Dr. John Cogdell is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas, Austin, where he has been for 32 years. He also serves as the under-graduate advisor and associate chairman of his department. Cogdell obtained his Ph.D. from M.I.T.
Every believer in Jesus Christ has a calling and a place of ministry. Most Christian professors realize they have a unique opportunity and position of influence at the university, but often they become distracted by other ministry opportunities in their church or community. Helping professors see the campus as their primary "mission field" and increasing their effectiveness at the university are major goals of Christian Leadership Ministries.
This is not an anti-church message because (1) local churches exhort their members to go into the world to be salt and light, rather than confining ministry to within the church walls; (2) most local churches would joyfully ratify a professor's calling to focus ministry time and effort on campus, and this blessing and confirmation should be actively sought. As a professor, ask yourself, "What am I doing as ministry in the church that some other church member could do? What could I do to minister on campus that no one else in my church could do because of my position as a professor?"
A few years ago, Dr. John Cogdell of the University of Texas, Austin, was commissioned by his church in recognition of his ministry efforts on the campus as a Christian professor. It was a powerful statement to Cogdell and the church congregation. The following two interviews, first with Cogdell and then with his pastor, explore the benefits of the church officially recognizing the ministry efforts of a Christian professor, and explore the calling of the Christian professor in general.
RI: Have you been a Christian throughout your career as a university faculty member?
Cogdell: Yes. I became a Christian between my junior and senior year here at the University of Texas, Austin, in 1957. I entered into the teaching profession with a sense that this is something to which God had called me.
It goes back to a man who discipled me here on campus. He was not actually a faculty member; he was employed in a research laboratory on campus. I've never met anybody more brilliant than this man; he was a model in the intellectual realm as well as the spiritual. He and his wife nurtured the InterVarsity group here for many years. I was a part of that and spent much time in their home. So that was the model for me; I came back to Austin from M.I.T. to do for others what they had done for me.
It didn't work out, actually, for us to have an open home where students come frequently and we share meals and disciple them; that has not been as much a part of the picture. However, that was the paradigm I had in mind in regard to serving God in a university setting.
RI: Has your perspective of ministry on campus been modified over the years?
Cogdell: Yes. I'll have to preface this by saying that I'm somewhat shy and I tend to need people's approval. I haven't been a risk-taker, so I'm not naturally well-equipped to be a bold witness. But Christian Leadership Ministries has really helped me, and having fellowship with other Christian faculty members has helped me. I feel that at least on the first day of class I can tell my students that I became a Christian--that my faith has been the real driving focus of my life. I do this because of the encouragement of CLM and people like Rae Mellichamp, Walter Bradley and others.
There have been some changes. My main calling has been to work within a Christian faculty fellowship and not so much to give leadership. I'm not a leader--I'm not a visionary nor a person that can get people interested in something. But I am a worker, and so I've basically been the one who has kept up the email list--the one who's mailed out the stuff. I support Christian activities among the faculty, and act, to some degree, as a resource for the Christian community here in Austin.
For example, we're doing another Veritas Forum this fall. I've made contacts; I've been the one who's been the visible person on the campus to deal with the administration. I like busy work like that.
I'm willing to take my time and energy to do things that help Christian activities. Also, I "show up" for events. I'm appalled at how few people show up for worthwhile Christian activities. "Showing up" is not leadership, but it's faithfulness in a way.
I guess I feel I'm called to be faithful to certain simple things I can do to further the increase of God's Kingdom on this campus. I'm not a leader, but the simple truth is that people do view me as the leader because I do a little bit.
RI: Tell me about the events leading up to your commissioning as a Christian professor.
Cogdell: The church had elders for a long time and they wanted to broaden the leadership in the church, so they appointed some deacons. They felt I was spiritually equipped to be a deacon, but they knew, or I said, that I was called to serve God on the campus; that's where my work is. So they ordained me as a deacon, but without any responsibilities in regard to the church. It was a recognition; it was an equipping of me spiritually--ordaining me to serve the Lord on campus. There's really not a lot of visibility that came with the recognition. But I feel it was a spiritually empowering event because when the church lays hands on a person and prays for them and sets them apart for a certain work of God, things happen; God does His part.
When Paul and Barnabas were ordained, or sent forth from the church in Antioch, the people laid hands on them and set them apart for the work to which God had called them. I think Paul and Barnabas already knew their call and this was the church simply confirming it.
Is the church supposed to be equipping people for the ministry or not? The church really should be equipping people to go out in the world and have a ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit. It's so freeing and empowering to have the church recognize your calling and set you apart for it, just as they would a missionary to Africa.
RI: Is there a balance for a faculty member to reach between church and campus ministry opportunities?
Cogdell: People need to hear what God has called them to do and be. No doubt many Christian faculty members have a terrific anointing to teach in the church--perhaps even children. I don't see how there is a question of balance. I know in my case I am fed and empowered by the church and I go there for worship and fellowship, but not for service. I fill up my tank at church and then I work on the campus.
RI: What of those who say their ministry at church precludes ministry on the campus?
Cogdell: Certainly all of us need to be continually seeking the Lord. I can't throw rocks at anybody for being spiritually dull because we can all be more in touch with what God is doing.
It's certainly more comfortable for most of us to operate in church, in a Christian context, than in the somewhat more hostile environment of the campus. I did make a transition to deal with Christians on campus, but I really have not done a lot to challenge the prevailing philosophies here. I greatly admire people who can do that. I mentioned Walter Bradley before; I think Walter is able to do that. Phillip Johnson would be the paragon of someone who can operate on any level and in any environment on campus and challenge, from a Christian perspective, the orthodoxy in any area.
RI: Are there ways in which a church can be involved in a professors' campus calling?
Cogdell: The support I've received from Hope Chapel has been mostly clerical: using its copying machines and other church property. But I haven't been aggressive in seeking support. I have an email group to which I send out information, and pastor Dan Davis was in that group, so he knew what we were doing on campus.
RI: What about financial help?
Cogdell: I'm very wary of that because of the strict rules of the university. Any Christian work on campus, in my opinion, should be done with the initiative of Christian faculty and students. For example, I raised funds for the Veritas Forum event here through Christian faculty and Christian alumni of the university. I did not seek any help from churches. I do what I can to keep things within the boundaries of UT policy.
RI: How can professors help churches recognize their calling on campus?
Cogdell: I think the first thing they ought to do is become involved on campus. Then if they are asked to do things that are not a part of their calling, they can explain what they're doing and how God has called them to that. And that's true for any Christian; they should involve themselves in what God has called them to do and not allow themselves to be distracted by others.
It's very important to have God's call in your life confirmed. People should sense that the church is there to encourage them to go out into the world and minister.
RI: Is it appropriate for professors to give updates in the church about their work on campus?
Cogdell: I've never done much by way of reporting to the church, but it would be appropriate to ask for five minutes to stand up and ask for prayer concerning an event, for example. After all, the campus is a particularly strategic part of our society--and it is vital to the future of Christ's work in the world.