Dear Covenant Community,
Today, April 14, 2022, Jim Spencer, Covenant’s first Principal and CEO, passed into eternity. He was 81 years old.
Covenant would not have been what it is today, or perhaps exist at all, if Jim had not agreed to step out of the comfort of retirement and into the unknown of starting a new school. As Covenant was being prayed into existence, its reluctant founding leader had just settled into the Crawfordsville home that he and his wife, Sue, had designed and built. After 40 years as a social studies teacher and a leader in several churches, Jim simply wanted to enjoy his new home, spend time with Sue, and create beautiful pieces in his customized woodshop. He had plenty of good reasons to decline the invitation to move east and start a school. He also worried about what it might do to Sue if he said yes. But God had already told Sue that it was the plan He had for them; He caught Jim up on the news shortly thereafter.
Jim’s approach to running a school would be as unconventional as he was. He had made a few keen observations about a better way to do education over his four decades in public high schools. Top among them was making it all about relationships, rather than being primarily about achievement or solely about producing an educated citizenry. He would ask each new hire, “What do you teach?” Of course, all of us eager young experts would respond according to the question we thought he was asking by naming our respective subjects. But he would almost interrupt our one-sentence answers with, “No, you teach boys and girls. Your subject is just the context in which you do that.”
That philosophy attracted a lot of talented young professionals who were as reluctant to go into teaching as Jim was to start a school. Some of our first teachers referred to Covenant as their Nineveh and had in mind to “give it a year or two” until they figured out the rest of their lives. But Jim had a hunch that an innovative environment based on the pursuit of right relationship in a biblically-grounded Christian learning community would win out. He was right. Most of us stayed far longer than we anticipated, and we fell in love with participating in God’s work of enlightening minds, inflaming hearts, and transforming lives.
Personally, my student teaching experience at a large high school had convinced me that I did not want to teach. Besides, I just wanted to speak Spanish all day and travel as much as possible. Jim invited me to Covenant’s brand new campus for an interview. My sister was attending Covenant at the time and had been praying with her classmates and teachers for God’s direction in my life. I did not want to disappoint her, so I went ahead and met with Jim. We sat down, and I handed Jim my three-ring binder full of my student teaching artifacts. He glanced at the cover and said, “They told you you’d have to have that to get a job, didn’t they?” I responded, “Yes, sir.” He slid the portfolio back across the table and said, “Yeah, you’re never going to use that. Tell me about Andy.” Nobody had ever asked me to do that.
For many of us, nobody had ever asked us what it meant to think christianly, either. We had been led to believe in the false dichotomy of the sacred and the secular, as if Jesus did not create and reign over all truth, beauty, and goodness. But rather than telling us what and how to think, Jim would always admonish us to “ask the right questions” of both ourselves and our students. He had discovered that the primary issue with education generally was that schools were “asking kids to answer questions they [hadn’t] even asked yet.”
Jim wasn’t afraid of asking questions rather than making assumptions based on having grown up in the Church. That became foundational to our Christian worldview training of staff, faculty, and students. Jim led us to ask things like, “Does God exist? If so, what is He like? How do we know? What does He want from me? How do I know Him? Where do we come from? Why do I exist? What is the nature of the universe?” Receiving permission to ask these questions was new to many of us. Much of our Christian formation to that point had been concentrated on demonstrating acceptable moral behavior as evidence of faith and understanding.
Jim often said that the key to building a great school was to “hire the best people you can find and then let them teach.” He believed that the micromanaging of teachers on the part of school leaders killed sound learning. For Jim, “the best people” meant Christian men and women who were passionately living out their subjects and who as a bonus wanted to share those subjects with their students. We all felt supported to establish and grow inspiring programs that may not have seen the light of day elsewhere, and we enjoyed great freedoms within our small kingdoms.
But Jim never fully left us to our own devices. He would constantly stop by and ask us questions, share what he was reading, or otherwise give us pointers on good teaching. Those conversations would not last particularly long, but just enough for him to challenge us forward and for us to know that he loved and knew us. Nearly as frequently, Jim would also invite us to read and discuss books with him. For those of us who were suckers enough to join him for one of his many reading groups at 6:30 in the morning, he would lead our discussions with prepared questions and notes on the likes of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, Owen’s The Death of Death, and Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Our eyes burned with sleep. Our heads throbbed from complex thought. But Jim was as awake and as giddy as the sunrise.
Jim was just as energetic about life and learning when he retired from Covenant in 2005. But he was ready to move on quietly and let others carry on the Covenant mission and vision. About that time, the people who had purchased the house in Crawfordsville were ready to sell it. The Spencers settled right back into their retirement dream. God was faithful to their obedience.
Ultimately, Jim hadn’t just led a new school into existence. He had entered a community into the risky business of getting Christians to think. He knew that it is always more comfortable to teach them what to think and how to win arguments, which he insisted we should “give up our need to do.” But he was convinced that if we are commanded to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,” then we should take that pretty seriously.
Thanks to Jim, we think so, too.