College Professors as Church Leaders

Salem Covenant Church logoLast Tuesday night I had the privilege of moderating my congregation‘s annual meeting for the sixth time — and the last for the foreseeable future. In 2009 I was elected chairperson of our church; after having been reelected three years later, I’ve now reached my constitutional limit of two terms and so happily gave way to a new chair.

But even as I look forward to spending more time with my family and less time in meetings, I’ve been reflecting on my stint in church leadership. (Prior to being elected chair, I had already served two years on our leadership team and the better part of a year before that on the committee that called our senior pastor.) In particular, I’ve been musing about two questions:

How common is it for a college professor like me to serve in a church leadership role?

Why might such service be beneficial both for churches and professors?

I can quickly think of examples of people I know who serve as professor-leaders. Just before I arrived at Salem, the church chair was another Bethel professor; another member of our leadership team teaches at another Christian college in town; and I’ve got a close friend on the faculty who’s very active in leadership in a Lutheran church. But these are exceptions: as far as I know, most of my current colleagues have never held such roles in their churches.

But I haven’t been able to find any research on this question. If you’re aware of such a study or survey, please let me know.

Proceeding from the (possibly mistaken) assumption that the professor-church leader is a relatively rare combination, I’d like to encourage readers who might play a role in their church’s nomination process to invite professors into leadership — and readers who are professors to accept such responsibilities.

For churches…

College professors bring to the table obviously useful skills in research, analysis, critical thinking, and communication. As I wrote last June, I value my training less for the historical knowledge it provided than for the abilities I gained to discern patterns, evaluate trends, relate cause to effect, understand context, etc. (And to be comfortable with complex problems that don’t yield easy solutions.)

Scholars in other fields will have similar abilities and bring different perspectives. It’s all useful: I can’t think of many churches that don’t need to do better at evaluating themselves, understanding their surroundings, and making complicated decisions for the future.

For professors…

I’ve already written a lot at this blog about the need for us scholars to recover what Wheaton professor Tracy McKenzie calls our “vocation to the church.” Not only do I feel like I better understand the church in all its messy diversity for having helped to lead a large congregation, but I’ve learned a ton about communicating to a wider audience. Actually, it was in writing congregational letters and newsletter articles that I first began to develop my sense of how to write blog posts. (And having to lead at least two congregational meetings a year has developed different kinds of public speaking muscles…)

Second, serving on something like a leadership/vision team, church council, or elder/deacon board gives valuable experience in the kinds of activities that we faculty members have generally treated as wastes of precious teaching/research time: e.g., budgeting, reading financial reports, fundraising, conducting performance evaluations, refining policies and procedures, maintaining physical plant, etc. I come away from my years in church leadership both more empathetic to administrators and trustees trying to prioritize in times of scarcity and more convinced that professors ought to inform themselves enough to ask hard, precise questions about administrative, financial, and operational matters within their schools.

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