PCC encouraged the advisory boards below to share this information with others. While tempted to shorten this piece to save readers’ time, I believe the information is valuable to paint a picture of what is happening today at Pensacola Christian College.
Pensacola Christian College (PCC) hosted an Advisory Board in March of this year, which I wrote about here. These men and women were invited, all expenses paid, to discuss the perception of the college and changes to better the school. My sources who attended as advisors informed me that the advisory panel consisted of the core alumni demographic of PCC’s customers: pastors and Christian school administrators who purchase PCC’s Christian school curriculum, A Beka Book, the most popular Christian curriculum in the world.
In addition to their curriculum, A Beka Book hosts 60,000 high school students through the Pensacola Christian Academy online program. Their online program alone is five times larger than my town in Colorado. People often ask why spotlight a small Christian college in the panhandle of Florida that enrolls only a few thousand college students. They don’t see that PCC is the single-greatest influence in fundamentalist and evangelical families today around the globe. Under its tutelage for most of my education, I had no idea the depth and breadth of historical Christian thought, much less other worldviews in tension in modern society, that PCC censored and ignored.
At the March meeting, advisors shared opinions with two common themes. Some advisors admired how PCC remained committed to its fundamentalist roots. PCC, they advised, should not deviate. Others commented that because of PCC’s checkered past, they discouraged their own students from attending the college. My sources informed me that it seemed like PCC showed genuine concern about finally changing, not only their reputation, but their philosophy of controlling student thought and behavior.
The advisors also addressed the Campus Church issue. Currently, students have no option in attending other churches. All PCC students must attend the official college’s “church” for three services a week or face punishment. Yet, at the March meeting, the question arose: Was the Campus Church a real church, even by PCC’s own teaching? During the meeting the PCC administrators acknowledged, after 40 years as an institution, that the Campus Church is not a “real church.” I believe an apology would be appropriate given that for the last 40 years, PCC has deprived students committing to a church outside their control, has barred the doors for students wanting a way to serve with their spiritual gifts.
A few comments during this meeting indicated that my PCC videos (My PCC videos, which chronicle my story of spiritual abuse, were released in 2012) and our growing conversation online has reached the PCC administration. Administators know about our efforts to exhort PCC to examine itself; they hear the online stories of alumi, all of which prompted these Advisory Boards. They are realizing that those critical of PCC are not bitter people, but concerned alumni who want PCC to come clean and make substantial changes, not just strike a few rules.
The fruit of that March Advisory Board? An October Advisory Board.
In attendance this time, PCC expanded its invitation to alumni “professionals” (their term used to describe professionals that PCC views as safe, successful in their fields, and the kind of adults PCC would promote to prospective college students) and, not just administrators, but chairs of the various academic departments around campus. The administration wanted the long-time faculty to hear for themselves the issues from respected alumni. The issues are not easily dismissed as the bitter rants of “compromisers with the world” but come from a desire to see PCC practice what it claims to value: helping students become Christian adults.
Dr. Troy Shoemaker, PCC’s current president, who took over from the founder in 2013, led both Advisory Board meetings in March and October. His consistent theme was “normalizing” the campus. Normalizing language, I believe, softens the need for change, a softening Dr. Shoemaker needs if he is to keep casualties at a minimum while making longterm changes. I see “normalizing” as a transition word while PCC’s still tries to appeal to those pastors and Christian school leaders who are growing skeptical of buying A Beka curriculum and sending prospective students. The appeal to “normalize” means, in part, allowing students to do on campus what they’d be allowed to do in their fundamentalists homes and churches, like talk to the opposite sex outside in public. Currently, the college has implemented some changes, including relaxing where and when the opposite sex can talk (symbolized by tables and chairs littered along common areas on campus). These are set up in places once forbidden to say “hello” to the opposite sex.
With Shoemaker’s plans for normalizing the campus, PCC began to set policy for students who experience trauma, abuse, or other types harm. Students will now be encouraged to consult with third party counsel and advocates who are not affiliated with the college. Whether students are lulled to merely trust the college or to use a “unChristian” third party will come clear over time. But at least the college recognizes the need.
PCC heard criticism of its culture in the March and October meetings. Dr. Shoemaker admitted that “mistakes were made” but remained tight-lipped in naming any. To what extent the college is willing to admit specific systemic problems is pending. The advisors were divided over whether the college should apologize to former students, faculty and staff whom they mistreated. Thankfully, the majority of the October advisors told PCC that it should apologize for its history! Regardless, the advisors unanimously agreed that PCC should give a statement about it’s change.
I see no reason for a statement of change without a confession, though a statement implies a confession. PCC has never allowed their students to say they have changed without putting them through confession, which often included interrogations and expelling students on dubious grounds. I would ask that PCC practices what it preaches.
PCC admits to being isolationist rather than restorative in its dealings with students and the general public. Advisors heard of current students whose offenses would have been met with immediately expulsion. These students are now receiving counsel and guidance to overcome their addictions. The quality of the counsel is questionable but that some struggling students are no longer automatic outcasts is improvement. In March, Shoemaker admitted the current disciplinary approach was retributive-based rather than discipleship based and hinted the demerit system will likely disappear in the future.
Dr. Shoemaker said the messaging to students regarding rules has shifted to rules being about order rather than about morality. You can be the judge as you read how PCC communicates its rules and justifications, if any, in the handbook. For example, “not shaving”, while a violation of the campus rules, is not a sin against God, Dr. Shoemaker said. I appreciate this new emphasis on the messaging, yet I admit that people often said that on campus in my day, too. As a student I heard that keeping the rules are home were not a requirement, though they sometimes did fudge on that idea, punishing students who violated student code while on break.
PCC maintains this damaging view: to disobey a rule given by your “authority” is to disobey God.
If you are tempted, like many, to say critics of PCC are hung up on rules, please at least read this paragraph. The lynchpin about rule breaking was never the rules. The damaging view, which still exists, is that to disobey a rule given by your “authority” is to disobey God. PCC may say that certain rules are nor moral, but that does not change the problem. For PCC, non-conformity means rebellion and sin, no matter what rule you violated. In my day, PCC’s founder said that the rules were in place so that students can put their heads on their pillows with a clean conscience. While our consciences were clean from dancing and fornicating (but not clean from hypocrisy and fear), my (and other’s) sensitive conscience remained troubled over insignificant things. We struggled over trivial things, because the most trivial of violations became rebellion against God-ordained authority. God was behind all PCC’s rules, we believed. And this built-in assumption steered all rule-giving, rule-following and shaming in the student life offices. We were taught Romans 13–the “powers that be are ordained by God.” That included PCC, our God-ordained college and its power.
While the last couple of years has seen increased enrollment, the ministerial divisions on campus are in decline, particularly pastoral and missionary majors. One advisor shared concern that PCC only included certain majors as missionaries, rather than every major. Dr. Shoemaker acknowledged the point as legitimate concern. As a student, I saw mission, education, and Bible majors paraded to the front of the Campus Church and applauded by the rest of us for their commitment to heed God’s “calling” to “full time Christian work.” But majors in other departments were never celebrated as missionaries.
In addition, even as advisors expressed the hardships many alumni have to gain public school positions, PCC continues to have no plans for regional accreditation. I thought it positively transparent when PCC’s admitted that A Beka Books is the bread and butter, hence PCC encourages their education majors to teach in places that use the curriculum. I think you see how this and the preceding paragraph are consistent with one of PCC’s weaknesses. By not viewing missions as a call to minister in the marketplace and refusing to recognize how all their students are missionaries, PCC business model keeps their students unequipped for ministry in the public marketplace while strategizing toward financial self-interest. This policy is not a matter of principle but pragmatics. I see a confusion of serving God and mammon.
The best bit of news for me was hearing that Dr. Shoemaker admits the campus needs to be geared towards students, rather than students shaped to fit the college. In that vein, he is admitting in a roundabout way that the long history of censorship may one day be overturned, giving place to inviting speakers, college-run newspapers, disagreements in the classrooms (yes, PCC admitted to censorship in their classrooms, too) and public forums on topics around campus once considered taboo. Behind these closed doors, PCC even realizes that Liberty University’s recent visit of Bernie Sanders was the type of event PCC students need as well. They are realizing Pensacola Christian College needs to act like it values a liberal arts education.
As the Advisory Board spoke informally together they came to a consensus that they felt heard. PCC validated many of their concerns, not always with solutions, but with the question of “What would change look like?”
That’s a question for all of us.
In the coming weeks, I’ll write a proposal of the changes I believe PCC must undergo to minimize the damage of spiritual abuse and create a climate that allows freedom for those who seek it.
If God honors the years we have been praying for PCC, and if PCC allows these meetings to influence the future, a new day may be dawning. Nevertheless, I see the battle for reform ahead of us. The old-guard are uncomfortable with “normalizing,” uneasy with the current student freedoms, even though infractions on campus are in decline because students feel more respected. Change of heart is always the key to change of policy. We pray the old guard will have some Damascus Road experiences, trading in a stony past for a softer heart.
Another uphill battle remains among PCC alumni who defend PCC’s dysfunctions. In our sphere of influence, Freedom Builders will keep talking, knowing that healing abused Christians isn’t merely about helping PCC, but getting a crippled Church back on her legs to take her place as a light to the world.
A summary of my takeaways from the March and October reports:
1. PCC appears to be listening. This feels like a significant change, though slightly suspect as it’s such a new posture. As PCC listens to confessions of problems in these meetings, directly and indirectly, I see their posture as positive.
2. PCC’s struggles with maintaining their financial engine while simultaneously considering the college experience. If PCC continues to refuse regional accreditation, most programs of the college are periphery to a larger aim. If PCC shifted focus toward the traditional aim of the university, which is integrating education to make a whole person for the benefit of society, they could serve their students better. As it is, the school remains distracted by the A Beka Book business as it uses its students to develop a diversified network of cash flow.
3. PCC needs to issue an apology that exemplifies the gospel: admitting vulnerably to real systemic wrongs, making amends, and implementing changes to prevent wrongs in the future. The apology needs to be the kind that will satisfy the burnt and bruised and not just a token apology that PCC-Defenders to throw in victim’s faces. This would set an example to similar colleges, churches, schools, and families around the country and the world and ripple into much needed soul-searching.
4. PCC overly worries about appearances. After the sessions in March, some of the advisors went to chapel to hear the guest speaker preach on the importance of a good testimony. Students are drilled with keeping up appearances (see my video). Their evangelistic message is centered on this key component and the result is a culture of fear and hypocrisy.
5. PCC needs to overcome its sacred/secular split in the way it views Christian vocation. All Christians from veterinarians, to plumbers, to babysitters, to public school teachers are missionaries, lights, beacons of life, love, and hope. Respect ought to be given to all those pursuing their vocations to the glory for God. All obedience to God is brave no matter what it is.
6. PCC-Defenders need to listen to their own alma mater and support change rather than attack critics. PCC is not passing from one God-glorifying dispensation to another. In truth, PCC is admitting problems. Healing changes are in the air. May PCC reconcile with the countless alumni whose souls it has damaged and discarded in God’s name.
In the coming weeks, I’ll offer answers to the president’s question, “What would that look like?” Be thinking on this question, too and feel free to offer ideas in the comments. As alumni, we are all advisors, whether we are invited to share on campus or not.