Tag: Administrators

The Need for Courageous Christian Leadership

Back on May 2nd, I had the joy of giving a reading from my book to faculty and students at Spring Arbor. It was a really wonderful experience and I deeply appreciate the support of colleagues and students alike. (In related news, I learned yesterday that I earned enough royalties in February for Jeralynne and I to go to Starbucks!).

Cowardly LionI talked about the general thrust of the book and then read passages from the chapter where I connect different components of the academic world to the travelers in The Wizard of Oz. In short, I argued that faculty members are like the Scarecrow (favoring brain), student development folks are like the Tin Man (favoring heart), the administration is like the Cowardly Lion (needing to overcome risk), and the students are all Dorothy (thinking their destination is more important than the journey).

This is certainly less than modest, but in preparing for my presentation I was struck with the importance of this paragraph about administrators.

First, courage requires a commitment to the success of the organization over the long run and not just the short run. In some ways, an administrator must be focused on the university your children will attend more than on the one you attend. The future must be anticipated if the past practices are not simply to be repeated year after year. In the absence of courage, administrators may be tempted to look back to the university your parents attended. Courage involves moving forward and never backward.

This passage has been echoing in my brain when I read about events at Bryan College and Cedarville University. It resonated when I read a retweet from Liberty University, where Eric Metaxas told graduates “God has invited you into a grand adventure, to be a soldier in his war against the forces of darkness.” It resonated in a conversation with one of my senior general education capstone students when she talked about the ways that this generation is different and pondered what the next 15 years would bring.

It echoed when a friend at a Christian University posted about a potential heresy trial at yet another Christian university exploring a faculty member’s view on creation. His institution has had its own share of struggles in dealing with issues of contemporary society in which the administration was understanding but still not forward-thinking.

Another friend, who is currently a Christian University president, responded with this remarkably honest statement:

As president of one of these “institutions”, my experience has been that the pull of institutional preservation is more subversive than I expected, more agenda-consuming, and is relentless. While the Borg may be right (resistance is futile, you will be assimilated), I have found God present in the work in kind ways. 

The “pull of institutional preservation” is what makes rewriting the covenant statement at Bryan seem like a good idea. If there are contemporary challenges seen in dialogue about Adam and Eve, the way to fix it is to make certain that which past generations expected. Simply remove the question from consideration. If Cedarville considers what to do with issues of gender, make life uncomfortable for female religion faculty and have the president preach on “Biblical Gender Roles”. In a world with increasing diversity and increasing complexity, recast the Christians’ task in dualistic spiritual warfare terms.

When Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man meet the Lion in the forest they are afraid of him. But only for a moment. They quickly understand that his strategy for survival was to pick on weaker creatures and keep them scared. But soon thereafter, their dominant emotion seems much closer to pity. The only hope was for him to join them on their trip to see the Wizard to find the courage he’s lacking.

The Cowardly Lion gets two songs in The Wizard of Oz. He has a short version of “If I Only Had..” but when they get to the Emerald City he gets to sing “If I Were King of the Forest“. In the midst of the song about courage, he describes how the small animals would show him deep respect and all creatures would know he was guided by compassion. Courage is part of character that allows one to lead (“what makes the muskrat guard his musk”). It allows a leader to step forward in faith, assured that they are not alone even when constituents write letters to trustees.

One of the consistent themes in the research on millennials is that they have little use for hypocrisy (the literature remarks on their “BS detectors”). I think this is related to the anti-institutionalism that shows up very clearly in survey research. They have less faith today in political institutions, economic institutions, family institutions, and religious institutions. This seems to be true to a much greater extent than previous generations.

Leaders stand at a pivotal point in this generational succession. A Christian University leader who can engage the current generation and look down the road toward the next will serve her institution well, develop key commitments in the current generation, and show the relevance of Christian education to the rising generation. One who lacks courage is far more likely to hold a hard line and create antagonism with the current generation, increasing the odds that the rising generation will fine the university irrelevant.

Bryan College ended the academic year facing the likely outcome of losing 20% of their faculty due to the actions of the president and trustees. Students responded last week with petitions, stood in protest in the final chapel of the year, and wrote to the trustees. Not just a few students but in numbers approach a third of the student body.

These students learned some valuable lessons this spring, important ones that will serve them in the future. How to deal with unpopular decisions. How to engage those in power in honest communication. These are issues that are at the heart of critical thinking and Christian engagement.

But they learned these lessons at a price. They learned that their beloved institution wasn’t to be trusted, that it wouldn’t listen. That in spite of rhetoric about family and community, in the end they didn’t matter.

I’m currently working my way through Walter Brueggemann’s Truth Speaks to Power. The first chapter is about the Exodus story and how Pharaoh organizes power against the slaves. It is their cries of pain and suffering that reaches God (not, as Brueggemann says, in a prayer but simply in their grief) so that he calls Moses forth for change. Moses becomes a courageous figure against the powers that be (even though he doubts his own skills). Christian Leaders who lack courage will fail to see how they pattern their actions after those of Pharaoh, even while seeking to do God’s work.

In the end, it is only courageous leadership that stands in the face of uncertainty. Power-based leadership doesn’t just lack courage, it’s ultimately ineffective.

As Princess Leia tells Governor Tarkin, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers“. Courage requires a loose grip and a willingness to engage. May God grant our Christian institutions more leaders with that kind of courage.


First Step: Off to See the Wizard


I really think it’s helpful for students to understand what they’re getting into when they set foot on a college campus. To communicate that, chapter four of the book takes a metaphor and beats it to death. You can likely guess from the picture that we’re talking about “The Wizard of Oz“.

While it’s always dangerous to force everybody into some category, I use the four companions on the Yellow Brick Road to identify four key roles within the landscape of the contemporary college. The Scarecrow represents the faculty. The Tin Man represents student life people and coaches. The Cowardly Lion represents administrators. And Dorothy represents the students themselves.

(When I’ve gone through this with folks, they immediately try to figure out who the other characters are. Maybe the Wizard represents accreditors. Maybe the Witch represents parents. Who knows where Toto fits in! I’ve already milked the metaphor for all its worth and even I have limits.)

It’s possible that you’ve somehow been deprived of the cultural significance of The Wizard of Oz so I’ll fill in the details just a bit. Dorothy Gale is a young girl from black-and-white Kansas who is taken to Oz by a tornado. She lands in Munchkinland on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, drawing the ire of her sister witch from the West. She is instructed to go to the Emerald City to find the Wizard who could surely tell her how to get home. Along her journey she meets each of the characters mentioned above. Together they defeat the Witch, confront the Wizard (a good man but a bad wizard), and get what they thought they were looking for. Dorothy learns from Glinda that she could go home whenever she wished. Back in her bed in Kansas, Dorothy reflects that it was beautiful but scary as well.

Back to my metaphor: As Dorothy starts out along the YBR, she comes across a Scarecrow. He’s not good as a scarecrow and doesn’t like having his head stuffed with straw. He wants to think great thoughts and share knowledge (it’s all in the song). He “decides” he will go and ask the Wizard for a brain. Clearly a leader along the way, he gets to the end and asks for his brain. The Wizard tell him he doesn’t have a brain to give him, but what he does have is a Diploma. By the authority supposed by him, the Wizard awards the diploma to the Scarecrow who announces the pythagorean theorem in an extremely professorial voice (but he gets it wrong).

Faculty members like me are scarecrows. We care about cognition. We worked hard at academic life. We get it. More than that, we’ve invested our personal identity into that life. I really care about what people think about sociology. I don’t understand why they don’t find it as fascinating as I do. If I seem like I think academics trumps other parts of campus life, it’s because for me it does. If you tell me that you blew off my class for frisbee golf, it’s not your grade that’s threatened — it’s my entire way of life. If you ask me “did we do anything important?” I don’t know where to begin. Of course it’s important. I’ve spent my whole life on this stuff.

Dorothy and the Scarecrow haven’t gone far when they find the Tin Man. He was the victim of the Witch’s spell and managed to cut off all his limbs. A kind doctor put him back together but forgot to give him a heart. (I don’t know where it went — it’s a fantasy and you just have to go with it). The others describe their journey to the Wizard and they all believe that he should ask for a heart.

Student Life folks and Athletic coaches care about heart. It’s not that they don’t care about academics. It’s that character formation is central to their world. They want students to become what they’re capable of becoming. (Obviously, I want the same for my students but it’s a matter of priorities.) Mentoring is at the center of their world. They build personal relationships and, through those, pass along what’s shaped their lives. They tend to be where they are because others invested in them. I can relate a host of stories about students who weren’t sure of direction until that coach took them under wing. Like Obi Wan Kenobi, Tin Men rejoice in a mentoring relationship that succeeds (Luke Skywalker) but fear that it might go bad (Anakin AKA Darth Vader). Each and every relationship has that demanding balance. When the Tin Man gets to the Wizard, he is awarded a testimonial shaped like a heart (it’s the lamest of the gifts).

The now three travelers come across a lion in the forest. But they quickly discover that this lion is afraid of everything. He wants to be respected more than feared but nobody takes him seriously. Of course, they tell him where they’re headed and are sure that the Wizard can give the Lion some Courage.

Administrators need courage. I’ve spent half my career in administration. Many times the pressures seem never ending. Each option has the potential to be a wrong choice. Decisions must be made without enough time or enough information. And each decision has huge implications for dozens or hundreds of people, their families, and their futures. I was in a strategic planning meeting this week where we were talking about the ten-year vision. We reflected that the students who will begin school in 2023 are starting the third grade right now. It requires courage to take steps into the unknown. Students need to understand that each individual’s case can’t be taken in isolation. There are broad implications for any action or special consideration. It’s not that administrators don’t care about brains or heart. They just have a different set of lenses.

When the Wizard comes to the Lion, he recognizes the ways in which the Lion acted even when he didn’t want to and put himself at risk to serve others. So he gives him a Medal of Valor. The label seems to be enough.

Dorothy is looking in the wrong place. The whole point of the story is that Dorothy is trying to get home to Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. She thinks that all she had to do was get to the end of the YBR and her goals would be met. The Wizard would magically make everything right because of his great power. Dorothy’s life isn’t about what happens after she leaves Oz and returns to Kansas. It’s about everything that happens to her along the way. She learns about friends, about courage, and mostly about her own capabilities. Glinda says that all she had to do was say, “there’s no place like home” (and click her heels). But more importantly, Dorothy realizes that she knew this deep inside her all the time. It was a matter of trusting who she was and using her experiences to teach her.

The purpose of the chapter is to help students make that transition from high school to college. It’s a different world than they’ve seen before with a different group of players who are more different from each other than has been true in the past. Maybe if they learn how to walk the road with knowledge of these various perspectives, they can find in themselves the lessons they’ve always wanted most to learn.