In the first issue of Didaktikos (November 2017), I shared some observations about stepping into a dean role from the ranks of the faculty.
According to a Chronicle of Higher Education article, the average tenure of a dean is four years. The book Seasons of a Dean’s Life observes that deans have an “average six-year tenure.” As such, I’m apparently about halfway through my career as a dean and should consider updating my CV soon for a transition. Thankfully, my work has not run its course, and I anticipate many more years in this role at my school. Over the past several years, I have learned a few things about being an effective dean.
YOU NEED YOUR GEAR AND YOUR PARTNERS
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to learn how to rock climb. In spite (or because) of a fear of heights, I learned a couple of crucial things to know when you’re on a rock face forty feet off the ground. First, trust your equipment. When you are tied in correctly, you do not need to rely on your own strength to stay on the rock. Second, trust your belayer. They will keep you on the rock face especially when you need to take a break.
These lessons in trust apply to the challenges of deanship, as well. The hardest thing I have faced as a dean is the unfortunate necessity of reducing our faculty numbers, as our enrollment was not high enough to sustain the number of faculty we had. While some people call it “rightsizing,” we did not use this wretched euphemism to describe the process of asking colleagues and friends to leave our shared place of employment. It was a rough experience, emotionally and spiritually. I found that my partners and my gear—God, executive leadership, and policies—were vital to rely on. Presumably, institutional policies are well-written and administrative relationships are trustworthy and respectful, because lacking any of these will make hard circumstances like this more difficult.
BE THE THERMOSTAT
A colleague of mine is fond of reminding his students that they are either a thermostat or a thermometer: within their spheres of influence, they can choose to either set or reflect the temperature. Not surprisingly, a dean shapes the working environment of his or her institution. Various dynamics and people can influence the nature of relationships in the workplace, ranging from the trustees and president to mid-level administrators, and administrative staff. The dean and his or her administrative team are not passive participants in this organizational structure and the process. Yet, as Patrick Lencioni observes, “so many leaders struggle to embrace organizational health because they quietly believe they are too sophisticated, too busy, or too analytical to bother with it.”
What type of environment do I want to have? What we have personally experienced in an organizational setting (past or current) influences what we bring (inflict?) on our colleagues. What does it take to shape the environment? For those who do not know what to do, there are a
myriad of books on leadership and management. The opportunities to learn how to do our jobs better are endless.
Appreciate the chance to learn and grow as a person. There’s an expectation that you are the proverbial “adult in the room.” If you are not, then you will get to grow up quickly.
COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE
The things I think about are not actual conversations. What is in my noggin stays there if I do not say something to my faculty. Moreover, while I have mulled over an issue, it may likely be new information to everyone else.
Recently, our department had to make a decision about curriculum. Procedurally, I work with and through the faculty. However, because I failed to tell some of my faculty what was going on in the decision-making process, I unwittingly made a faculty member look bad for asking a good question. Because I dropped the ball with communicating about the change process, a relevant concern looked like an obstructive action. Fortunately, I was able to identify the problem before it escalated. Yet I created unnecessary anxiety for others and experienced a humbling misstep.
A REALITY CHECK
The Association of Theological Schools recently, sent out a survey to chief academic officers (CAOs) to better understand the needs of the people in these roles. A couple questions addressed thoughts about one’s role as CAO. How do you feel about your job? Do you anticipate being in your position in the future? These are important and relevant questions, because staying in a leadership role is challenging. If you leave, where will you go? Back to a faculty position? What if there is no room for another teaching faculty?
It is no surprise that the average tenure of a dean is roughly equivalent to the average time a pastor remains at the same church. The work requires us to balance carrying out the expectations of institutional leadership, leading faculty (who are effective ly the “product” of the institution), and caring for students. “To succeed, [deans] must manage up and down, engaging regularly with senior officials, the faculty, staff, and students.”
For me, the transition from faculty to dean has been smooth. In this season, God has wired and called me to this work. That said, I would not recommend this vocational transition to anyone unsure about such a move. The administrative responsibilities and reduction in classroom time is significant. Further, as much as I like my job, the stress is lonely. Few people within your institution will understand and share your burdens. Self-care is a must, and I have been blessed with a president and provost who encourage this for their deans.
In my experience, deanship in Christian higher education parallels pastoral ministry. Deans are responsible for nurturing Christoformity with people from various backgrounds and interests—students, staff, and faculty. It is as much a calling as it is a vocation.
 Derek Chinn, “So, You’re the New Dean … ,” Didaktikos 1.1 (2017): 16–17.
 Dan Butin, “So, You Want to Be a Dean?,” in “How to Be a Dean,” Chronicle of Higher Education (October 2016): 17.
 Walt Gmelch, Dee Hopkins, and Sandra Damico, Seasons of a Dean’s Life (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2011), 45.
 Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 2
 Thom S. Rainer, Breakout Churches: Discover How to Make the Leap (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 57. Rainer observes the average tenure of a pastor in one congregation is about three to four years.
 Audrey Williams June, “To Change a Campus, Talk to the Dean,” in “How to Be a Dean,” Chronicle of Higher Education (October 2016): 5.
 Scot McKnight, Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019), 4.
This article was originally published in the April, 2020 issue of Didaktikos, a vocational journal for professors who teach in biblical studies, theology, and related disciplines. Didaktikos is published by the makers of Logos, the premier Bible study platform. Learn how your institution can equip your students for a lifetime of study at www.logos.com/academic-solutions.