5 Characteristics Christian Colleges Should Embody
By: Brian Jensen March 21, 2019
Much has changed over the years in what a typical day looks like for senior leaders of colleges, especially in Christian higher education.
The job description for a president, senior leader, or college administrator has evolved, and with that comes uncharted territory. The role is much more complex now: today’s weight of leadership brings with it the daunting feeling of insurmountable challenges. Accreditation pressures, financial instability, identity politics, technology dependence, shrinking enrollments, board-level tensions, stretched beyond their means staff, managing razor-thin margins, and so much more.Not only is the burden heavy, but most days can also feel like you take one step forward only to take two backward as you race just to complete urgent tasks.
But I’m asking us to consider, just for a moment, the “why” question. Why does your executive leadership role exist?
Because it’s always been this way? Because your charter says it does? Because it makes your board happy? Is it a best practice? These are not bad reasons, and actually some of them are really good reasons. But do they answer the question of why the role exists and what value it has?
Why does your institution have a leadership team, really? The end goal of your executive leadership team is to foster a culture that develops and disciples the students at your school. Your driving reason to do your job must transform your vision of what it means to lead your institution. It must drive your dedication to see each student flourish on your campus.
What can this look like? As a senior leader of your Christian college, you are the caretaker of your institution. In light of that, how are you fostering these five characteristics at your Christian institution?
Christian colleges and universities exist Coram Deo, “in the presence of God.” Everything that happens on your campus—from the classroom to the quad, from the dining hall to the athletic field, from the residence hall to the performance hall—all of your comings and goings are done for the glory of God. Senior leaders understand deeply the need to be in communion with Christ, for their institutions to operate under the Word of God, and their own responsibilities in stewarding a God-glorifying institution. Soli Deo Gloria.
Christian colleges and universities have to be, without a doubt, mission-driven. Healthy institutions understand that the mission statement and living it out is not a waste—it is the essence of why that institution exists and how it operates. Senior leaders are charged with driving everything according to mission, and with stewarding the mission. Stewarding the mission starts at the top and trickles down. At Vanderbloemen, we help Christian institutions find their key staff, so we know that a crucial component of stewarding the mission is the practice of hiring leaders who not only understand the mission, but who can be committed to embodying the mission.
It’s hard to find a college campus right now that isn’t promoting its commitment to the safety and satisfaction of its students. Christian institutions can do better than this. Devoted Christ-following senior leaders practice outrageous hospitality and encourage others on their campus to do the same. Students are entrusted into your care — physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Attention to their care is non-negotiable. Commit to developing a caring and hospitable community, one where students, faculty, and staff find a flourishing place to live, learn, and work.
The sons of Issachar from First Chronicles remind us that we must know the times and have the wisdom to respond accordingly. Senior leaders should pray for this and practice it faithfully. If there’s a place that is going to figure out best practices for wise executive leadership, it should be Christian institutions—we’re instructed to ask for it (James 1:5). And despite the old adage about how “it’s lonely at the top,” leadership isn’t lonely, and it shouldn’t be either. The body of Christ works together. Your institution has an abundance of wise resources. Look diligently for these.
Ultimately, Christian campuses move people toward something. Your work is restoration work. Every interaction with a student, colleague, or guest provides you with an opportunity to make something whole that may have been fragmented—in large and small ways. We are all called to participate in God’s cosmic restoration project. Senior leaders answer that call every day and work towards establishing a culture that does the same. It’s a difficult, but exciting adventure. Rest in the hope that someday Christ will make all things new.
So why does your leadership team exist? Senior leaders carry heavy burdens, and your work is often done in dark and broken areas. Simply existing to follow a rule, or make an accreditation body happy is important, but it lacks inspiration.
But existing to restore what was once lost? Now you’ve got my attention.
U2’s Bono once remarked, “I'm a musician. I write songs. I just hope when the day is done I've been able to tear a little corner off of the darkness.” Senior leaders, as stewards of their institutions, see calling and work in this way. Every day, you strive to make your institution a little bit more glorifying to God, a little bit more missional, a little bit more hospitable, a little bit wiser, and a little bit more the way that it was intended.
Brian brings 15 years of Christian higher education experience to the Vanderbloemen team. Prior to joining Vanderbloemen, he served at Geneva College as the Vice President of Student Development where he provided executive leadership for student programs, services, and athletics. Following his own college experience, Brian’s passion for Christian higher education developed while working at North Central University in its Student Life division, where he realized his love for working with college students and the transformative experience that a faith-based institution could have on their lives.