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In the eighteenth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Kim S. Phipps, the President of Messiah University. Phipps opens by talking about her calling to the university presidency, the unique qualities of her service at Messiah, and how those qualities contributed to a tenure now in its twentieth year. Ream and Phipps then shift to discuss ways that the declining lengths of service of university presidents could be reversed or at least halted. When discussing ways to reverse those lengths of service, they also discuss ways women can prepare for such roles and what campuses can do to become more welcoming. Ream and Phipps then close their conversation by talking about the theological streams that define Messiah and how those streams influence the relationship faith and learning share in both curricular and co-curricular spaces.
Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.
Our guest is Kim S. Phipps, President of Messiah University. Thank you for joining us.
Kim Phipps: Thank you Todd for the invitation.
Todd Ream: You began your presidency at Messiah in 2004 and are preparing to complete your 20th year in office. In what ways has the university presidency changed over the course of your tenure?
Kim Phipps: Now, I really appreciate that question ’cause it made me or makes me think back over two decades and what’s the same, what’s, what’s different. I think some of the primary differences are, number one, in the presidency, you’re a little bit more on the defensive, having to make the case for the value of higher education, or in my case, particularly Christian higher education.
Um, there’s certainly a larger cultural narrative out there about higher education not being worth the cost. And so, what we would call the value proposition is something that’s always been there, but I feel like we have to make that case as presidents with more intensity.
Um, also, I think part of that is really listening to what the critique is, right, and responding to that. What do we learn from? Where does that critique come from? So that is certainly one change.
Um, another change would be the amount of time that we have to reflect before we respond, the changes that have come about again throughout our culture, particularly related to social media and all different kinds of communication platforms. Early on in my presidency, if there was a controversial issue that came up, whether it was campus related or more broadly in the culture, there’d be what I would think of as just some significant time you could devote to thinking about, reflecting, researching, and I myself come out of an academic background as a professor and so that’s a part of the way I choose to prepare for my role as presidency and certainly want to prepare responses.
But now you live in an age where I have a huge folder of hot topics, frequently asked questions and things because you may have to respond literally in minutes as opposed to a longer time. So I think that’s a change.
And then I would say the other change for university presidents there was an article this week in Forbes actually saying that being a college president or university president was still a good job. Because in light of what’s been happening with some of the Ivy League presidents and conversations related to Palestine and Israel, student safety, etc… There were a number of articles in public publications around why, who would want this job of being a president?
But there was a good article in Forbes just a few days ago saying it’s a great job and there are three aspects to it: being an academic leader, being, it’s like being a mayor of a small town; and a CEO of a complicated organization.
I would say over 20 years the presidency has gotten more complex as universities and colleges have become more complex and it truly is like being a mayor of a small town because while presidents have always had to do government relations, they have always needed to work with community leaders etc… I think the expectation there has increased.
So I think the role, academic leader, is consistent throughout. I think the other two aspects, the CEO and being a mayor, are ones that the involvement of the president in those roles has increased.
Todd Ream: Yeah. I used to think that if you had two faculty members, your internal- one segment of your internal constituents with whom you were talking, you’d have three or four opinions.
Kim Phipps: Absolutely.
Todd Ream: Now students have also joined this. Uh, in that sense. And so if you’re talking to two students, you may have three or four opinions from them. And they’ve got greater access now too with social media and greater access to go beyond the campus also. So, thank you.
Would you please unpack for us how you understand your calling to serve as a university president?
Kim Phipps: Um, yeah, in my own life, I always felt the calling to be a teacher even back to middle school days, becoming a person of faith in my teenage years, I knew that I loved learning. I loved education. And so, I really think the calling was to being a teacher or an educator.
And as I had the opportunity to serve first at Malone University, also a Christian higher education institution, and then later at Messiah, I had opportunities for leadership. And so those things happen from being elected chair of faculty senate or being asked to be a department chair or dean of faculty development, whatever.
And as I had the opportunity to move into that space, I began to have more of a sense of a calling of leadership in my life, but I certainly didn’t think it was gonna be the presidency. I thought that I would be a provost and then I would return to teaching. I would end my career doing what I think is most important on our campuses, teaching.
But because of the situation where my predecessor at Messiah, where I was serving as provost, became ill with cancer. I had to step into the role as an acting president. And so I had a chance in a way to try the role on. I was prayerful and thoughtful about whether it was something I wanted to consider- or really not only respond to as a calling, but consider more permanently. Um, and I just spent a lot of time in prayer, but also listening to voices of people I trusted.
So from students to alums, to board members, to faculty, to staff, to administration and at least gifts that they saw in me that they thought would serve well as, that would serve them well, if I would agree to be Messiah’s president. So I’ve always felt my calling was to be Messiah’s president. I didn’t know what it was to be a president.
And I’ve talked with other presidents about this because some of them have been presidents at multiple institutions or they knew- they went through different programs to prepare for the presidency. And that for me, it was really more about being in love with a particular community a certain point in time. And did I have the skills and then also the ability to learn. additional skills etc… to be Messiah’s president?
So, I have felt that calling. And for me, it’s a calling that brings a deep satisfaction. On our own campus and many campuses, all of us that were involved in Lilly Vocation Grants, many of us somehow integrated Buechner’s quote about when your own deep gladness meets the world’s deep needs. And there are some days in the presidency that you are just not glad because the issues are too difficult and complicated.
But what I have found is there’s just a deep satisfaction in working on solving problems in positioning your institution to do good in this world, and to do good on behalf of your students and your community. So I think for me, it’s been about a specific calling to Messiah and a broad calling about leadership that I’m living out as a president, but not a specific calling to be a university president.
Todd Ream: Can you say a little bit more about what is unique about being Messiah’s president and what it is that you love so much about leading that community?
Kim Phipps: Yeah, I think that as Messiah has tried, as we try to position who we are in the broader higher education space, we talk a great deal about gracious Christianity and what it means to be an institution committed to hospitality.
So very much integrating our core values and our faith commitments into every aspect of not only our educational life, curricular and co-curricular for students, but also our institutional policies and protocols and the way that we do our work together.
And so having the opportunity to do that, to do this work at a place like Messiah, which is not overly doctrinaire because our founding denomination was one that actually merged three different theological streams.
And so we, for example, we don’t- uh, everyone is asked to affirm the Apostles Creed as far as employees, but we don’t have a very specific doctrinal statement that many would have to sign at other Christian universities or institutions. So there’s a breadth we call it a zesty ecumenical mix on our campus. Some days it’s more zesty than others.
But what we have is I think a really important core that shapes our beliefs and values, but then really rich and robust conversations, not only on campus with our students, but enables us to also engage folks outside of, I would say the, the community of faith in lots of different ways to have those conversations. And to learn to work together. So that’s part of what I’ve always loved about Messiah. I’ve loved the emphasis that comes from our founding denomination on discipleship, on peace, on community. And we try to live that out.
I also think one of the reasons that I have certainly stayed for 20 years and enjoyed it is I have a wonderful board of trustees. But I think having a board of trustees where the board actually mirrors the campus very much, it’s a zesty ecumenical mix, but we’re united in what is about Messiah.
So when they come to Messiah, as a trustee, they’re not representing their church. They’re not representing their own political beliefs and things, but what is core and common to Messiah and to our mission. And so I’ve had really the blessing of working with trustees and building a relationship with them and with my leadership team and campus that’s built on trust and transparency.
So that has also made my being here, really a blessing. And then I would just say again, of course, the community. I mean, the faculty, the staff, the students, I can honestly say that every day, as I approach my work, I think about incredible people that I get to work alongside and that I get to serve and that has never changed in the 20 years that I have been here.
Todd Ream: Yeah, and the campus has certainly flourished as a result of that leadership during your tenure. So, it’s greatly appreciated.
As you mentioned, you began your career at Malone University, served as professor and department chair and then became faculty development officer.
What advice would you offer to younger colleagues who are determining whether they’re being called to make comparable transitions from service as faculty, to perhaps service as administrators and perhaps even full time administrators?
Kim Phipps: Well, certainly I would say, saying yes to opportunities is really important because certainly for me, chairing a faculty senate, then having the opportunity to be dean of faculty of development, associate dean, being a department chair, I found that there was a lot of fulfillment in administrative tasks.
And I knew I loved teaching and I knew I loved working with students, but I didn’t necessarily know that I would love committee work or working on initiatives that really had a significant impact on the entire university. So I think saying yes to opportunities to serve in any kind of leadership or administrative roles would be important.
I did not take advantage of some of the leadership training. Some of what the CCCU and others have done in leadership development actually kind of started as I was already becoming a president. But I have certainly encouraged and have sponsored many of my own colleagues to take part in those kinds of opportunities, whether it’s through ACE or CIC or CCCU because I think spending some time reading the scholarship of leadership and administration, having dialogue with others who are considering or have already been serving in those roles, is really important. So I think taking advantage of those kinds of programs is important.
I would say one area that I have spent much more time in than I ever anticipated related to budget and financial management of a university. And in times when, for our sector, we’ve all dealt with demographic shifts and changes that have also resulted in having to make difficult financial decisions, I would encourage people to do more education.
Again, I think some of the leadership training programs are now doing more in financial management, but even one or two day workshops. I mean, I truly, as I became provost, bought the book Accounting for Dummies just so I would learn the language and things like why depreciation matters. It just seems like funny money to me and all these kinds of things.
And so I learned and actually, it’s been interesting because I realize mission and margin are closely related and you can’t fulfill your mission without financial margin, but I wish I had had some more training in that.
And I’ve actually encouraged some of our undergraduates when I’m talking with them, and I know they have some interest in higher ed. And I, I really encourage them to take some finance classes as electives as an undergraduate, just to be familiar with the language and with financial planning, because you’re going to spend a lot of time doing it.
Todd Ream: I want to transition a little bit more to talking about the nature of the university presidency on a larger scale now.
You’d mentioned that Forbes article recently lobbied that it’s still a good job. But over the course of your tenure the American Council on Education reports that the average tenure of the university presidents only declined, with the present length being roughly about 5.9 years.
In terms of your presidency, what are the conditions beyond some of the ones that you’ve already noted that have led to the longevity of it? And what do you think we can do to help other university presidents enjoy that kind of longevity?
Kim Phipps: Yeah. Well, one thing has to be, I think that, when you take on a presidency that you are really totally dedicated to the mission of the institution. So I have known presidents who it was a little bit more like, well, yeah, this is, this is a good place and a good job for now. And I’ll see what else is down the road. Um, I don’t think that leads to long term situations for the president or for the community and the institution. It was a compelling mission and a mission that I embraced fully when I arrived here as an academic dean and have continued to nurture and foster as president.
Um, I definitely think the relationship with the board is critical. And I spend a lot of time between meetings and communication with my board members, knowing them going to spend time with them in their context, where they are. So it’s not just that I’m seeing them three times a year and we walk into a room and you know, I’m showing them the key indicators and they’re asking questions. It’s much deeper than that, having those relationships because that builds trust and confidence. So I think that partnership is really, really important.
And the selection process of who comes on the board is important. So I have always had the benefit here at Messiah, from the time I came, that the trustee governance committee wanted my input and involvement in the selection and care of trustees. Um, and so that’s made an important difference for me, I think in terms of my good relationship with the board.
And I also think annual evaluations are really important. Uh, not all institutions do that, but I’m evaluated by the board every year. And so there’s no surprises, right? If there’s some things that I am struggling with related to them or to my work on campus or for the same thing from their perspective. So I think that’s important.
But then I think again, too, and this is the challenge of how much you have to be all in as university president. I was asked early on if I was going to be external or internal. And I thought, well, that’s crazy because you have to be both right?
And, and for me, first of all, I love the campus community, and I want to be involved, and I want to show up at things, and I want relationships with students, so there’s the internal, but of course, you have to be the external ambassador. You have to be involved in government relations. You have to be involved in being, I think, just an asset to the community as a leader.
And of course what happens internally affects externally because people hear you know? They know what morale is like on campus. They hear things about what’s students are saying either about the university or about you as president.
So I would say that knowing that you have to be both internal and external, you just have to figure out early on how to manage your, your calendar and where you want to be and need to be. And really think about things strategically, not just let things happen to you, but really where you’re going to put time and effort.
And I would say that I think that you really have to develop good relationships on campus as well as externally. So I have to have a good relationship with the faculty. You need faculty; they, they deliver the core. And when I say faculty, I’m broadly speaking educators so also everyone in student success and engagement. But they deliver the important, important educational outcomes with our students.
You also have to have a good relationship with students. You know, when issues come up, it’s very easy- um I had a student one time tell me that, that they never protested here at Orchard Hill, which is the presidential home, because I invite him for dinner a lot, you know? And it was a kind of tongue in cheek thing, but it was a part to say, you have a relationship with us, so if we’re upset about something, we’re going to come see you and talk to you, you know.
And I do these open door days where anybody can come see me periodically, any student, any worker, anybody because I tried early on as a president to say, how do I maintain relationships? I know I’ll be at- I’ll be with student leaders. I’ll host the RA karaoke party. I’ll do these kinds of things.
But what about just I would say a random student or a third shift employee who needs to talk to the president. So I do these open door days and things that hopefully at least they know I care and I want that access. I think that’s important, to be sustaining a long-term presidency that you make sure that you are accessible and you have to manage all that.
I’ve been asked before about margin and about work-life balance, especially as I try to mentor younger professionals. I’m not that good at that. I mean, I have to be honest. I’m like, well, I just love what I do so much that I’m willing to do it. You know, as I’ve gotten older, I probably appreciate a night at home more than I did 5 or even 10 years ago. Um, and so I’ll take some of those.
But you need to show up as president. You need to be, certainly, a symbolic presence on campus. You need to be involved externally. And so, you have to figure out how to do that, how to keep that busy schedule, but keep it meaningful.
Todd Ream: I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about that in ways for younger professionals to think about what a more sustainable or desirable lifestyle can look like for university presidents.
Kim Phipps: Some advice that I was given early on, and I haven’t necessarily done this as well as I probably should have, but I have suggested it to others as well- you know, the kind of don’t do as I do- but, but a very good friend who had a longer term presidency than most told me that starting his second year of the presidency, he insisted that he took off one day a week, one weekend a month, and one month a year. That he carved that into his schedule. So as he was mapping out things he was sure of that.
And I probably have done a little better with that since COVID because certain things changed I think even in how we structured some things on campus. But I do try to take a Saturday or a Sunday where apart from maybe showing up at something that I might love like a basketball game or something like that. But I try not to work the entire weekend in a way that there’s just some time to do some cooking if I feel like doing that or our daughter’s in graduate school at the University of Maryland. I’m meeting her halfway and having dinner with her and things. So I think carving out some space where you can do non-university related things is really important.
And I have not taken sabbaticals, mostly because I would just lose my mind not being around the community for that long a time. But the board, a couple times, has said to me after a board meeting in Florida, you’re going to stay down there for three weeks. You work remotely, but we want you away from campus and we want you just reading and praying and spending time thinking. So, I’ve appreciated their support that way.
But I- so I think making sure you have, you build in time. And I think as you start a presidency, that’s something I’ve learned as well, it’s hard to get out of certain things. In other words, if you’re always at everything, you will always be expected to be at everything. So you need to be a little more maybe judicious or careful, I think early on.
And I have found I think I always thought, oh, I’ll disappoint everybody and if I’m not at like every senior recital. Well, it just doesn’t work that way, especially as I got into fundraising and campaigns. But I try to make sure I’m always at this particular concert where all of those students will be, or I tried to get to at least one event from every athletic team. Now we have 22. I don’t always make it every year, but I try.
I have a rotating system of having different groups over to my home and things like that. So it’s a lot of planning and intentionality. Um, as much as possible, I think too, stay connected with folks, but you really do have to plan the schedule.
And I would say as a president, having a really top flight admin assistant or chief of staff or whatever who helps. And sometimes she actually meets with my husband and I because there are things that, in the way that at least Kelly and I have worked together, that he’s involved where we just do like a calendar periodically every quarter, making sure we have everything set where we need to be in that. And that really does help.
And then I would say the personal prayer time. I have found it difficult at times in church involvement because you’re always still the president, you know? So sometimes the church or people want to talk business, want to- so I have probably relied more on my own personal reflection and meeting with a spiritual director periodically.
Um, and I have found that to be really important because obviously these roles take a lot from us and we need to be sure that we really are spiritually centered. And, at least for me, I have found that a little easier to do with more of the individual disciplines than being in a group or a small group.
Todd Ream: Great advice. Thank you. You were one of the first female presidents to lead a member institution of the Council for Christian College & Universities. And over the course of your tenure, that number has grown, but it’s still far from the norm.
In what ways, if any, could the preparation we afford our female colleagues for service as university presidents perhaps be improved?
Kim Phipps: Yeah, it’s preparation of our female colleagues, but it’s also preparation of our boards. And I’ve thought about this a great deal, having been in some different leadership roles, like chairing the CCCU board and others.
Boards select presidents. And so boards who have the imagination or the creativity to think of women or persons of color and others out of maybe the more stereotypical Christian college, university president being white male and coming through a particular academic track. Boards have to have imaginations and creativity to do that.
I don’t think I would have been asked to be Messiah’s president, except for the fact that Messiah was having its first woman board chair at that time. So a woman named Eunice Steinbrecher had stepped into that role, and I think so for some of our trustees who to be frank, in their late 70s, men, they had never worked with a woman as an equal. They had certainly had women support them in their roles, but not as a peer in some way. Um, I think they were more able to see that because of her leadership and their respect for her. So I think we need to do more work with boards on that.
But I think for women and the preparation, part of it, I think, is to also to hold up to all people, men and women on our campuses, that this really is a good job as the article author in Forbes said this week. And it’s a job that matters. You know, you’re making a difference for the campus community and that and the students who go out, the alums that you have, that impact is so important and significant. So I think that needs to be held up for men and women and not a: ugh, you’d never want that job, kind of attitude.
But I think particularly for women there’s a couple of things. One is dealing with imposter syndrome and helping women on our campuses to see the composition of gifts they have as it relates to leadership and what that might mean.
And so I think again, some of our organizations are doing that well, like the Leadership Development Initiative program out of the CCCU etc… But I think on campuses, and we’ve been working, talking about this ourselves, how do we do a better job of making sure that we’re mentoring people?
So I mentor somebody every fall and spring through some of those association programs, but I’ve also tried to pick out over periods of time, right? Here’s somebody I want to plant the seed, help them see that. You know, what programs can I send them to? What books can we read together, and things like that?
So I think, the women who are in leadership and the men who are in leadership, but you see that in women, I think we need to literally tap people on the shoulders and try to be the people who speak into their lives and give them opportunity.
And then I would also say that I think that for some women, because of just the nature that in many of our families, there’s still more expectations on a woman related to how the family logistics work and all of that. Um, we have to find ways to help women see that they could do this even at certain points in their career.
So I had a daughter who was six when we- or I guess when we became president, six when we came to Messiah and like 11 when we became president. And so there were some things that I had to do, that it was important for me to change. Kelly also worked just in getting her to after school things and stuff like that.
And I remember talking with my board chair and saying I may not be able to be at this late afternoon in these two days a week. Here’s why I’m doing that. And she was like, you don’t have to tell me that. You know, you are president, you make your schedule. Those kinds of things.
Um, so I think we still need to help women see that they can do this and then it takes some creativity in terms of your schedule on that, but can certainly be done. And then, of course, we need boards and others who support women in doing that.
Todd Ream: Is there anything we can do to help foster on our campuses amongst our faculty, our students, those internal constituents too, in anticipation perhaps of welcoming a female president and how we can improve that?
Kim Phipps: Yeah, that’s a great question. You know, I’ve been here so long now. It’s like, yeah, what is it? But even now we’re in a provost search. And so I’ve even been thinking about this because the provost who started with me retired after what, 18 years. So we haven’t so we’re just now welcoming or we’re in that phase talking about that.
Um, I think one of the things to do is to warmly welcome or hospitable- so there’s always the, like the coffee and donut reception when somebody new comes to campus. There are events. But really I know for me, at least, and again, I was internal and then became president, so I know it’s a little bit different than an external, but I think people being willing, to invite you into their homes, being willing to share information about school districts and school systems, and things that people do, places where your kids can take art lessons, all kinds of- I think a really intentional welcome of hospitality that goes beyond the official events is very important.
And then I also, I think campuses in general need to have an understanding of or a clear understanding of what all is involved in the role of president. I think that people may know it’s tough or they have their own idea of what they want it to be most of all, whether it’s president, a scholar, or problem solver, or a good finance person, or an innovator or somebody who shuts up about innovation and pivoting. It doesn’t use those words, whatever it is, right?
Um, I think that we probably could do a better job of helping our campuses know what the complex role of the president is. And so as we might be welcoming a president, and then particularly a female president who maybe doesn’t have the same years of experience. Maybe they weren’t a president elsewhere and things like that. Um, that it’s really important to have a good shared understanding of what the role involves and, and what it should involve. I’m not sure that that’s always done as well as it needs to be done on campuses.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. Younger colleagues who are part of what some reference as millennials and Generation Z reportedly have a more integrated or holistic set of expectations of the relationship work and life share.
As their years of service advance, do you think the calling to serve as a university president will prove harder for them to embrace or perhaps easier for them to embrace?
Kim Phipps: It’s going to sound like I’m answering and I’m saying yes to both. Well, let me see. I think what would be harder is I don’t see how you can be the president without being all in. And by that, I mean not just spiritually, mentally, intellectually, but also physically, in terms of you have to understand that it’s a role that just takes a lot, a lot of time. And that’s just what it is.
And of course you’re compensated for that, you know? And those kinds of things. You just have to know that. And so you have to adjust what margin expectations are or adjust how much time you have for yourself.
Now having said that, I do think if you’re strategic, you can build in the important times that you need for yourself, in terms of your own spiritual development, time with your family. Those kinds of things. That’s very, very important. And so I think you can do both.
But I do think it would be less than honest to say that it isn’t a role that just requires significant time and effort and so you have to accept that, but you can certainly do it, and do it well, I think, without sacrificing everything about who you are personally, but you just have to really think through things as you’re planning to do it. So I’m interested.
And I will say, in some of the leadership development programs where I have been a mentor in recent years, I have found a little more hesitancy in some of the mentees about, do I really want to be a provost or a VP? Maybe being I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s truly there. And so I do think there’s a little more reserve on some people’s part as they think through leadership and what’s involved.
I think the other thing too is that, I don’t know what this will be, but when we look at AI and we look at different kinds of things that we may think of as tools that may help us do administrative processes and things like that better, more efficiently, more quickly. I don’t know if in the next 10 years, there just may be some things that are still very time consuming for presidents that some of that might change. And that might help as well, I think younger colleagues who are looking for a better balance in their life as they fulfill leadership roles.
Todd Ream: A couple of remaining questions for our time together then, focusing on Messiah, and you mentioned the denomination that helped sponsor it, and thus the theological DNA that animates it to this day.
I want to start though, first, by asking you, in what ways has Messiah changed the most over your time as president and in what ways maybe has it also stayed the same?
Kim Phipps: Okay. Um, I think in terms of our core values or commitments, those have stayed the same. Now, as you live those out, right? In the midst of a culture and a Church that’s changing, whether it’s conversations around human sexuality, whether it’s conversations around peace and war, whether- whatever those conversations are, those values animated.
But it means that we also still are living out our values in a different context. And so you have to have humility and understanding and a willingness at times to live with some dissonance. And that everything isn’t wrapped up as neat and tidy as you might like and that that has to be okay.
And so I think Messiah has had to lean into that more than in the past. I think we have worked- and this has been intentional in terms of wanting to be an institution that better reflects the diversity of God’s kingdom and certainly the diversity of our nation.
And so where our students from of color, as, as we would define them, where it’s about 5 percent and now it’s close to 25. And so we’ve been really working at that. Also really working as it relates to recruiting faculty and staff and administration from diverse backgrounds. So that changes the dynamic in the classroom. You’re not just sometimes talking about a theory. You have lived experiences of people in that space, changing the conversation or the culture. So that has certainly happened during my tenure.
We’ve added a graduate school, so that was something when I came here, we’re never going into graduate. Why would you do that? People just do that for money, etc… And we did it certainly wanted an additional revenue stream. But also additional opportunities to fulfill our mission in an important context.
And I just spent a wonderful 2 hour meeting yesterday with our grad program directors in conversation and the way that because there were newer programs and things, they just do a lot of wonderful collaboration and interprofessional education that’s really inspiring.
So I think, our self understanding of moving from a college to a university with close to 900 graduate students, where 12 years ago having none, that’s been a major change. And we still have to think about that at times. Uh, oh yeah, because some of our graduate programs, majority are online, but the ones that are in house are located at another physical facility. Not directly on campus.
And even for myself, I’m like, I need to show up there. I just need to go over there and have lunch so they know I’m their president. Um, so I think the moving from college to university, I think living out our core commitments and values, but realizing that we have, I don’t know, I would call them more edgy conversations to be honest than we did before. And we really have also, I think, leaned into reconciliation.
So our educational outcomes or our mission statement from the mid-nineties has been educating students for lives of service, leadership, and reconciliation. We didn’t really understand, I think, the depth of what reconciliation takes, what it means to speak truth, what it means to lament, what it means to be on a journey working toward that.
We spent a year, a few years ago, calling it the year of reconciliation. Had very hard conversations. Did a lot of assessment, all of us educators and students about our own cultural biases and lack of cultural intelligence. So I would see that as we’re still on that journey, but we have made progress and I think that’s a significant way that we’ve changed.
Todd Ream: Thank you. The origins of Messiah University reside with the Brethren in Christ Church, whose denominational headquarters, if my memory serves me well, are just outside the university’s main gate.
Kim Phipps: That’s exactly right.
Todd Ream: In what ways, if any, has the relationship with the Brethren in Christ Church changed over the course of your presidency? What were those ways that maybe you expected changes at the college and maybe changes within the denomination too?
Kim Phipps: Sure. So the Brethren Christ denomination owned Messiah University as its college until the early 1970s, and they moved then to a covenant relationship, which meant that there would be six members of the church who would be on a board of approximately 30, so it’s not an overwhelming number, but representation including the executive director of the denomination.
We actually have a written agreement that just talks about ways that we can support each other’s work and ways that we can move forward together, but it’s not ownership or onerous.
And I say that because I think that’s really important. And I think while that was from the early 1970s certainly broadly in the Brethren in Christ Church, I think they may see the university now as just bigger and less Brethren in Christ than it was.
And when I try to talk with people about what they mean by that, I think some of it is just, well, we don’t know as much of what’s going on or now you’re doing grad school. That’s not what you were about. So some of it is just people’s natural reaction to change and growth and development.
But certainly, Messiah did make that move with the covenant back in the seventies and certainly now, where I think it’s the best of all worlds, in the sense that we really have these beautiful values and commitments that come from the Brethren in Christ Church and that’s a part of our DNA. We educate our students about that in their first-year curriculum and value that deeply, but we are really ecumenical.
And so our Catholic students and our orthodox students and our Lutheran students and our Baptist and our Mennonites, they all need to find a home at Messiah because we believe that makes us better as a Christian institution of higher education, by having that breath and that diversity and those kinds of conversations in that.
So I think the fact we’re certainly more broadly ecumenical than we were even in the 90s and I think that nowadays, to be honest, the church, the Brethren Christ Church, like many denominations that would define themselves as evangelical, within their own denomination, there’s lots of political posturing at times, right? And divisive conversations related to politics.
We have tried at Messiah, and I think our students have been great about this, about really focusing on civil dialogue and what does it mean to be Christian when we’re talking about public policy and not Republican or Democrat etc… But I think within the churches, that’s true.
So I, for example, I went to speak at a Brethren in Christ church and was asked, are you a Republican? You know, they wanted to make sure that I had certain bona fides, you know? And I’m like, I’m not really going to share that with you, but I’m trying to be a faithful Christian.
Todd Ream: I hope you had a couple of other questions before you got that question but…
Kim Phipps: Exactly. Um, so that’s one way. I mean, I just think the church is, as a domination is, is having the struggles that they’re having anywhere. But I do believe we have a good partnership.
Uh, the executive director of the nomination and denomination and his board chair and my board chair and I meet annually. We talk through things, anything going on in the Church that the college can be helpful to or share resources with. And the same from the Church. So it’s a pleasant relationship and it’s not ownership in any way.
Todd Ream: One last question then for us and for our time together today relates to that theological DNA that the college inherited and still lives out and its roots are reflective of the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan traditions, those three streams that you mentioned earlier.
In what ways do those traditions impact the relationship that faith and learning share at Messiah? And are there any areas in the curricular or co-curricular spheres where that comes easier or perhaps comes harder?
Kim Phipps: Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes I do. I have said to people before and I’m all in at Messiah. I love that breath. But every now and then I say if we were, let’s say a denominational college and primarily I’ll just say Nazarene or something like that, maybe it would be easier some days. But I probably have Nazarene university presidents who would assure me it is not.
But I think that the DNA shows up in our curriculum and in our work in a number of different ways. So when we talk about service leadership and reconciliation, because of both the Wesleyan calls to love and serve and the Anabaptists’ focus on love and service, I think it’s very natural and it would be expected that at Messiah we have, for example, an experiential learning requirement for all graduates. And it has to take the shape in some way of active service or active leadership or some kind of global outside of curricular experience.
But so that emphasis on service comes from our theological traditions. It’s a part of the expectation, not only for things on our campus, like our annual service day and those kinds of things, but also in our expectations of students and their requirements.
I think that discipleship, which is also an important value, particularly out of the Anabaptist tradition, but certainly not only the Anabaptist tradition that informs very much our approach to spiritual formation.
And so while thinking a great deal about theology in terms of intellectual thought and understanding is important, there’s always a praxis element to what we talk about and emphasize at Messiah and I think that comes from those theological streams.
I also think that we have probably, at least certainly during my tenure but I think it started even before that use language where we talk more about ourselves as Christian than evangelical. Um, and I think some of that has come from not in any way that we don’t embrace what we think of as core commitments of the evangelical church or evangelical movement. But it was becoming and has continued to become so politicized in the United States, that we have just wanted to really hold up what we think is the best of what it means to be faithfully Christian, and also to hold that with humility.
And so some of our language around gracious Christianity or hospitality is very intentional and we want to live into that. But again, I think it fits with the theological streams that inform Messiah University. And so we’re grateful for that. We’re grateful for that heritage. We have to explain it a lot. We have students- I have students every semester, this is an anti-Baptist school. I’m Baptist. I didn’t know when I came here, you know? No. But you know, we do that.
And what is, what is a pietist, you know? So we have to define the terms, but the underlying beliefs and values from those movements are much more common to folks. And so we’re trying. We’ve tried to make sure in our first-year curriculum and even in our orientation for employees as well, not just faculty, but all folks, folks working on our cleaning and maintenance staff, that they have some common vocabulary that comes from our theological DNA and they can hopefully see how we try to live that out all the time as a campus community.
Todd Ream: That’s wonderful. Thank you. Our guest has been Kim S. Phipps, President of Messiah University. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and wisdom with us today.
Kim Phipps: Thank you so much for having me, Todd. I really enjoyed our conversation and I’m grateful for all the partners in Christian higher education.
Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.