I serve as pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia. The church bears that name because it is the name of the neighborhood in which our buildings are located: The Hill. This part of town is also known as Summerville.
Augusta is a good place to live if you plan to be sick. When I lived in the county seat town of Adel in South Georgia I had one doctor. Within two years of living in Augusta I had four. In all seriousness, we are blessed with fine medical facilities and many excellent doctors; I am grateful for the very good care that I receive. One of the main reasons that we have such good medical care is the presence in Augusta of the Medical College of Georgia (MCG). In addition to MCG, we are served by University Hospital, Doctors Hospital, and the Veterans Administration Hospital.
Then there is the hospital that is located right around the corner and up the street from our church, St. Joseph’s Hospital, which from its establishment in 1952 until a few months ago was a part of the Roman Catholic health care ministries. The hospital was recently sold to Triad Hospitals, Inc., which operates 54 hospitals in the U.S. St. Joseph’s has been renamed by the new owners; it is now known as Trinity Hospital of Augusta.
A line in the Augusta Chronicle’s story about the name change caught my eye. Sister Fran Voivedich, who is identified in the story as “one of three Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet still with the hospital,” said that while the hospital will no longer be Catholic, there will be a Christian presence. That got me to thinking about how effectively an institution can maintain a vital Christian identity when it no longer has an official connection with a sponsoring Christian denomination. I’m sure that the folks who are saying that they want to maintain a Christian presence at the hospital really mean it and are truly optimistic that it will be done. They’re going to have to work at it, though, because, it seems to me, it is all too easy for an institution not to maintain its historic Christian emphases once it does not have to do so because of an official relationship with a sponsoring denomination.
Some Baptist institutions with which I have been connected are dealing with similar situations. Belmont University, my former teaching home, is in the middle of a legal struggle with the Tennessee Baptist Convention (TBC) over who will have control of the institution. If it turns out that Belmont is no longer officially connected with the TBC, its leaders will, I believe, make a good faith effort to maintain a Christian identity for the school. Mercer University, my alma mater, has recently gone through a divorce from the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC). President Bill Underwood is being proactive about fostering and even expanding Mercer’s Christian identity. In fact, he is trying to lead Mercer to do something that no Baptist institution that has separated from its sponsoring denominational body has done: be intentionally Baptist when it doesn’t have to be anymore. Mercer is quickly becoming “Baptist Central”; the offices of the Baptist History and Heritage Society will soon be moving from Brentwood, Tennessee to Mercer’s Atlanta campus. The American Baptist Historical Collection is going to be housed in the same building as are the national offices of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The Mercer University Press offers an invaluable service in publishing works on Baptist history. Mercer has also established a program called Mercer on Mission through which students go on overseas mission trips in partnership with other Baptist groups. Mercer has also changed the by-laws of the University so that they state that the University President must be a Baptist and that a majority of trustees must be Baptist.
Still, I think such a road is a tough one to walk for an institution. Maintaining a Christian identity at an institution when it has no official relationship with a sponsoring body will require great commitment and diligence from leadership. Given the demands of leading such institutions, it is hard for leaders to continue to give the time and energy required to keep that Christian identity alive. I commend those who do try.
There is another side to this, though. A “longtime St. Joseph board member” named Preston Sizemore said that the Christian legacy of the hospital will be continued by the employees of the newly named Trinity Hospital. He said, “I think it’s been instilled in the employees through the years. Many of them have migrated to this hospital…because of the mission, health care through Christ.” He seems to hope that the influence of those employees who are committed to bringing their Christian identity and witness to bear on their work will keep that Christian identity alive. It is certainly true that it is in the witness of Christian people that a Christian presence is legitimately maintained.
I would go so far as to say that it is possible for the Christian witness to become stronger under St. Joseph’s/Trinity’s new situation and Mercer’s new circumstances. Sometimes it is too easy for an institution to let too much of its Christian identity begin and end with “we are affiliated with this denomination or this sponsoring body.” Maybe it’s a greater challenge with greater rewards when individual believers are willing to work at applying their faith in their daily work and especially in their interactions with patients or students.
Bearing the name “Christian” or “Baptist” or “Catholic” may or may not signify what is really at the heart of an institution. But having an atmosphere where faith is encouraged and nurtured and in which people are free to grow in their faith and to express it, not because of dollars that come through the pipeline but because of an institutional identity that is intentionally formed and embraced—that’s where some real growth, witness, and ministry can happen.