One in mission | Linda Valentine
Serving Christ by aiming high
President of PC(USA)-related women’s college urges students to make a difference
Higher education is the oldest form of Presbyterian Church mission beyond the congregation. “Wherever the Reformed community went,” John Leith wrote in his Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, “it established schools alongside the churches not only to teach the Bible or to teach reading and other skills to study the Bible but also to teach the whole range of liberal arts in order to liberate the human spirit.”
And true to the Reformed tradition’s spirit of free inquiry, the Presbyterian Church never prescribed what any of its schools had to be or do. Thus the diversity among our 72 Presbyterian-related secondary schools, colleges and universities reflects the diversity within our denomination.
“One of the things that I so appreciate about the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition is its strong commitment to education,” says Elizabeth Kiss, the eighth president of the Presbyterian-related Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. “John Calvin actually considered education, learning and inquiry as one of the central ways in which we can serve God.”
I met Elizabeth at the annual presidents conference of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities (APCU) earlier this year. A daughter of refugees who fled to the United States after the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Elizabeth grew up in the Hungarian Reformed Church and is a graduate of another of our related schools, Davidson (N.C.) College.
Since arriving at the women’s college in 2006, Elizabeth says that she has continued the work of her immediate predecessor, Mary Brown Bullock, to lift up the Presbyterian and Reformed heritage and to make it more visible on campus. For example, Agnes Scott has an endowed full-time chaplaincy—for which the chaplain is required to be a PC(USA) teaching elder (minister)—a new freestanding chapel and a new tradition, Agnes Scott Sunday, held at the school’s founding congregation, Decatur Presbyterian Church.
“It’s the church’s annual celebration of the relationship between the congregation and the college,” Elizabeth says. “We’re continually trying to figure out ways to speak in a way that will connect students today with what the core values of our founding are and how they continue to play out at Agnes Scott.”
Asking ‘Who will you become?’
A commitment to vocational discernment is also very much a part of the ethos of Agnes Scott. (See “Called by God,” page 17.) “We ask all of our students the question ‘Who will you become?’ because college or education in general is not in any narrow or limited sense about what kind of job you will have but rather ‘what you will stand for’ and ‘what gifts you will bring,’ ” Elizabeth says. “All of that is in the drinking water of Presbyterian colleges.”
Agnes Scott has another distinctive mission: to educate women. “The emphasis on women as decorative objects that is so pervasive in popular and peer culture so easily corrodes young women’s intellectual ambition and self-confidence,” Elizabeth says. “Women’s colleges are powerfully countercultural by saying and by communicating—not only through didactics but also through the whole ethos—that there are no limits to what you can do, and we expect you to aim high.”
Leading by her own powerful example, Elizabeth says, “At Agnes Scott there’s this sense that it’s cool to be smart and to be driven to make a difference as an agent in your life and in the world.”