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Psych prof gains new passion for God, research, students

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following story is part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

LIBERTY, Mo. (BP)–When Dr. Patricia Schoenrade interviewed for a teaching position at William Jewell College, she remembers giving a very dispassionate answer to an important question: “What does it mean to be a Christian?”

“I remember saying something about Christ as the Savior of the world and the ultimate example for living.” As of that day in 1989, she confesses, Christ was a matter of the head and not the heart.

Schoenrade was hired as professor of psychology at William Jewell, her clinical response to the question notwithstanding, and she continues to teach at the Liberty, Mo., campus. But in 1998, when God revealed Himself to her as “an incredible lover who invites us toward Himself in any way He can,” her life and her teaching took on the meaning and purpose she had long sought.

Although raised in a nominal Christian home, she was involved in various Christian groups while growing up. She even married a clergyman and understood her role as one of serving God because she was serving other people. If anyone lived as kindly as possible, she thought at the time, he or she must be a Christian.

“Helping to keep a small church together, directing a small choir, teaching Sunday School — all of these could be recognized as good and helpful and ‘nice.’ The approval of others was something for which to strive,” she said. “But there is a prideful way of approaching service, and I’m afraid that applied to at least some of the ways I responded to that role.”

A curiosity about God and life’s deeper questions had always been a part of her life. Her father’s love of the outdoors –- walks in the woods and camping trips -– stirred in her a simple wonder of nature, along with special family memories. But she had a sense that there was more to experience beyond nature’s tangibles, something greater to be discovered.

The reality of death and all of the mysteries surrounding it also troubled her. “It troubled me when animals died and, perhaps around age 10, I remember being very aware and very upset at the realization that every one of us would eventually die.” Since it seemed she alone was bothered by that reality, she kept quiet and listened for answers that might help her make sense of life and death.

Her sensitivity to music and lyrics also kindled troubling questions for which she could find no satisfactory answers. In the popular music of the ’60s, she heard the cries of the heart for romantic love and a search to end loneliness. Those heart-level questions contrasted with the hymns of the church, where she heard songs about spiritual warfare, sacrificial service and a loving God. The deep questions being asked by popular culture did not seem to be answered directly by God and faith.

Thus, Schoenrade turned to psychology to try to fill in all the missing information. “I think I probably was a little like B. F. Skinner — a behaviorist psychologist. Skinner wanted to develop a technology of behavior that would explain it all, that psychology would offer enough answers that would solve a lot of problems.”

While she maintained a religious life as a faithful church member, she had separated her “faith” life from other areas of life, especially in her work as a psychologist. One example of this is a paper she coauthored in 1997 which examined the differences in work attitudes between homosexuals who “stay in the closet” versus those who reveal their sexual preference. Schoenrade found no fault with the homosexual lifestyle at the time, but has since expressed her regrets in conducting that study or any study that might promote ungodly lifestyles.

During those years of “compartmentalization,” God began to intrude into her life in some painful ways. In 1993, the Schoenrades had just adopted the second of their three adopted children, a newborn baby girl named Abbey. Three months later, the birth father challenged the adoption. After almost four years of courtrooms, lawyers and uncertainty, the birth father lost interest. Finally Abbey was theirs to keep, but not without many battles through which Schoenrade grew frustrated and angry over her own inability to control circumstances.

Schoenrade also was dealing with the declining health of her father, an Alzheimer’s victim. Nine hundred miles separated her from her mother and father, preventing her from helping her mother carry the 10-year burden of care. Schoenrade went through a time of sadness and questioning about how such a strong man could become so confused and dependent, and why a supposedly loving God would place such a heavy load on her mother.

Issues like these in her life began to make her aware that possibly psychology could not provide all the answers she thought it should. Too much was out of our control. “So I watched, often with wailing or angry protest, as God used these situations to gently pry my fingers off the ship’s wheel, and to take the wind out of the sails of pride that had led me to say, ‘I can do it; I can manage; I’ll be OK; leave me alone.’”

God had primed her to begin hearing His answers.

A friend gave her several C.S. Lewis books such as “The Problem of Pain,” “Mere Christianity” and “The Great Divorce.” Reading Lewis, her notions of devout people being “intellectually simple” began to be dispelled. She began to understand pain as a part of God’s loving pursuit of His children. She started to realize that worship was a lifestyle, rather than a specific time and place event, and that possibly it is living to glorify God that satisfies those heart-level questions.

The concept of a life of faith was nailed for her in The Great Divorce in the image of the traveler who reaches the new land and experiences pain when walking on the grass in that new land. “Receiving [God’s] truth is often uncomfortable at first, even painful,” Schoenrade said. “And over time of looking to the Holy Spirit for understanding, we begin to appreciate the integrity in His creation and move more easily about His reality — the true reality.”

God’s final blow to her self-sufficient faith came in the form of a song, “Love of a Different Kind,” at a campus concert by singer/songwriter Allen Levi. The song brought her face to face with the passionate, loving God she had thus far overlooked. It opens with a story of a love that makes logical sense in which a valiant prince rescues and carries away the perfect princess.

But then Levi introduces the kind of love that confounds us, in which a valiant prince lavishes his love on someone who seems completely unlovable. “If he said, ‘I adore you. I will make you mine.’ We’d say, ‘This is love, this is love, this is love of a different kind.’”

For Schoenrade at this turning point in her life, “I was so much like the prodigal — I’ve messed up in all these ways, and here I am looking at an incredibly loving Savior.”

Before her encounter with God, Schoenrade believed she had to take off her Christian hat when doing something scientific. Now, when wrestling with issues, Schoenrade not only introduces the scientific data for study, but also guides her students to see what God has to say. “None of the data surprises Him at all! As the Creator, He is way ahead of us,” Schoenrade said. “All of this begins to take on an integrity. That is what is present in my life that wasn’t there before — integrity.”

The most immediate manifestation of change occurred with a course Schoenrade had been preparing on the topic of relationships. She realized that you cannot talk about relationships without addressing the spiritual implications. Using the topic of gender roles and human sexuality as an example, Schoenrade said, “We can teach that the Creator has intentions for us. As a Christian psychologist I have a special responsibility to address what our Creator might have had in mind when He gave us this desire.

“It is a concern in psychology that if a psychologist is a Christian, it narrows what they can look at. I think that is wrong — it widens it,” she said.

Ray Owens, who chairs William Jewell’s psychology department and has known Schoenrade since she joined the faculty in 1989, commends her teaching. “She has always been a great teacher,” Owens said. “Since her conversion, she has become a great Christian who teaches.”

Owens noted that she stays current on the research in her area and continues to get excited about collecting data. “She bursts into the reception area saying, ‘We have data!’ What is different is perhaps the kinds of questions she asks: issues on relationships and religious commitments of students,” Owens said.

“She cares about her students,” he said, “and her ministry to her students is a huge part of who Christ is through Dr. Schoenrade.”

From e-mailing students, to asking for prayer requests on the back of her tests, to praying with them in her office when they have a particular need, Schoenrade considers her primary ministry to be helping students at their point of need. One student referred to her as “the most spiritually encouraging teacher I’ve had at Jewell, and different because she is bold in applying examples of the Bible and her faith to what we are learning in psychology.”

Schoenrade takes her hat off to students who are able to “stay centered on Christ in these tough times we are in.” In her classes she sees students at many points on their faith journeys, some who are embittered Christians, others who are new believers, those maturing in their faith, and even those who might claim atheism or agnosticism.

She sees many who struggle with issues of personal hurt, family problems and disillusionment from living in families that profess Christianity but live in very hurtful ways. Often she is able to offer an empathetic ear and say, “I know where you are coming from.”

In addition to imparting a thorough understanding of course material, Schoenrade’s passion is to show her students that the study of psychology can help them discover more of the character of God. Psalm 42:1, which states, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God,” is one of her favorite verses, reminding her that “the essence of what we really seek in each deep desire is to be found in God.”

She hopes that all of her students reach that understanding as well. “And,” she added, “I hope they are younger than 44 when they do that!”
Singer/songwriter Allen Levi’s song, “Love of a Different Kind,” is from his album “The Moon is Round.”

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  • Kay Adkins