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In light of Christina Littlefield’s letter that was made public to the Pepperdine community in September, the Graphic article released on the Hub 2.0 on Oct. 2, and Olivia Robinson’s article released after her resignation from the Hub for Spiritual Life on Oct. 12, I am compelled to speak on behalf of my own experiences as a former assistant chaplain in the Hub for Spiritual Life.
I have not spoken up prior to my resignation from the University on Jan. 3, 2023. However, since I resigned from the Hub for Spiritual Life on Aug. 1 and transitioned into a role in Student Affairs, there has been a lot of speculation concerning the changes in leadership that occurred over the summer, less than one year after the Hub for Spiritual Life was established.
I would like to take this opportunity to speak to my own experiences now that I am no longer an employee at Pepperdine but still care deeply about the well being of the community as a recent alumni.
Sara Barton’s unwarranted and sudden removal from her position as the associate vice president of Spiritual Life with no substantive explanation to members of the Hub staff in June discouraged meaningful dialogue among lower staff members, let alone informed dissent against the administrator who removed her.
However on Sept. 22, I sent a letter outlining my concerns to President Jim Gash and the Board of Regents. This letter was never acknowledged by Gash. I was also strongly encouraged by another University administrator not to share my reasoning for resigning with the Graphic when I was asked to do an interview in September following my resignation from the Hub for Spiritual Life in August.
Additionally, since I resigned in August, several other women have resigned from their positions in the Hub for Spiritual Life. I am writing this letter to share my own story but also to highlight the systemic abuse of power that has occurred without a collaborative and diversified framework for leadership in place.
I know there are others who have stories to share, and it is for that reason that I am speaking up. This is not just a Pepperdine issue, it is a systemic issue in the church and Christian institutions at large. Christian institutions are ripe for abuses of power due to the hierarchical nature of leadership. No Christian institution is perfect, but Pepperdine can and should be better, and this starts from the top down.
My hope in coming forward now is to contribute to bringing clarity and healing to a situation that requires further investigation. I recognize that my voice only represents a piece of the larger narrative. I am leaving Pepperdine deeply grateful for the people who have poured into me and who have shown me that following Jesus does not mean passive peacekeeping but rather active peacemaking. They are the reason I am speaking up. My hope is not to be divisive or to share stories that aren’t mine, but to contribute to the dialogue surrounding spiritual life in a meaningful way.
Prior to becoming a staff member, in the summer of 2021, I graduated from Pepperdine with an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a minor in Hispanic Studies in 2020 and recently graduated from the M.S. in Ministry program this fall. Pepperdine felt like a community that welcomed me wherever I was in my faith.
In June 2022, after serving in Spiritual Life as an assistant chaplain for one year under the direction of Barton’s leadership, Vice President Danny DeWalt communicated to the team in an email that he had attached a brief update on some structural adjustments that the University was making in order to “provide for alignment with the University strategic plan and work/life balance among our team.”
There were no further “structural” changes made after the removal of Barton, and it became clear to me that there was more to this decision than the desire to create a culture where work/life balance was a priority. DeWalt did not elaborate as to why Barton was removed following the email sent to the Hub staff. This left the team floundering to move forward, preparing for the school year without a leader in place and no explanation as to why this occurred.
In mid-July the team gathered for a retreat. It was at this time that the stark change in leadership became apparent as DeWalt shared that the President’s Office had given him the authority to serve as the interim leader.
As the University’s theme of joy was shared with the team throughout the retreat, I observed that the language used to describe joy seemed oversimplified — it did not leave room for the complexity of human emotion which is seen all throughout Scripture and most prominently in the Psalms. To hear joy characterized in this way by an upper administrator demonstrated to me that our role as chaplains living into the theme of joy would more closely resemble that of toxic positivity, which negates the complexity of human emotion and our ability to experience both lament and joy as people of faith.
Having spent a significant amount of time studying the spirituality of emerging adulthood throughout grad school and working closely with college students, I was disheartened by how the theme was being conveyed to the team. Given the current mental health crisis and the rising rates of depression, anxiety and suicide amongst college students, this depiction of joy was unsettling, and it seemed antithetical to other university initiatives to foster psychological and spiritual resilience within the community.
When Olivia Robinson resigned from her role in the Hub for Spiritual Life in October, she shared that DeWalt used the analogy of a firehose to describe the Kingdom of God during this retreat. Besides being a stark contrast to the “mustard seed” Jesus used to describe the Kingdom of God, this racially charged language impacted several black members on our team, as this metaphor was a reminder of the Civil Rights Movement when firefighters sprayed fire hoses against protestors. It demonstrated that the new vision for spiritual life on campus was akin to power and influence. By the end of the retreat, it seemed that the new vision for spiritual life was not one of collaboration but one of authority.
I know that leadership is incredibly hard and that spiritual leaders are under an immense amount of pressure to live according to a higher standard. No leader is going to be free of bias — we all have blindspots in our thinking and our theology. But this can be mitigated by having a collaborative and diversified team in place where there is accountability for those in the highest levels of leadership. Yet after the retreat, I was left questioning where Pepperdine was headed. And I was left questioning whether Pepperdine was affirming of women leading in ministry.
Barton’s leadership experience, collaborative and ecumenical ministry framework, nuanced understanding of the Churches of Christ, and theological education had been formative to laying the foundations for the Hub to exist less than one year ago. To see this shift occur without any dialogue was troubling to observe. I felt called to work in spiritual life as a chaplain under Barton’s leadership because it was clear to me that our role was to be a chaplain to all of our students. This commitment to extend hospitality to all of our students seemed lost to me and was instead being replaced by what appeared to be a unilateral approach to faith and spiritual life programming that catered to a certain brand of Christian student.
Yet the Pepperdine student body is spiritually diverse, and approximately 13% of students are “nones” meaning they are not affiliated with any faith tradition or spiritual community. My younger sister, who is not a Pepperdine student but is a college student, is one of those “nones.” I know my sister is one of many nones across college campuses who would find the current spiritual life programs being prioritized in the Hub to be a repellant rather than a resource for cultivating a curiosity for faith. It is because of her and the many other nones that I know at Pepperdine that we have to be better. If the Hub for Spiritual Life isn’t a place where students are free to wrestle and share their honest doubts and spiritual struggles, are we really living into the vision that the truth has nothing to fear from investigation?
The intersection of faith and intellect is foundational to what makes Pepperdine the institution that it is — an institution rooted in the belief that truth has nothing to fear from investigation. I would hope all students feel welcome to wrestle and seek truth regardless of their faith background, especially considering that the National Study of Youth and Religion identified that “a third of US adults under the age of thirty don’t identify with a religion.” While I believe that many staff in the HSL do care about the nones, it is because of the top-down leadership in place, that I am concerned about the spiritual and psychological well-being of all of our students.
It is my hope that abiding and non-complacent peace can be seen in the Pepperdine community, but not at the expense of diversity of thought, collaborative thinking, and deep theological and spiritual formation into the likeness of Christ. I owe much of my faith development to the faculty and staff I’ve been able to do life with in the Pepperdine community over the past five and half years. Yet I am leaving the university questioning what Pepperdine will stand for in the years to come.
Several women have left the Hub for Spiritual Life since the “restructure” which resulted in the removal of Barton. While there are other grievances that have taken place since I left spiritual life that directly impact our students and our community at large, attention has been redirected on the search for a new leader for spiritual life– I am left wondering how the university got here.
I am concerned about the way in which Barton was removed without clear reasoning for such a disruptive transition that drastically shifted the direction of the Hub for Spiritual Life. Why is there no accountability for leaders at the highest level of the institution, let alone a Christian institution that values unity and the holistic well being of all members of the community?
Pepperdine is a place that prides itself on valuing the inherent worth and dignity of all people. If that’s true, Pepperdine must create space for the voices of those who have historically been exempt from positions of power.
Pepperdine claims to be a place that values the pursuit of truth. If this is true, the truth must be sought collaboratively, not just by those holding the highest positions of power at the university.
Pepperdine claims to be a place that is hospitable to students of all faith backgrounds. If this is true, resources should be allocated accordingly to reflect the pursuit of an ecumenical and spiritually diverse community that aligns with the university’s commitment to cultivate an inclusive community.
Actions speak louder than words, and Pepperdine can do better. I’m leaving the University incredibly grateful for the relationships I’ve formed with faculty and staff in the classroom, through the University Church of Christ, and through my time as a staff member.
I’m speaking up because of the ways Pepperdine and the people there have contributed to the holistic formation of my faith. This formation was not a result of a formula but a result of people being willing to step into the messy places of doubt and spiritual struggle with me. Pepperdine is a place that claims to welcome dialogue on potentially divisive issues.
Since I resigned, I have not felt that there was space to speak up, especially from myself, as one of the four women who left spiritual life in the midst of a top down restructuring that left little room for collaborative dialogue. Based on the nature of these concerns, it was challenging to discern who to share this information with. My hope and prayer is that if Pepperdine is prioritizing the truth, then leadership should have no fear of investigation and would welcome further dialogue on the restructuring of spiritual life since it is an integral part of the University’s mission and vision.
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