At Christian Institutions, Leaders Weigh the Cost of Progress

New presidents seek to balance tradition and innovation.

At Christian Institutions, Leaders Weigh the Cost of Progress

New presidents seek to balance tradition and innovation.

The first step in passing on a mantle is to make sure it’s going into the right hands. Historic Christian institutions have seen an influx of new leadership, with boards calling on both experienced professionals and industry newcomers to steer their organizations. For many of the incoming presidents and CEOs, with the desire to effect lasting change comes measured optimism and an eagerness to implement fresh practices, all while balancing a commitment to the institution’s founding principles and stakeholder expectations.

For some leaders, these appointments were the culmination of a dozen deliberate steps, each one taking them closer to the top tier. For others, it was a divine appointment, a position they never expected but now find themselves thriving in.

The latter was certainly the case for Timothy Dalrymple, who assumed the role of president and CEO of Christianity Today in May. While no formal training could have prepared him for this role, he notes that his past experiences—including founding creative agency Polymath Innovations and serving as an editor and vice president of business development at Patheos—have provided an unlikely but providential education.

“At every major intersection, it’s been the case that the next professional calling from God wove together the earliest parts of my life that are unexpected and somehow perfect,” Dalrymple said. “As I come to Christianity Today, it feels as though it draws on all the major threads of my life and produces something really surprising and beautiful. It’s as though all of your yesterdays were research for today.”

Some prepare for their leadership roles in unconventional ways. For Dalrymple, a former NCAA athlete, meeting challenges and persevering in the midst of hardship were lessons initially learned on the gymnastics floor. For Dondi Costin, almost four decades in the Air Force overseeing thousands of subordinates taught him how to lead effective teams, a skill Costin regularly employs as the president of Charleston Southern University (CSU).

“Restoring hope and confidence throughout the institution is only achieved when the early, but necessary, rhetoric of renewed hope is affirmed with clear and timely evidence of improvement and becomes reality.”

“There are fewer differences than one might imagine between the processes and procedure of the military and higher education,” Costin said. “If you can survive and thrive in a complex bureaucracy like the Pentagon, then you can do it in a complex bureaucracy like higher education.”

Costin stepped in as the third president of CSU in July 2018. While experience working within unwieldy systems may have benefitted him, the newcomer to academia still faces a steep learning curve. A self-proclaimed “cultural anthropologist,” Costin relies on CSU staff to guide him through the educational culture and lexicon. Despite the massive adjustment, he considers his inexperience an advantage as it allows him to bring a fresh perspective to CSU practices.

“In one sense, leadership is leadership,” says Costin. “The principles that work in one organization will almost always work in another as long as the leader is willing to be a learner.” Costin views his approach as necessary to progress: “I’ve been able to ask probing questions about how and why things are done without being shackled to tradition.”

Mark Jobe found himself in similarly unfamiliar territory when he assumed the role of president of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in January 2019. While new to higher education, he has decades of experience clarifying vision and training leaders as the senior and founding pastor of New Life Community Church in Chicago, which includes 150 staff members and 5,000 members worshiping across 27 locations.

Though he may be learning the ropes of academia, Jobe, himself a Moody alum, says his outsider’s view has been helpful.

“I don’t necessarily think like a higher education person,” says Jobe. “I am not constrained by institutional boxes. The advantage is that I’m able to easily think outside of these boxes as we envision a preferred future.”

Challenges and Mistakes

Regardless of how well-equipped new leaders are or how closely their resumes mirror those of their predecessors, taking over a historic institution comes with challenges. And often the largest problem a new leader faces is simply where to begin.

“A new leader often is tempted to move in 100 directions at once. You have to step back to keep a sense of perspective, pray through it, and see what needs to be engaged today,” Dalrymple said. “Often dealing with the mountain of noise and keeping a sense of focus can be a huge challenge in the early goings.”

With more than 20 years of higher education experience, North Park University president Mary Surridge has learned quite a bit about balancing immediate needs with long-term objectives. In addition to leading the school’s most ambitious fundraising campaign to date, she oversaw undergraduate admissions before taking over as president in 2018. Her familiarity with the Chicago institution and careful planning with the help of her operations team have allowed her to escape the pull of minutia.

“One common mistake we can make as new leaders is feeling obligated to react to every issue and respond to every query immediately,” Surridge said. “You want to communicate that you care about the requests and concerns of the very talented and committed people serving on your campus, but we must prioritize or we wind up disjointedly chasing everyone else’s agenda instead of purposefully pursuing the overall strategic priorities for the university.”

Trying to attend to day-to-day problems while pursuing future goals is especially daunting for those coming into an institution overcoming crises, as leaders are now additionally tasked with rebuilding trust and restoring unity. That’s been the focus for Jobe, who came to Moody after the sudden departure of three leaders in the wake of concerns about theological drift and diversity initiatives. In recent years the school has also endured significant financial challenges, closing its Washington campus and cutting faculty.

Jobe sees his first job as having to “define reality.” That includes helping team members understand the institution’s identity and next steps needed to thrive. To rebuild confidence across the campus, he also attempts to engage with the basic needs of students and staff. He says:

According to Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code, most people in an organization are asking themselves three questions: Are we close? Are we safe? And do we have a future together? When a leader can bring clarity of vision and build healthy trust, that will solve 85 percent of the cultural problems.

Building bridges has also been a top priority for Paul Ferguson, who became president at Azusa Pacific University (APU) in June after previously serving as president of Ball State University and the University of Maine. The experienced educator arrived on a campus that had been fractured by differences in theology and was suffering from a multi-million-dollar deficit that had led to budget cuts and a downgraded credit rating.

As the dust settles, Ferguson has made a concerted effort to bring the community into conversations about how to fix problems facing the university, and he responds with swift action based on their concerns.

“Team confidence is directly rebuilt by early and extensive listening to all constituencies of the university to discern the most accurate understanding of what has transpired, as well as hearing the many ideas of talented people on how to fix the current problems,” Ferguson said. “Restoring hope and confidence throughout the institution is only achieved when the early, but necessary, rhetoric of renewed hope is affirmed with clear and timely evidence of improvement and becomes reality.”

Despite the challenges, coming to APU after a season of difficulty allows Ferguson the freedom to completely rebuild—reassessing the institution’s business practices, putting new leadership in place, and talking to stakeholders about how to evaluate and shape APU’s identity. In following God’s call, he said, he could use his organizational management skills in developing university’s sense of mission, which will help it adapt to needed changes.

“This is a catalytic opportunity for our community to come together and build harmony, and it’s exciting,” Ferguson said. “There’s a tangible feeling of hope and sense of anticipation of what’s going to come out of this.”

Hard, Good Work

While the trials facing APU might be different than the ones facing the private and public universities Ferguson has been affiliated with, his leadership style and reasoning remain unchanged.

“I’ve led people from a servant leader’s perspective—that’s always been my philosophy. I’m committed to serving the constituency I’ve been appointed to,” said Ferguson. “I was always motivated by a love of God and love of man.”

Clinging to motivation is vital for new leaders as they come to grips with their reality, which is often paired with a mountain of work and an institution’s hopes seemingly dependent on one person. In the face of pushback, hurdles, and never-ending to-do lists, remembering what they hoped to accomplish can inspire new leaders to push through momentary challenges as they recall the importance of their work and who they’re doing it for.

“Part of why I came [to Christianity Today] was because I was convicted that for all of her flaws and failings the church is the bride of Christ and deeply loved by God,” Dalrymple said. “It remains the primary instrument of God’s redemptive role in the world. I’m glad to be in a position that’s directly engaging with the church and concerned with the question of how we equip and inspire the church to do the work God calls it to do.”

Costin, who oversaw 664,000 active duty Air Force members and 2,000 chaplains and chaplain assistants in his last role, said he was drawn to CSU because it would allow him to continue to effect life change in college-aged students. He is energized by the opportunity to impact young believers and to be a witness to those who have never before experienced authentic Christianity.

“We’re a Christian school but not a school just for Christians,” said Costin. “This is an opportunity for us to influence people who may have never considered the claim of the gospel or who have never experienced what it’s like to live in Christian community. We get to be a home for these people, where we can have a real influence on them that will impact them for generations.”

And it’s not enough for new leadership to understand why their work is important. They must also communicate their vision—clearly, passionately, and frequently—to their entire team, showing staff how they fit into the larger picture of the organization’s mission.

“If your teammates can get a glimpse of the eternal significance of your organization’s mission, work becomes so much more than a four-letter word,” said Costin. “The leader’s job is to paint a picture for every teammate of how doing their part to advance the cause is an act of worship. There’s simply no substitute for passion and repetition when it comes to rallying others behind a common vision.”

Reinventing to Stay Alive

While new leaders are tasked with making changes, they’re often not looking to reimagine an organization’s mission. Rather, many are attempting to honor an institution’s legacy while ensuring it remains relevant and competitive.

“Part of my role is to listen to God, set a vision, and prayerfully move the team toward that vision,” Dalrymple said. “In order to do that, we want to understand that spirit of the organization and how that original vision may be pursued today in ways that are different than when it was founded. If Billy Graham was to found the organization today, what would it look like?”

While the way people consume and approach the news has changed drastically since Billy Graham founded Christianity Today in 1956, the original mission of equipping the church through biblical commentary and balanced reporting has not. Today’s Christian media can push back against the hyperbolic tendencies of shallow online content with deeper, more thoughtful storytelling, Dalrymple said.

“In the wake of so much disinformation, it’s critically important that the church has access to trusted storytellers and trusted thought leaders so the church can get a nuanced picture of what’s going on in the world and how they can be part of leading in a better direction,” he said. “We’re bringing something that offers greater clarity and harmony.”

Likewise, Jobe remains committed to Moody’s original mission of providing students a biblical education while simultaneously equipping them to be leaders in their careers. The challenge now is understanding how that translates into the future.

“I want to continue that legacy of being passionate about the gospel and helping young leaders live out the gospel in every segment of society,” Jobe said. “We have to ask ourselves: Is how we’ve done it in the past the same as we’ll do it in the future? Good leaders look at least a decade into the future and ask, What do we need to do to be more effective in a decade than we are today?

As new managers institute positive changes and build on vision, they must also take into careful consideration the counsel of other team members.

“You don’t want to come into a new organization and just change for the sake of newness,” Ferguson said. “Successful change management is a team effort that requires a focus on the role and impact of change, not just for change itself.”

A team is necessary because the success of an institution does not rest solely on one person. Leaders, especially those adjusting to a new organization, are well aware that in order to be effective they must draw on the skills and wisdom of others.

“Leaders must be secure enough in their own leadership to trust [others] to lead their teams, even when they choose to lead differently than you would,” said Costin. “Somewhere between micromanagement and hands-off leadership is a sweet spot that reminds [us] that developing others across the organization to lead their teams in their own way is a fundamental piece of the leader’s job.”

But before leaders can inspire others, they must first care for themselves. Presidents must resist the incessant pull of the tyranny of the urgent, said Costin, which is why prayer and planning are essential. Jobe also emphasizes the importance of community and healthy relationships, as well as daily time in the Word of God.

“A beloved veteran faculty member shared an encouragement with me to ‘put my oxygen mask on first, before assisting others,’ ” said Surridge. “I try to prioritize time to pray, run, read, think, and plan. And I have found that if I don’t look ahead and block off some time for my family, it won’t happen—because it would be possible to work 24/7, 365. And that is not advisable for anyone.”

Between the meetings, the crises, and the vision setting, there is never an end to the work that must be done, especially for the newcomers. For Dalrymple, that truth serves a reminder of his limitations and the never-ending grace of God.

“I’m constantly impressed with the way in which the challenges we face are greater than the strength and perspective we’re able to bear. If that doesn’t drive you to regular prayer, then nothing will,” Dalrymple said. “Our need for God is constantly made plain. In a way, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s very good and healthy to be back in a place where I’m regularly confronted by my need for God’s grace.”

Betsy Abraham is a writer and storyteller based out of New York.

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