churches have come together at Baylor for folks at Truett Seminary and the university to learn from these pastors and for pastors to learn from the folks there to really start making those connections. And it’s really born fruit. It’s been a beautiful thing. 

We just need to listen to each other. Listen and learn from pastors. And pastors listen and learn from what’s going on at universities so that, again, we can begin to bridge the skepticism that often has these sort of culture wars and political components to it by bringing people in to breathe the same air together. I think that would be the starting point.

Todd Ream: Yep. Yep. Thank you.

To close our conversation then, you’ve mentioned the importance of the virtues and the exercise of those virtues in terms of leadership in the academy. Uh, for those of us who’ve embraced the Christian academic vocation, what virtues do you believe will allow us to be of greatest service to both the academy and then also to the Church?

Joe Creech: One of our graduate fellows asked me one time, just sort of in passing several years ago, why do we always talk about the connection of intellect and faith or faith in the academy? Why do we pick out faith and not love or hope? Why don’t we talk about what does it mean to integrate love and the academic vocation? And that sort of stuck with me, and I’ve wondered about that. So it’s a good question. I think I’ll fall in love in that point. 

I’ve learned so much from my colleagues in Catholic higher education. I’ve learned so much from the Jesuits about their sort of fearless translation of Christianity into different modes, and the Benedictines in their sensibility about stability and that institutions actually can be good. You know? Longevity can be good. We can tend to think in terms of centuries. 

A very dear friend of mine who’s a Benedictine monk up at Saint John’s in Minnesota wrote a benediction that we use at the end of all of our graduate fellows, and it says this, the love of God moves the universe. It’s our job to help it along.

That’s really become, to me, the sort of thing that encapsulates it for me. Where are we moving love along? And I mean, I can see why faith, because it had a sort of intellectual component to it, might might be the thing we gravitate to, but I become more and more convinced that that’s where we need to be setting our site.

Todd Ream: Wonderful words on which to end our time together today. Thank you.

Our guest has been Joseph Creech, the Executive Director of the Lilly Network for Church-Related Colleges & Universities. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and your wisdom with us.

Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven. 

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).


  • Exceptional interview, and though this series is strong throughout, this particular one could be used for all faculty across the ecumenical spectrum. I found myself smiling at several places, such as how schools (like Jesuits) would self-identify. Joe Creech is pleasantly fluid and conversant. I hope that both the center in Valpo and our CSR team are able to take clips from this to address specific questions (with quotable answers, like the three prisms).
    Too many one-liners to capture here, like “ . . . we are not building lazy rivers and climbing walls; we’re trying to pay staff.”
    Of course, the shout out to Jennings is apropos.
    “I’ll start by not answering your question . . .” hilarious
    Great summary of the Fellows/Network program.
    By the 14-min mark, I was struck with how relative and engaging this discussion is, and that it could be required of all faculty development committees. Joe’s articulation of actual experiences laced with philosophical moorings is inviting. At 22 minutes, I about fell over as he said it not just about being obsessed with Roman coins. . . Literally, I just spent time in the Museum of the Bible’s archives with hordes of Roman and Greek coins! Todd’s follow up about made me snort my coffee: “I was going to be studying Hittite today.”
    Delightful exchange and quick synapses: Todd Ream, “On what do good leaders spend most of their time?” Joe C., “Not sleeping!”
    I had not heard the adage—“Good administrators can speak faculty.” Resonates. And, they ask, “What am I not hearing? What am I not seeing?”
    The incarnational issue also resonates: the inherent need to engage reality (from Joe’s recounting of Flannery O’Connor’s discussion of Rayber [the cantankerous, secular school teacher and critic of religion in The Violent Bear It Away]). Also helpful is our friend Alister McGrath’s tandem charge that “Theology must be both intellectually interesting and existentially meaningful.”
    “The church-related university is where the Church goes to think” (a great adage, @ 35:50).
    Todd’s excellent question about the virtues evokes a rather timely response: We shouldn’t merely focus on “intellect” (or the academy) and faith instead of intellect and “love.” It reminded me of the rather gripping Super Bowl ad of “He Gets Us,” which Charlie Kirk immediately criticized and charged the messengers (and the funders) of going Woke. Implicit within the ad, however, is what Joe is suggesting—the emphasis on love. I discuss this topic in my LinkedIn post about the Rolling Stone’s article on these ads ( @JerryPattengale ).
    Very strong interview, framed by strong, timely questions.

    • Dave Lewycky, Sr. says:

      Ah! A reply at the established high level of the interview. Thank you.

      This was all well beyond what I can substantially digest in one view, but is there a point of connection that could also be made in the (somewhat recent?) move from STEM to STE[+a]M learning. In some ways it seems to resemble going back to some early developments of Christian higher education but now with the reintroduction of humanities, perhaps in a different domain. With your administrative backgrounds can you outline the current status quo?

      Feel free to respond with any humorous one-liners since that was already indeed dessert for this sabbath supper.