Baylor's Christian Commitment

A Q&A with President Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D.

Q: Baylor University was founded by Baptist pioneers in the 1840s and continues to be affiliated with the Baptist denomination. How has Baylor’s place within Baptist life evolved over the years, and how important is the ongoing relationship between Baylor and the Baptist General Convention of Texas? 

We are grateful to the Baptists who boldly decided to establish a university back in the days of the Republic of Texas. The historical connection between Baylor University and Texas Baptists is an important part of our heritage, and it remains so for many reasons. The two organizations care deeply about education and developing the spiritual life of people both within the state and around the world. 

One of the ways that we work collaboratively with the Baptist General Convention of Texas is through the governance of the University, with the BGCT nominating several members of our Board of Regents on an ongoing basis. In addition, the BGCT provides much-needed financial support for our students and several of our programs, particularly in Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Overall, the BGCT has been an indispensable friend and a constant source of institutional strength for Baylor.

The Seminary is closely tied to Texas Baptist life as we produce leaders who serve in ministry in churches across the state. In addition, a number of our Truett students serve in ministerial roles in churches, primarily in Central Texas while they are working on their degrees, and members of Truett’s faculty also preach in churches and sometimes serve congregations as interim pastors. Baylor also provides support for churches seeking permanent pastors to fill vacancies.

One last thing I will mention is our excitement about the growth and development of our Baptist Student Ministries and the engagement of our students in a range of Baptist student missions projects, which give them opportunities to minister both here on our campus and across the state and the world. Baylor has a long history in this area of Christian life and evangelism. In fact, the first mission trip sponsored by what we called the Baptist Student Union — an event that set a precedent for future generations — came when a group of students were invited to Hawaii soon after World War II to lead a week-long, citywide revival in Honolulu. That invitation paved the way for what became the BSU Summer Missions program, and over the years we have seen the number of our students participating in missions increase, especially in recent years.

Q: You recently attended the annual meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, representing Baylor. What was your experience there, and how meaningful was that time of fellowship? 

I greatly enjoyed attending the BGCT’s annual meeting, which was held in Galveston this year. We always host a Friends of Truett Dinner for our BGCT colleagues around the state who have a connection to the Seminary, whether they were Truett students or have provided support for Truett in other ways. That gathering is a wonderful opportunity to thank those members of the Baylor Family. We also hosted a breakfast for pastors with Baylor connections to update them on the progress we have made in pursuing the goals contained within Illuminate, our strategic plan, and to celebrate the great work that God is allowing us to do at Baylor.

In addition, this year the BGCT renewed the practice of hosting a breakfast for trustees and regents of Baptist colleges and universities across the state, and I had the pleasure of attending that event with several of our regents and visiting with others who are providing important leadership in Christian higher education. The Baptist institutions serving students and communities in our state is very diverse, and having the opportunity to gather in fellowship with them and share perspectives on issues was very meaningful.

The BGCT’s support of higher education in Texas is longstanding and impactful, and the many gatherings and interactions that occur at the annual meeting are really a reflection of that broader partnership.

Q: As a Christian institution, Baylor welcomes students from a variety of backgrounds, including different religious faiths. How does Baylor balance that Christian hospitality with practicing and advocating traditional Baptist principles? 

An important part of Baylor’s mission to prepare men and women for worldwide service and leadership is equipping them with the skills and experiences they need to make a difference in diverse communities across the nation and around the globe. On our campus, that means having an environment that reflects our surrounding world and in which students can study, make friends and develop as well-rounded individuals who are accustomed to being among people from many different backgrounds.

At the same time, at Baylor we are grounding that diverse, collegiate experience in the values of our Christian faith. We strongly believe in the value of faith formation as a component of the educational experience, and we encourage students to think seriously about their faith and how it plays out in a diverse community. We encourage our students to understand that, as Christians, we are called to care for, love, respect and engage with others around us, even those with backgrounds or beliefs that differ from ours. In doing so, we are practicing the inclusivity that was central to Jesus’ ministry. He brought everyone to him and ministered to everyone, and He calls us to do the same. Accordingly, at Baylor we are fostering an environment in which loving your neighbor as yourself, as we are encouraged to do in Mark 12:30-31, is instilled as primary value and is actively practiced.

Q: You began attending Baptist churches during your college years at Oklahoma State University. What elements of Baptist theology and spiritual practice have been most important to you in serving in a leadership role at Baylor?

I grew up in the Methodist tradition and, as you mentioned, began attending a Baptist church, University Heights Baptist Church, while I was a college student in Stillwater. University Heights was very close to campus, and my basketball teammates and I attended regularly. My husband Brad and I worshiped there when we started dating, so naturally it remains a special church to us today.

When I think about the Baptist church experiences I have had, including our membership in Calvary Baptist Church here in Waco, two of the things I most appreciate about the Baptist tradition are the role of community and the importance of the local church. Related to that is an emphasis on the value of prayer. Through the years, having a church community that supports and prays for its members has been crucially important to my spiritual development and my work on a daily basis. I also value the traditional Baptist belief in the priesthood of the believer. We each have a responsibility, as individuals, to study scripture and ascertain its meaning and relevance to our lives.

A strong grounding in scripture has been important to me as a person, as well as in my role as president of Baylor. When we are establishing plans for the future direction of the University, we work diligently to ensure that our discernment is grounded in biblical principles and scripture. For example, the foundation on which our strategic plan, Illuminate, was built is Matthew 5:14-16, which in part reads, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” We wanted Baylor’s strategic plan to be one that advances our students educationally, establishes high academic standards, and supports our faculty’s research and scholarly activities, but we don’t want to do so simply for the sake of improving our academic reputation. Instead, we are pursuing the goals found in Illuminate in order to use the gifts God has given us to impact the world and glorify Him. 

Q: What is the Faith and Character Study and how is it important in Baylor’s efforts to remain true to its Christian principles and Baptist heritage?

The Faith and Character Study is a longitudinal study that, for several years now, has surveyed new students, seniors and alumni who are several years out from their time at Baylor. Over time, we will follow students through that entire pathway of experience.

Through this study, we are trying to assess and understand which practices and spiritual life programming have the most impact on our students’ faith and character formation. We want our students to grow in their faith and develop those aspects of their character that will allow them to make a difference in the world, and so we are using the results of the survey to modify and improve what we’re doing on our campus in these important areas. This year will be the first time that individuals who have participated in the study as new students will be answering the survey as seniors, and we are very excited about acquiring data that details how their perspectives have changed during their four years on our campus.

What we do currently know, from having conducted this survey for a few years now, is that 93 percent of new Baylor students and seniors identify with a religious tradition, which tells us that our students are actively engaged in their spiritual life. In addition, 50 percent of Baylor students attend religious services at least once per week, compared to 30 percent of the U.S. population. Of course, we would like to increase this percentage, but that level of church attendance does speak to the importance of communal worship among our student body. This survey has revealed to us the importance of the local church in the spiritual development of students. As a result, we are actively partnering with our local churches to develop ways for our students to connect with a local church family, where they can feel cared for, nurtured and loved while they are here at Baylor.

One of the other things we have learned from the Faith and Character Study — which is influencing our approach to Chapel and our required classes in religion, Christian Heritage and Christian Scriptures — is that new students are lower on Bible belief and reading than seniors or alumni. Similarly, new students have reported attending religious services about weekly but reading the Bible less than once a month, while seniors and alumni read the Bible two to three times a month. 

Q: You mentioned Chapel, which generations of Baylor students have experienced over the years. What is the role of this requirement in the context of Baylor’s faith formative practices?

We view Chapel as a significant component of the spiritual formation programming we offer students. In fact, I consider Chapel’s success to be so important that I made it one of my self-evaluation goals that is reviewed by the Board of Regents. As we learn from the Faith and Character Study what is most important to students, we have undertaken a reevaluation of how we offer Chapel to ensure we are presenting the gospel in Chapel in a manner that is consistent with Baylor’s overall spiritual life programming, that reflects our Baptist heritage and that helps students develop wherever they happen to be on the continuum of faith development. 

So far, we have had great success with this initiative by moving to a model that provides more options for Chapel than existed in the past. Rather than offering only one big Chapel, where students hear the same message regardless of where they are personally in their faith and personal interests, we now allow students to choose from a variety of options in both size and substance. Among these options are morning and evening prayer services in our residential communities, as well as chapel studies that engage students in small group discipleship and are centered around students’ common academic interests, such as pre-health fields. In addition, we are continuing to offer Chapel in an online format because we have found it works very well for a certain segment of our student body. The feedback from students and faculty alike has been very positive, indicating we are having success in meeting students where they are and helping them develop their faith more fully. We want every student to have a positive experience through Chapel.

We also still have what we call “big Chapel” as well, of course, but we are working to align it with our Christian Heritage classes, so as students are proceeding through their academic study they also are engaging in similar themes and biblical texts in Chapel. That kind of reinforcement strengthens the overall impact of our work in this important area.

Q: How does becoming an R1 research institution reflect Baylor’s Christian mission and the vision of the University’s Baptist founders?

If you go back to the 1840s, when Baylor was founded in Independence by those Baptist pioneers, you find that they used some remarkable language in describing their goals and hopes for the University, and that description remains foundational to us today. They said they wanted to create “a Baptist university in Texas upon a plan so broad that the requirements of existing conditions would be fully met and that would be susceptible of enlargement and development to meet the demands of all ages to come.”

What a remarkable vision — to recognize that what Baylor could mean to the world and what students would need would change over time.

When we consider our aspirations today to be the preeminent Christian research university in the world, we believe we are pursuing this goal in fulfillment of the vision of our Baptist founders. We have been blessed at Baylor with amazing leadership and outstanding faculty, staff and students over the years, as well as with resources that have allowed us to grow and develop into the largest Baptist university in the world and one of the truly exceptional universities in the United States. We believe it is our responsibility, as Christians, to be good stewards of the blessings God has given us and to use them to advance His Kingdom.

Reaching R1 status as a top-tier research university is not only about the academic benefit it brings to the University or the prestige of such a status. Our pursuit of exceptional research gives us the ability to have a greater impact on the world for Christ. Baylor is not only producing amazing students who go out and lead and serve around the world, making a difference on important issues while sharing their faith, but we also are supporting our faculty who are doing research that addresses some of the world’s most difficult problems. These initiatives range from expanding programs in health, data sciences and materials science to Baylor in Latin America and human flourishing, leadership and ethics. 

A specific recent example would be the launch of the Global Flourishing Study, a massive research project that aims to uncover what it means to live well and to thrive around the world. This study is a partnership between Baylor, Harvard University, Gallup and the Center for Open Science, under the leadership of our own Byron Johnson, Ph.D. At $43.4 million, this study is the largest funded research project in Baylor history, but its impact will be transformational and worldwide.

At Baylor, we seek to nurture human flourishing and to see the light of Christ in the work that we do. We view this as a calling and as a stewardship of what God has so abundantly given us through the support of the Baylor Family.