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I first heard a version of this paper delivered by President Ryken at the 2016 annual meeting of the Council for Christian College and University presidents. I must confess that my initial reaction was lukewarm at best. It seemed presumptuous and even self-serving that we would compare our roles as presidents to the sacred Biblical roles of prophet, priest, and king—let alone to Christ himself. (I remember thinking to myself somewhat sarcastically, “this would play well in faculty meeting.”) The framework seemed far too neat and abstract to describe the messiness of daily life in the presidency. While I had no trouble thinking of my work as a divine calling, I struggled with entering into the exercise of comparing our work as leaders to that of Christ himself. Nevertheless, out of my deep respect for President Ryken, I listened carefully and then attributed this approach to the presidency to President Ryken’s own background as a pastor and theologian. It is testimony both to his stature and to the quality of the presentation that I had not forgotten the images. But I little expected that I would have the opportunity to engage with these ideas again.

Remembering my reaction, it seemed a sort of poetic justice that I should be invited to respond to the paper and to be part of this exploration of the nature of the Christian college presidency. Reading the paper again reminded me of the extent to which this threefold metaphor of the work of Christ has pervaded Christian theology from early in the Christian tradition. In that light, it is not at all strange that we would apply it to the work of today’s Christian college president. Furthermore, thinking in these terms does add an organizing framework of meaning and purpose to the range of tasks that we encounter each day—some that we had planned, many that we had not. I certainly appreciated the paper’s invitation to think more broadly than the notion of “servant-leadership.” While that may be the primary example of Jesus’s explicit teaching on leadership, his life and work certainly model a much more multi-faceted approach to this calling.

I remain cautious about thinking too much of our roles as prophets, priests, and kings. It can blind us to own vulnerabilities. For certain personalities, it could lead to inappropriate self-aggrandizement and the tendency to ignore too much one’s critics—especially those from what we might call the “loyal opposition.” There are those in any institution who care deeply about that institution, who have often served longer than the president, and who have perspectives we need, even when they run counter to our own sense of a situation. For all of us, the images of prophets, priests, and kings can lead to taking ourselves too seriously. Nevertheless, I realized that if we can think of ourselves, in general, as disciples modeling our lives after our Lord, then surely there must be a place to think of ourselves in our particular callings as presidents or Christian leaders modeling ourselves after our Lord. Ultimately, I am choosing to view President Ryken’s comparison of the work of the presidency to the work of our Lord not as an act of presumption, but as an invitation to enter humbly into an exploration of what it might mean to lead like Jesus.

Taken in that spirit, I believe the threefold framework of prophet, priest, and king can serve as a helpful rubric for describing the work that we do as Christian college presidents. As a framework, it offers us a way of evaluating the relative importance of each of the tasks that comes across our desk. If too many of our tasks for a season do not fit into the framework, perhaps we are allowing ourselves to be diverted from the core aspects of our calling. As President Ryken himself suggests, the framework can become a useful measure for keeping us balanced in the energy devoted to the various aspects of our task.

Having acknowledged the value of the threefold framework, I would suggest that it focuses primarily on the work of the presidency rather than on the character of the president. If one is to thrive in the work of today’s presidency and bear fruit for the Kingdom, we must pay as much attention to our being as to our doing. The kind of people we are will affect significantly the nature and impact of the work that we do. In the spirit of President Ryken’s invitation to model presidential leadership after the work of our Lord, I would suggest two other potential frameworks for exploration—not as alternatives but in addition to the threefold model of the article. Both models come from the Gospel of John: first, the model of incarnation suggested in chapter 1; second, the series of “I am” statements throughout the book. Both focus on the kind of people we are called to be as we seek to imitate our Lord in our being, as well as in our doing. Attention to both our doing and our being will lead to a certain style of presidency worthy of our calling as Christ-centered presidents.


In John 1, we are told,

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. … The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (NRSV)

I see in this familiar passage at least three elements that ought to characterize our approach to the presidency if we are to lead like Jesus. First, we are to embody the presidency as our calling, as our Lord embodied his calling. This work is not simply something we can hold at arm’s length, as much as we might want to do that on certain days. It is not something we can do from our offices, or through presidential emails and texts. We must live our work among the people we are called to serve. We must lead by presence. This includes certainly presence at large public events and ceremonial occasions but it also includes presence in the spontaneous moments in the dining hall, in faculty and staff offices, at athletic events, at concerts, in the student lounge. These are the moments that test the authenticity of our authority. In these moments, we come as it were without the accoutrements of our office—without the robe and presidential medal of our office, without the script, without the strategic plan. These are the moments that reveal whether we are “at home” in our skin as presidents.

Second, in embodying the presidency in the spirit of Jesus, we are to bring together “grace and truth.” It is relatively easy, if we have done our homework well, to pronounce and expound on what we believe to be the truth—the hard realities with which we must reckon if we are to be effective in our work as institutions and as individuals. It is also relatively easy to extend grace in the sense of accepting people without judgment or without expectation beyond what they present to us. What is not easy is embodying both a ruthless commitment to the realities of a situation as we see them, especially when the realities are unpleasant or imply accountability, and a gracious openness and hospitality to the people involved such that any judgment is mediated not by our words or our bearing, but by the power of the truth itself.

Third, if we are to embody the presidency like Jesus, we must seek to be as in tune with our Father’s heart as Jesus. Again, we are treading very close to sacred mysteries that we dare not presume upon. We are not after all, like Jesus, the second person of the Trinity. Nevertheless, we must seek, in our finiteness and fallenness, to be speaking out of a place of communion with the Father. We must be “making him known” as Jesus made him known. We must be speaking what we hear our Father speak. We must be seeing as our Father sees. We must be loving as our Father loves. Taking time with our Father so that we might become the kind of person who can truly embody truth and grace may be one of the most difficult disciplines of the presidency. And yet, if we are truly to become like our Lord, we must take that time to be in the presence of our Father. Or, if we wish to bring in the rest of the Gospel of John, we might think of taking time to be in the presence of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the divine community. For in going to the Father, we have been promised a Comforter and Guide who will help to conform us to the image of Christ and help to guide us in the truth.

The “I ams”

Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus offers several metaphors to help his followers understand who he was: “I am the bread of life” John 6:35; “I am the light of the world” John 8:12; “I am the door for the sheep” John 10:7; “I am the good shepherd” John 10: 11; “ I am the resurrection and the life” John 11:25; “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” John 14:6; “I am the true vine” John 15:1. In doing so, he was presumably connecting himself to the name by which God identified himself to Moses in Exodus 4. He is also calling attention once again to the embodied nature of his work. What he does cannot be separated from who he is.

Again, with the cautious humility that must attend any comparison to the person of our Lord, I invite us to explore several of these metaphors as they might relate to the kind of people we are called to be in our work as Christian college presidents. I dare not tackle Jesus’s identification as the “resurrection and the life” or as “the way, the truth, and the life.” I will leave those explorations to each individual president.

I am the Bread of Life

In the Gospel of John, chapter 6, we read of Jesus feeding the crowd of five thousand from the boy’s lunch of five barley loaves and two fish. (We might feel as presidents that we too are called all too often to create abundance out of apparent scarcity!) After the crowd has gone away, Jesus went away by himself. His solitude was interrupted when his disciples needed to be reassured by his presence as they found themselves caught in a terrifying storm on the Sea of Galilee. (Again, our own best intentions for seeking personal renewal are often interrupted by the needs of others for whom we are responsible.) Arriving on the other side of the lake, Jesus finds himself once again confronted by the crowds. It is in this context that he engages his followers in a conversation about bread. He suggests immediately that many of them may be following him because of the dramatic miracles they have seen and the fact that he has met their very real need for daily nourishment. They like this and want more; in fact they ask him to keep doing this always. It is at that point that Jesus pivots the conversation. He wants to draw them deeper into an understanding of their true need for nourishment of which daily bread is only a symbol. He declares himself to be the “bread of life,” the avenue through whom true nourishment comes, but only because of his connection to the Heavenly Father, who alone gives the “true bread from heaven.”

There are several insights from this exchange that are instructive to us as presidents. First of all, we are surrounded by individuals and groups who look to us to solve their immediate problems. Second, like Jesus in this sequence of events, we are often valued to the extent to which we are seen to be the solution to particular real or perceived needs. No matter how kind the praise, we must never allow ourselves to become reliant on that praise or to become diverted from our larger and true calling by the desire of one of our constituencies to mold us for their purposes or to make our mission smaller than it is. Third, we must always be calling those in our care beyond their own perceived needs – as a department, or as a particular alumni class, or a particular student and her family – to see a larger picture of the mission of the college, and ultimately the mission of God’s Kingdom. Finally, we must always be pointing beyond ourselves to our Heavenly Father. No matter how much certain individuals or groups might see us as presidents to be the answer to their needs, we in our own power are not. We cannot in our own power solve anyone’s problems—and we must not lead anyone to think that. We must always be pointing beyond ourselves. We are, like our Lord, only avenues of potential and occasional empowerment or nourishment through whom God’s “true” empowerment and nourishment is mediated.

I am the Light of the World

The context for this next “I am” declaration is less clear. We are told simply that Jesus was teaching in the temple treasury. The statement provokes an exchange with the Pharisees about his authority. They do not engage the content of Jesus’s declaration as much as his right to say it. Both his statement and his response to the Pharisees’ challenge can be instructive for the Christian college president.

Like Jesus, we are called to be “light” for those who follow us. We must help our institutions see what is ahead; to anticipate pitfalls and risks; to navigate the landscape in which we function so that our mission continues to be accomplished. The metaphor points to the way we must function within our institutions— “shining” the light of day on all that goes on in every part of the college or university to ensure that it is functioning transparently. If we are light-bringing presidents, there should be no corners of our institutions which cannot bear the test of being “in the light.” If we are to be light, we must keep our conversations and our decisions open to scrutiny.

Like Jesus in this exchange with the Pharisees, we must know who we are apart from any of our constituencies. If we are to be effective as presidents, we cannot allow our identity to rest in anything or anyone but our Heavenly Father. We must “know where we come from and where we are going” as we are told in John 8:12 so surely that no one can make us doubt that—even when encountering our toughest critics. We will respond best in all kinds of controversy when our own egos are not at stake—when we have no need to win anything for ourselves, or to prove anything for ourselves.

I am the Door for the Sheep

The image of the door, or the gate, is especially inviting as we think about our callings as Christian college presidents. Doors and gates speak of safety. We want to be agents of creating constructive safety within our institutions. I use the phrase “constructive safety” to distinguish this point from some of the current connotations attending the notion of “safe spaces” on our campus. We do want our institutions to be places of shelter and protection where students can grow and develop without fear. Thus we devote considerable attention to creating an environment that invites them to explore, and to grow intellectually, spiritually, socially and in every way possible to become the kind of whole people that God has created them to be. We hire faculty and staff who are familiar with the journeys of our students and who can speak to them out of their own journeys of faith. But being safe does not mean always being comfortable. So we are careful to ensure that our campuses are places of appropriate challenge as well as security. The purpose of Christian education is spiritual formation in the most comprehensive of ways possible. We are called to provide spaces that lead to holy transformation rather than to complacency and mindless conformity, spaces that invite our students to become larger agents of God’s holy purposes in the world.

Doors and gates speak of welcome and hospitality. As college and university presidents, we have unbelievable “convening power.” We can invite to our institutions students, faculty and staff from all over the world. We have the privilege of crafting learning communities that contribute not only to the growth of our students, but also to the growth of faculty, staff, and outside guests. As Christian college presidents, we have the privilege and indeed the responsibility to host conversations that cannot happen quite as freely in any other context of our world. Because our role within the Kingdom includes the task of exploration as well as proclamation, we have a much broader opportunity than churches to invite into conversation those who share a wider range of perspectives in all avenues of learning. Because of our status as a private institution, we have a much broader opportunity than public institutions to invite people to speak freely and openly about their faith and to connect faith with all arenas of learning, as well as personal and public life. In a time of such political and theological division as our own, we have a special responsibility to exercise our calling as doors of welcome and hospitality. We can bring together individuals and groups who might not encounter each other in any other context. This is both an important educational endeavor. It is also a Kingdom endeavor. As Christian colleges and universities, we may be uniquely positioned to complicate the destructive stereotypes that all too often serve to deepen already existing theological, political, and social divides.

Doors speak of opportunity. As college presidents, we have overwhelming responsibility to invite students, faculty, and staff to imagine their lives in new ways. We think of this most often as it relates to our work with students. But it equally applies to our work with faculty and staff. As presidents, we have occasion in our private conversations, in our public talks, and in our internal agendas, to expand the ways that people think of themselves, of their gifts, of the world, and of the ways that God might want to match their gifts to the needs of this world.

Finally, doors allow people both to come in and go out. As presidents, we must be attentive not only to inviting people into our institutions but of sending them out when it is time for them to move on. This rhythm of coming and going is taken for granted among our students. It is more complicated when it comes to faculty, staff, and administrators. But we owe it to our communities and we owe it to those whose journeys have brought them into our communities to facilitate discernment about when a particular institution is no longer a mutually edifying and constructive match for a particular person. Early on I learned that faculty and staff were reluctant to let a provost or president know that they were exploring other employment opportunities. I always encouraged such exploration—much to the surprise of some who confessed to me reluctantly that they were doing this. I encouraged this, not because I wanted to lose them to the institution, but because I believe such exploration is an important part of preserving a sense of agency, rather than victimhood, about one’s journey. If the person chooses to leave, chances are they would not have been happy eventually if they had stayed, and certainly not if they felt obligated to stay. If the person chose not to leave, they experienced the returning to their institution as a fresh and renewing choice.

I am the Good Shepherd

The image of the “good shepherd,” while not as natural to twenty-first- century Western culture as it was to first-century Palestine, is still powerful as a metaphor for the work of the Christian college president. I will focus in this essay on three especially instructive aspects of the work of a good shepherd. First, the good shepherd is committed to self-sacrifice for the sake of this sheep. Being a good shepherd requires that one put something other than one’s own safety first. This is not just a job, or a blue ribbon for one’s vitae. It is a sacred trust. For the Christian college president, this means at least putting at risk the safety of one’s career, the security of one’s reputation, and the right to be in charge of one’s own life. While there is a very real sense in which no one’s career is “safe;” no one’s reputation is “secure,” and no follower of Jesus has a right to be in charge of one’s own life, the presidency reminds one of these realities on a daily basis. For many who come into this position, they do so because they have always been successful and perceived to be successful by others. They have often had tenured positions on faculties where they expected to be until they retired. They arrive in these positions because they have clean records; they have not been besmirched by real or perceived scandal. They are used to being and being viewed to be morally and intellectually competent. All of this changes once a person arrives in the office of the Christian college president. In this role, our concern must be, first of all, stewarding the mission of our institution—not because institutions are sacred, but because they are the context of the sacred work of personal transformation. This means, among other things, letting go of the need to be right for one’s own sake; letting go of the goal of pleasing the full range of constituencies to whom one is responsible; letting go of the need to defend one’s own moral or intellectual virtue. It means letting go of the freedom to be “off the record.” It means letting go, to some extent at least, of the freedom to protect one’s calendar. While in the office, you are president and a public person twenty-four hours of the day, every day of the year. The care of the institution and one’s students, faculty, and staff comes before considerations of self-preservation.

Second, the good shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. The Christian college presidency cannot be done in abstraction from the very real and particular people who make up the institution. It is our responsibility to know as well as possible the particular gifts and stories of the individuals who have entrusted their journeys, in some sense, to our care. It is our responsibility to match the gifts and talents of the people under our care to the needs of the institution. While the office of the presidency carries with it certain limitations on one’s freedom (for example, one can never truly speak as a private person!), and a responsibility for the dignity of the office, it is absolutely essential that we occupy the presidency in a way that is authentic to our own person. We cannot be the president like anyone else. We must, to some degree at least, allow ourselves to become known.

Third, the good shepherd remains always an agent, never a victim. The good shepherd must seek always to act—never to react. No matter what the circumstances, the good shepherd remains free to choose what a good shepherd would do in that situation. No one can take that from him. He cannot be under the control of anyone but God himself.

I am the True Vine

The image of the “true vine” appears in the series of discourses that Jesus had with his disciples during the week prior to his crucifixion. It would seem presumptuous for us as presidents to position ourselves in most respects as the “true vine” in our institution. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which, whether we like it or not, we are expected in this role to be the source of vision, of energy, of direction in a way that others are not. In that sense, we are “the vine.” I call attention to this image primarily to notice that immediately after Jesus describes himself as the “true vine,” he notes: “my Father is the vinegrower.” It is great comfort as the Christian college presidency to know, that in the end, the vineyard is not under our supervision. We do not, ultimately, have the final say about the pruning, and we certainly do not have the power in ourselves to make the vineyard fruitful. This image invites the combination of confidence and humility that allows a person to be in the office of the Christian college and university president.


I am grateful to President Ryken for inviting us to think more deeply about the ways in which our callings as presidents invite us, and indeed implore us, to draw nearer to our Lord Jesus Christ. The work of the Christian college and university president is more complicated today than ever. Our institutions do not fit easily into the legal or regulatory categories of our state and federal governments (that is, we are deeply religious, but we are not a church). The world of higher education, including accrediting agencies, finds it puzzling to understand how a Christian college can pass the test of “academic freedom,” forgetting that all learning contexts begin with certain presuppositions about human nature, about the nature and accessibility of knowledge, and so on. Even many of our churches see Christian higher education as less integral to their work than it once was perceived to be. Yet it is in this very context that the world and the church need more than ever the seasoning and leavening influence of the graduates of Christian colleges and universities. No other institution is organized in such an integrated and intentional way for the transformation of the whole person to the glory of God. No other institution is producing individuals who are so well prepared to raise the challenging questions that are necessary for the continual renewing of both our churches and the institutions of our civil society. Now more than ever, we as college and university presidents need to draw near to our Heavenly Father, so that we too, like our Lord Jesus, may do the work of the Father in our time.

Cite this article
Shirley A. Mullen, “Response to Christ-Centered Presidency: The Threefold Office of Christ as a Theological Paradigm for Leading a Christian College”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:2 , 139–148

Shirley A. Mullen

Houghton University
Shirley A. Mullen is the current president of Houghton College, in Houghton, NY.