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Presidential Career Paths: Who Leads Christian Colleges?

Since the top areas where Christian college presidents must spend their time are fund raising, strategic planning, financial management, and board relations, boards often look outside of academia to find a new president.

The story of Dave from Bible International University[1]is increasingly common in higher education, including Christian higher education. After operating his own consulting firm for 19 years, working as a vice-president for a greeting card company for nine years, then filling the same position with a book publisher, the board of BIU* asked Dave* to serve as their president. As he nears completion of his thirteenth year as president, Dave alongside some of his leadership team proudly received their accreditation approval with the Association of Biblical Higher Education (ABHE).

The above narrative is just one example of the leadership stories happening on Christian college campuses across North America. Based on the responses of surveys from 62 responding ABHE presidents[2], and comparing this data to my original study[3], a profile of Christian college presidents and their career path to the presidency was compiled. The results revealed four main conclusions.

Presidents are getting older. Not only individually, but as a group, the presidents of Christian colleges are getting older, approximately five years older now than when the study was first done in 2004. This increase in president’s average age reflects the baby boomers cohort and coincides with Barna’s 2017 report[4] showing the average age of pastors to be about 10 years older than it was in 1992.

Christian College Presidents are white males. A Caucasian man at the helm of a Christian college has been standard in North America throughout history. And even though the world has changed in terms of women in the workplace, academia, leadership and even church ministry, it has not changed significantly in the leadership of Christian colleges. White males still predominate.

While some may point to theological reasons for this under-representation of women, given that most Christian colleges include 50% female students, this is becoming a somewhat awkward statistic. Likewise, the lack of diversity in ethnicity increasingly does not reflect the student body of most colleges.

Christian College presidents come from a variety of backgrounds. As recently as 30 years ago, the president of post-secondary institution landed the top job on campus after serving his time in the school. First, he would teach as a faculty member, then become a department chair, then dean of a faculty, and one day arrive in the president’s office, having worked his way up through the academic pipeline. Gradually, as leaders became less involved in teaching and more involved in administration, fundraising, constituency relations, and other tasks, boards looked for presidents outside academia.

Today, however, half of presidents enter the role with little, if any, personal academic experience, and yet have “real-world” experience as financial analysts, lawyers, businessmen, or pastors. Almost 40% of Christian college presidents come with some academic background, yet they are now the minority. Another 10% (approx.) of presidents have entered academia as a second career after a first career in vocational ministry, whether as a pastor or other Christian worker.

What do Christian College presidents do? Perhaps surprisingly given many the lack of previous academic experience for many, 70% of ABHE presidents teach a course in their college. Yet even more common than teaching a course, 95% of presidents speak in churches. While only half the colleges represented in the research were denominationally affiliated, speaking in churches was a given for Christian College presidents. Fifty percent also reported speaking at academic gatherings.

In light of the duties above, it is also not surprising to discover presidents spend time travelling. Of course, first and foremost this travel takes them around the country (either USA or Canada); and for 37% of them, it takes them outside North America regularly.

When asked to identify the top four areas they spend their time on, 46% of presidents answered: fund raising, strategic planning, financial management, and board relations, with personnel issues coming in a close fifth place.

When one considers the responsibilities Christian College presidents hold, the story of Biblical International University* choosing Dave* to serve as their president seems obvious! While this research did not identify which presidents and career path were most effective, clearly the expectations of the role demonstrate that future leaders need to have a range of skills. For boards searching for the next person to lead a post-secondary school, past educational and employment need to demonstrate an ability to work well with a team, communicate clearly and regularly with both current students, alumni and donors, and be a calming influence in a context that can be socially, politically, relationally, theologically, and financially turbulent.

 

[1] The school name and president’s name are fictional, although the details are of an actual school and individual within ABHE.

[2] Ibbotson, S. (2020), Career Paths of ABHE Presidents. A Research Report presented at the Association of Biblical Higher Education Annual Meeting, February 12-14, Orlando, FL.

[3] Ibbotson, S. (2006). Career Paths of Bible College Presidents, Biblical Higher Education Journal, 1, 37-59.

[4] Barna, G. (2017). The Aging of America’s Pastors. https://www.barna.com/research/aging-americas-pastors/

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