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In the eighteenth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Deana Porterfield, President of Seattle Pacific University. Porterfield opens by discussing the discernment process in which she participated when considering whether to embrace the calling to serve as a university president and, in particular the calling to serve as the president of Roberts Wesleyan University for nine years and, as of the 2023-2024 academic year, as the president of Seattle Pacific University. Porterfield then offers advice for younger administrators concerning what practices could help them discern a comparable calling and, should it emerge, prepared them to embrace it. She then discusses the ways the Free Methodist Church and Seattle Pacific relate to one another and enhance one another’s missions. Ream and Porterfield then close their conversation by discussing the theological qualities that define the Wesleyan tradition and in what ways those qualities inform curricular and co-curricular programming on campuses such Seattle Pacific University.
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 Deana Porterfield, president of Seattle Pacific University. Thank you for joining us.
Deana Porterfield: Thank you.
Todd Ream: After 26 years of serving as an administrator in various roles at Azusa Pacific University, you were called to Roberts Wesleyan University where you served as president for nine years. Last summer, you were called to serve as president of Seattle Pacific University.
Would you begin by detailing the discernment process involved with embracing the call to Roberts Wesleyan?
Deana Porterfield: Yes. Well, thank you so much for having me on this podcast. I’ve been thinking about how to concisely talk about how you discern God’s call on your life to a different place, especially across the country.
I was at Azusa Pacific, as you mentioned, for 26 years. And throughout that time, people had spoken to my life, talked about maybe you should be a president someday, but I really couldn’t sort that out. And as I moved through my time at APU, got married, had a family, completed my master’s degree. It was not until 2010 that I went back to school for my doctorate. And so I was late in the game. I had been an administrator for almost 10 years, but I didn’t have the doctoral degree.
And I remember at that moment feeling like, okay, Lord. I don’t want the doctoral degree to be the thing that keeps me from doing the next thing you might have for me. But I wasn’t ready to claim that as a presidency, because again, I had to have this thought, like, am I getting ahead of God if I say, oh, I’m going to be a president? I really wanted it to be something that God called me to.
So it was 2013. I graduate with my doctorate and I head up to Sumas, Washington, to be part of the faculty for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities’ Women’s Leadership Development Institute. And I’m there, and my dear friend, Shirley Hoogstra, who now is the president of the CCCU, and I are talking, and we’re talking about what God might have for us next. And we make commitment that we’re going to explore possibilities in the next year. And what did that mean?
So we each had a list and one of the areas that was the same on both of our lists is that we were actually going to update our resumés and our CVs. So you work in a place for 26 years, you just keep adding like, you know, tactical items. You don’t actually do anything with it. And so we said we’re gonna make sure that we write a CV or a resumé that’s appealing and so let’s commit to that.
And then she had her list of things and then one of the things on my list was to explore the possibility, over the next year, there were some organizations that you could join to talk about were you called to the presidency. What might that look like? So this was July or June of 2013, end of July, beginning of July.
And I get home from that and I receive a call from a search firm about Roberts, literally within the month, but I’m still on cloud nine from graduating with my doctoral degree. I mean, I’m a first generation college student. So like, I mean, I’m just celebrating.
And we have a plan. Shirley and I have a plan, right? I mean, we’re going to use the next year to kind of discern maybe what might be next. And so, I also had this issue where I felt like if I applied to a place, didn’t I have to be willing to go? I had to have that decision in me. So I didn’t apply.
And a few weeks later I get a call back and the search firm said Deana, you haven’t applied. I want you to know we’ve extended the deadline for the application process for Roberts and Northeastern- and it’s Roberts Wesleyan and Northeastern Seminary, two organizations- and so want to just encourage you to apply.
And this was my question, and it sounds so silly now as I say it, but it really was a struggle for me, I said, I said, so, you know, my struggle is if I apply, I have to be willing to go. And his response was, I’m not offering you a job; I’m just asking you to consider applying. And you know, you laugh about that, you think, of course he wasn’t offering me the job, but I felt so much pressure on how do I discern that, just even submitting an application, and it freed me up.
So I talked to my husband and we prayed about it and we said, okay, we don’t know if God’s calling us from California to New York. But we’re going to step into the process and if at any point of the process, we feel a tension in that, we will not step forward. And we never felt a tension. We just kept going through the process.
And so, through the end of that, I was offered the position. And, you know, I had a whole list of things that I had written down in my journal of things that I felt like were important. And after my interview, I’m going through that and I’m looking at the list and I’m thinking, wow, okay. It aligns, but I’m still not sure, Lord. You know, this is New York. I’m living in California.
Todd Ream: A lot of snow in Rochester.
Deana Porterfield: Yeah, upstate New York, Rochester, right?
And I remember after the interview, my prayer in the interview was Lord help me be myself. And if that’s what Roberts and Northeastern need, then make it really clear. And I was actually at the airport after the interview, getting ready to fly home. And the search firm called and said the board, the committee made a decision. Will you stay another day? They want to offer you the job. This was the day I interviewed so that felt pretty clear.
But I still wasn’t sure. We came back. We toured the area and it was two weeks after it took me two weeks to actually say yes. And I’ll never forget my husband, Doug, walked in the kitchen one night and I said, Doug, we just got to make a decision of should we go, should we not. I think we’re supposed to.
And he said, Deana it’s time. It’s time, meaning it’s time to leave Azusa Pacific and it was time for him to leave his career of 19 years as a Dean of Music and Fine Arts and a high school volleyball coach. He stepped away from those. And God took us to Rochester and it was amazing.
So then I thought, okay, I guess this is where I’m going to be. I mean, you never go in thinking it’s going to be forever. Um, you, you know, you know that you’re in a season and the, in the history and the life of the university, but you don’t know when that will end.
Um, so I’m there, into my seventh eighth year, and we’re just completing the first strategic plan. And I’m thinking: okay, Lord, do I have another vision in me? Another, the next run, right? Because as a leader, you have to be excited about where you’re taking the institution and every strategic plan has that next run for the institution. And I’m trying to discern at that point. And there’s there’s opportunities available to me, but they’re not settling right in my spirit.
And I go away and I spend some time trying to decide, was there something that I could come back to in my leadership for the institution. And in April of 2022, I present to the Board of Trustees, Vision 2030 for Roberts Wesleyan. And I’m very excited about it, on it is to become a university, to merge the seminary and the, and the college together, some opportunities for claiming the unique position that we have, the new strategic plan. And I think, okay, Lord, clearly this is where you have me.
And this is April of ’22, and so next thing I know, we hit July a few months later, and um, I hear about the position here at SPU, and my comment, because we were, we are a sister school out there of SPU and, and Roberts, in the Free Methodist tradition, and my comment is, boy, whoever God takes there, they’re really gonna have to be called. Because who’s gonna go?
I mean, everybody knows what’s happening right in this, in this space. And, and so I get a call, but it’s not a serious call. I’m busy. We’re opening a significant building for the university. We’re becoming a university. I’m very excited about the strategic plan. And they would call occasionally, but we weren’t praying about any of that.
October 26th, 2022, and I wrote it down on a piece of paper, was the time that the search firm called. And I wrote things down and felt that we probably needed to pray about it. And talked to my husband, I said, this is weird, because again, God’s gonna have to really call whoever goes to SPU, as I remember thinking that, right? And saying it.
It was October 26th that God began to stir. My husband came home that day and I said, hey, I got this call and I don’t know, should we be praying about it? Seems like we should. And he said, yeah, I think we’re supposed to pray about it. I have that in my spirit too. And so October 26, which is really quick to the middle of January, when we announced it, went really fast.
Um, but again, trying to discern that in the process. So I go, I meet with the search firm. And when I’m in the call with the search firm, and I’m face-to-face with them, they tell me the timeline. And I think, well, this is a done deal, I’m not going to SPU. Um, the timeline, the interview for the final candidates, if I made it to that stage, was the week before the grand opening of one of the most significant buildings on the campus of Roberts.
And we had donor events Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And this is Rochester. We’ve mentioned that already, the snow. We’re talking about getting out to Seattle and back within 24 hours. Well, that first of all, the flight itself is half a day, cause there’s nothing straight into Rochester.
I said, I can’t make it out there for the interview, so this might be a deal breaker. And the search firm said, well, let’s just see how the process goes and we’ll make a decision when we get there. And they call me back and say, the committee would like to interview you and they recognize you can’t come for an interview face-to-face.
So we do a zoom interview and I’m thinking, okay, Lord, how in the world are they going to pick a president on zoom? I’m putting this out publicly, so I guess I’m making it known now, but, and how in the world am I going to pick going to Seattle Pacific?
Now, mind you, I’m from the West coast. My husband grew up in Vancouver, Washington. I used to recruit for Azusa Pacific, the state of Washington. So I know that we would vacation here. So we know the area but, you know, we’re talking about coming as the president of a university and you want to connect and, and, and meet face-to-face.
Well, we said, okay, well, we’ll do the interview in zoom, which the one advantage is my husband sat around the corner and listened in, which normally he would not have been able to do so we could discern together. And we interviewed and the only way I can describe it, is absolute peace. And we got off that call and we said, okay, whatever God has, wow, we have peace about this. We’ll see. We’ll see what the committee says, where we end up.
And received a call back, and it was a very fast decision. Um, we didn’t have to noodle on a lot of different pieces of it. It just was so clear to us that this is where God would have us in this season. And that, my nine years at Roberts Wesleyan, at another Free Methodist institution, actually the first Free Methodist institution, was preparation for this season at SPU.
And so we said, yes. Monday, I opened a building with all the constituent groups there and our congressman from the state of New York and all your donors. And Tuesday, I got on a call with the full board to let them know. And Wednesday, I was on a plane and we announced it on Thursday here. And then the transition started and then I cried a lot saying goodbyes but have always had peace, have always had this undeniable peace.
Um, so both processes, all that to answer, the discernment process, it looked different at each institution in a sense, but it was all about what this sense of where was God calling us in this time? And I say us because for- so now twice my husband has left his career to follow this call that we have so that I can be the president of the institution.
And it is as crazy as it sounds. And people still call me. And the number one question that I get is, did you know what was going on out there? Well, it’s been public, yes. And then why did you, why did you say yes? And the answer is yes, I knew. And two, because God was so clearly calling us for this season in our lives and in the life of the university.
Todd Ream: Sociologists often describe American culture currently as being in a transition from the secular to the post-secular. Not necessarily sure what all of that entails yet, but they know and have identified that something significant is happening.
How would you describe the American iteration of culture, which Roberts Wesleyan often found itself experiencing in upstate New York, and how does that compare to the iteration of culture Seattle Pacific finds itself experiencing in the Pacific Northwest?
Deana Porterfield: Right. So I laugh because I think so post, post-secular, so like no longer secular, like, what’s, what’s, what’s beyond secular? I mean, I don’t know. I mean, so you do have to kind of laugh at the way in which we try to define.
But, you know, if you look back, even at the time when Seattle Pacific was founded, in 1891 to today, you do have these cultural shifts that were happening in the Pacific Northwest but also across the United States, right? And globally. So we can see those. So I don’t want to just enlighten that question and say, hmm.
Um, so I don’t know if I use the word secular or post-secular and people define things differently. Um, where I would be at in that question is, the world is changing. Today’s world specifically in the areas of which this campus is, we are one of the least religious communities in the country.
And that was true at Roberts as well. Um, Albany, New York is another area, another pocket, that western New York area. We are located in this space where people are less connected to the Church, less connected in sometimes in family settings and what that looks like, we’re, we’re disconnected because of technology and all the innovation, which have wonderful things in it.
And so I don’t know if that’s post-secular or whatever term they end up on, but I would say the culture is one that’s very individualistic and very separated and yet longing for community and relationship. And there’s a disconnect there.
And so here we are, Seattle Pacific University, in the heart of a city, which is also unique within Christian higher education, to be literally in the city of Seattle, with this whole dynamic going on, especially post-COVID, where that really exacerbated all of that.
And we are trying to bring into this community a new way of looking at bringing communities together, using our graduates and investing in our graduates so that they can go out in a way with, with strong character, outstanding academic credibility, in a way to, to really reach out with a grace-filled presence, right?
So I like to say that one of the unique things about Seattle Pacific, and it’s part of our history, and it’s what we will hopefully continue to be known for, is training our students in this idea of bringing communities together through courageous dialogue, that good people can differ. And what’s modeled for us is separation and argument and not listening, lack of generosity, lack of humility.
And how do we teach our students to have those characteristics as part of their character here? Um, that wherever they’re sitting, they can stand firm in the belief system they have, but also be generous and courageous in the conversations where they value another person.
And so some might call that intellectual and spiritual humility, right? I go into a conversation and there’s things I can learn. And so when I think about culture, honestly, I’m less concerned about where the culture has changed to and what we are doing in our educational system to train people to live in a society that is ever changing. Because if we don’t figure out how to hold the belief system in a way that is generous in our hospitality and gracious with humility in our interactions, the community and the world will continue to divide.
And that is the unique space I believe we hold at Seattle Pacific and in Christian universities across the country. The ability to do that.
Todd Ream: One of the things I’ve noticed is that there are three points of emphasis, at least. There may be more, you know, that you’ve been working on and working with during your tenure so far at Seattle Pacific. But one of them is what you mentioned just a few minutes ago, the sense of grace-filled community.
So I want to start by asking about one of those three in particular. First, in what ways is such a community cultivated then?
Deana Porterfield: So yes, you’re hitting on our mission statement, which I love, right? Our mission statement is graduating students of competence, character, which includes spiritual formation, ready to serve in grace-filled ways within the community. This grace-filled community. So grace-filled community comes out of the fact, for us, it comes from our education and our character, our spiritual formation, and propels us out into the world to engage.
And so the grace-filled component of that is what I was just talking about. How do we take the character components of who we are, the part that God is shaping within us, out in a way to serve? And people serve in all kinds of ways, but our commitment is that we will find a way to do that in a gracious, loving, God-caring way.
Um, I’ve been struck recently reading through the Bible and I was in II Corinthians and I was struck by the phrase, the aroma of Christ. The aroma of Christ. And, you know, you can read it. It’s about, you know, in that portion of the Bible people are in battle and, you know, he’s talking about two different sides. But really think about that. How amazing would it be, even if people couldn’t name it, that there is this peace and this love and this, and this connection that comes from us? Grace-filled is that.
It’s understanding. It’s saying that: we would have graduates that you want to hire wherever it is you serve, that you would want as a neighbor because you, you, you know, that they’re, they’re good ethical people, right? Whether you agree fully with their belief system or not, you know that they are generous, and curious, and hospitable. And all of these components that go in and come without a leaning towards judgment.
And by the way, that’s really hard in today’s culture, right? Because we are so ingrained with this belief that we are right. And from the place I stand that’s where I battle from. And grace-filled community says I come in differently with a, with a position of humility to get to know you and understand you.
Todd Ream: Thank you. Another one of those points of emphasis is the engagement with culture then. Um, in what ways is engagement different from capitulation but also rejection of?
Deana Porterfield: Right. Oh, so now you’re getting into our theology. So we’re in covenant relationship with the Free Methodist Church, which, which really is a Wesleyan tradition. And you might’ve heard of the phrase messy middle. You know, nobody likes that phrase but you know, I love it. A friend of mine is using the phrase courageous middle.
But it, it really is explained in this way: we are anchored in the clarity of who we are. We don’t need to debate that because, and because of that, we are freed up to live in a world. So Seattle Pacific has had a vision statement that said engage the culture, change the world, right? And this has been for a number of years, and that engage the culture means unapologetically, unashamedly stepping out into the world, which is around us.
And that is so important here. We are actually in the city. You know, so there are some institutions that are just outside the city, or maybe in a more rural community, and you go into that community to serve and you come back home. Well, we are living here every day. This is where we are at. The complexities of a city, of a big city and what we see.
So engaging the culture means serving in that community, walking in that community, living in that community, and not separating yourself from that community. And, you know, the other part of that is to change the world, which has taken some hits over time, by the way, because this idea that we come in and as, you know, as a Christian university, we’re going to change the world.
Our goal is to help people find their identity in Christ through the Christian higher education that we offer. And what we know is again, going back to this idea of the aroma of Christ is that that comes because of how we serve, because of how we engage. People are interested in what makes us different because we walk side-by-side with them and understand them and serve them in a way in which we can help meet the needs of what they’re doing, how they’re serving or of their own needs that they have.
Todd Ream: Yeah. Thank you. In terms of that third point of emphasis then, in terms of, in the sense of changing the world, are there any virtues that would make such an effort possible perhaps more than others or sustain such an effort, depending upon where one it’s called?
Deana Porterfield: You know, it’s so interesting because we are working on our general education and there’s a faculty committee looking at how we take the virtues and put those virtues in general and put those kind of embedded across our general education. Be a little more prominent, right? It’s an interesting piece because who can change the heart, right?
What I can do is hopefully live a life that is reflective of the light of Christ in a way that draws people in. And sometimes for us in higher education, that’s gonna be because we get a seat at the table because of outstanding research, because our faculty are engaged in a certain type of work and teaching.
But whatever that is, however we get to the table, it’s that light and that reflection of how we engage that really ultimately can change the world. But ultimately, I mean, we don’t change it, right? We influence it. Um, like you said early on, you know, things are always in transition. I love the Bridges book on transitions. I don’t know if you’ve ever read that sociologist. It just cracks me up.
You know, everything’s always moving and it’s not just one area of your life. And you put that in culture and you just say everything’s always going. So my job is to show up with the gifts I have, reflect Christ in the way in which those are used, and then I always say and let the Holy Spirit do the work.
Todd Ream: Thank you. If I may sort of change subjects a little bit and focusing now back towards serving as a university president which you did, as we talked about earlier, for almost 10 years and at two different institutions.
Across the arc of those institutions and time then, what components of the job have remained constant and what seem to have changed the most?
Deana Porterfield: Change is constant but I’ll be a little more specific. Um, you have a changing demographic and perception of higher education. And even in the last couple of weeks, given the most recent Congress issues and interviewing of some pretty prestigious presidents from well-known institutions, it brings into question right now the value of higher education, what it means, and its impact. And, and that has changed.
I mean, I think originally there was a value in a different way, even just 10 years ago when I first became president at Roberts. But I think that’s always been there. It just is, is prominent, given social media, the way in which news runs, you know, it used to take a while to get to that story.
Even when I started 35 years ago in admissions, you know, the story came in a different venue and a different avenue, whether that was a newspaper or in hard copy mail and maybe on the news at night if you caught the news. You couldn’t even record the news at that time. We didn’t have laptops that we were recruiting from.
I think that accessibility and the fact that it’s so prominent and, and you can find it on any venue and it can be altered even from its truest sense of presentation is a huge impact on higher education.
I think specifically Christian higher education, as we have divided as a nation, even politically. At times, there’s a very, there’s a strong misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian institution and what it means to integrate that into your education. And I think that, so there’s greater challenges around that.
What hasn’t changed is that there’s always difficulty. That students are changing. When they come, they come with what we call bestowed ideas, right? Ideas that were instilled upon them as they grew up and they’re, they have to seek out and figure out their own held beliefs of what they want to sort out. And so that process is still true in higher education.
Um, I think what’s also true is students that do end up attending and coming, they have this opportunity to figure out who they are and they do that in a wonderful environment like SPU because of our liberal arts curriculum, kind of that wholeness of who they are, to integrate their, the, the things that they’re passionate about with the way in which God created them.
And I think that’s still true. It looks different, right? We modify the way in which we deliver classes. Sometimes, the book that we’re using changed, but we’re still talking about the development of students in a way that embodies their life’s call and their greatest gifts together.
Todd Ream: Thank you. In what ways are the paces of your day as president at SPU different from the paces of your day at Roberts?
Deana Porterfield: Well, I mean, I had been there nine years, so I had some rhythms. I don’t have the rhythms. I mean, let’s be honest, right?
So I’m in my fifth month, going now in my sixth month here at Seattle Pacific. So I’ve had to remind myself of what it was like the first year I was at Roberts, not my ninth year.
I am a believer that we were all created in a certain way and that the gifts of which we have are to be used in a certain way as well. So wherever it is that we’re called to serve, right?
And so part of spiritual formation is understanding the rhythms. I call them the rhythms, the rule of life that you need to stay in line with. And so I have my own rule of life. I have six areas that I try to hold myself accountable for so that I live out the call that God’s placed on my life. Um, if I am not balancing those six areas I can get a little off kilter.
So what I would say is I have not found my rhythm yet at Seattle Pacific but I have to give myself some grace because I look back at Roberts and I think, yeah, that first year, you’re just, you know, you’re drinking from a fire hose. You’re in a new city. I mean, I don’t even know where north is half the time. I walk out my door and I’m, there’s water all around up here. So, you know, I can’t just look and think like, oh, the water’s there that’s north or it’s everywhere.
So you’re acclimating to a new city, what you’re living in, where the grocery store is, all of that, a new community, which by the way is wonderful and has been very welcoming to us. Um, but you, you know, you’ve got new names to, to learn and, and you’ve got to figure out where the buildings are.
when I first got here, they said, hey, can you go out and take your phone and do a little Instagram in Tiffany Loop and, and welcome the new students and we’ll put it out on social media. I said, yeah, absolutely. I get my phone. I’m like, I’m out and I’m doing, hey, this is President Porterfield, standing here in Tiffany Loop and I put it out there. I sent it to him. I don’t think anything about it. Feel really good about it.
The next day, I’m walking across campus and I’m in a totally different place than where I recorded the video. And I said, is this Tiffany Loop? And they said, yeah. I said, oh. I just gave a video saying I was in Tiffany Loop, and I was actually in Martin Square. Anyway, they didn’t catch it enough to not put it up. So they put it up. And so then I just had to like make a joke out of it, right? Hashtag give the girl a map, you know, this kind of stuff.
Um, but all of that just takes time. And you forget you do forget that it takes time. But the day-to-day stuff, you know, leadership is about making sure you prioritize the most strategic things you can. Every month, I say, what are the top three things I need to be focusing on? Because literally I could name you 50 things that are all important right now that we need to get going on and to make decisions on to move us forward. But you do have to stop and say, what are the top three things right now?
So I’ll find my rhythm and I’ll get in those six areas. And, you know, one of those is sleep, and we’ll, and we’ll get there. But that’s how I measure it. That’s how I determine where I’m at with that. I am looking forward to a little, you know, the breaks as they come throughout the year. Those are helpful.
But for the most part, I find real energy in getting to know the community and prioritizing things that we can say, look, this is moving us forward. And that gives me energy.
Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. For individuals who may be called to serve as a university president one day, what forms of preparation would you recommend they consider?
Deana Porterfield: Yes. So I had a dear colleague, one time, give me this point of advice. She drew on a whiteboard, a line, kind of left to right. And then she listed the areas of the university that were the main area. So, you know, you have the CFO, you have advancement work, you have enrollment work. Um, you have student life as work, right? You’re part of the area.
And she said, okay, put a one to ten above the line and a one to ten negative below the line, and then rate yourself on each of those areas. What do you know and what do you not know? And if you’re ever called the presidency, you need to know a little bit about all of them, but you’re going to be an expert in one of them, and so know that you’re going to be the expert. Don’t spend any more time there, right? I mean, unless it’s the work you’re doing.
Figure out how to know some level of information enough to be able to lead these areas, figure out your weakest area and make sure when you hire, you hire those with greatest expertise and those where you need to lean into.
And I remember doing it. So, okay, I know this, I know that. And there were areas that I didn’t know. And I thought, oh, I need to go back and figure out if there’s an opportunity for me to learn something in that and try to get on the budget committee, right? Try to do some research related to some areas that I was not involved in the university.
So, how do you do that, right? How do you get knowledge and gain expertise without switching to a whole another career while you’re moving up in that? So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is now there are just some amazing opportunities. Remember early on, I said I had made a commitment that I would investigate one of the programs that you could get into to explore the presidency. I think those are really good. And I know a lot of colleagues that have gone through those, but you need to be ready to commit to it because those programs are programs where at the end, they want you actually to apply within a couple of years for presidency.
So the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities has a number of leadership development institutes every summer that people can participate in. ACE does as well, Harvard there are all kinds of programs across the country.
And then I would just say, if you’re thinking, I’m interested even in a vice presidency, maybe not the presidency yet, but I’m thinking I might go there, call someone and see if you can shadow them for a day, for a half a day. Get on a zoom with them.
I have somebody coming to shadow me in January. They’re not sure if they’re interested in a presidency, but they want to explore it now to get an idea of what some of those pressures are. And so I just encourage that of people cause that’s really important.
Todd Ream: Thank you. With institutional fit being such a significant component of the role for a president, what discernment process would you recommend for people considering a presidency for a particular institution?
Deana Porterfield: Right. So when I applied to Roberts, I was not a Free Methodist until I was hired at Roberts, but I was thoroughly Wesleyan. So that was helpful because they would not have hired me if I was not thoroughly Wesleyan in my theology.
But I read the full Book of Discipline for the denomination before I interviewed to make sure that I theologically aligned and could support that.
At Seattle Pacific, we’re in covenant relationship with the Free Methodist Church. The president must be Free Methodist as well. Um, and that would be true of any covenant relationship or denominational school.
Now there are some non-denominational schools, but there’s always a theological heritage to it, to that institution. And it’s really important to think about it. And don’t make that just a checkoff box.
I mean, you really, as president, have to embody the belief system of the institution, because that’s where you get the questions. People don’t understand covenant relationship with the denomination, and sometimes they don’t understand why a theological position sits here.
I am not a theologian, but my responsibility is to be able to speak to the covenant relationship with the Free Methodist Church and with the board of trustees, make sure that we’re making decisions that align in that way because even on your board, you bring people from different denominations in. But we need to understand, what does it mean to make decisions from that covenant relationship with the denomination of which we’re in partnership with? So it’s really important.
So I would say, definitely read whatever manual, Free Methodists called it the Book of Discipline. Read it thoroughly, understand it, but you don’t have to be a theologian. And then get somebody, if you are selected in the role, get somebody that’s going to walk with you to help you understand the nuances.
The vice president and dean of the seminary at Roberts and Northeastern was just a critical person in my journey. I would use a word and he’d go, not quite that. I mean, I go, not quite that. And whenever I had a question about this messy space we hold, right? Because Free Methodism, Wesleyan traditions, what it looks like is too Christian for some and not Christian enough for others. So do you discern the right decision, right, in that? How do you make sense of that?
And I always have had people around me especially in this role that I’ve been able to bounce ideas off to understand in the true sense of this denomination, how does this decision fall in that? And then I have to be able to stand as president and defend the decisions we make. And so, I do.
Todd Ream: Thank you. Over your 35 year career, in what ways have opportunities for senior leadership for women changed?
Deana Porterfield: Well, let’s talk in context of Christian higher education, how about that? So my dissertation was on the successful attainment of female presidents within the CCCU and the trajectory that led them there. And what I wanted to know was what was the go for it moment? When did they decide, yes, I’m going to throw my shoulders back and go because it was rare to hear about women that aspired to the presidency, right?
And you always heard about the glass ceiling. So what did that even mean? And this was in 2013. There were 120 institutions in North America in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and six female presidents and I interviewed all six of them. So that’s my starting point for your question.
Today, 10 years later, the numbers run a little different, but 180, and this is now globally, CCCU institutions, and we’re going to count the global female presidents, fluctuates seems that like every couple months someone retires or a new one, and we roughly have 12. So 120 schools and 6 presidents in 2013, 180 schools and 12 female presidents in 2023.
I do believe there are more administrators, meaning vice presidents on their way up that are female, and that’s where you’ve got to get that open and that helps. But there’s still a number of institutions that just theologically don’t support women in leadership, so you’re never going to break through that group.
And so what I would say is we’re making ground, we’re talking about it, and this is the same for an underrepresented ethnic diversity within our institutions, right? Our boards tend to be primarily male and Caucasian. And so that makes a difference.
Um, but my research when I did it and you still see it to be true today is this research called the glass cliff. And it does talk about it’s in times of crisis where women or individuals have underrepresented ethnic background are given the opportunity.
And so it’s interesting given that higher ed is kind of in a crisis today. It’s always in a crisis, but really we’re seeing more institutions close since the pandemic, that you are seeing an increase in female leaders and diverse leaders, ethnically diverse leaders.
So I don’t know if that’s a good thing. You know, if the opportunity only comes when there’s a crisis, but it is when the opportunity is coming.
Todd Ream: Are there changes you believe that we need to make then in order to ensure that women have the same opportunity to succeed in such roles as men?
Deana Porterfield: You have to diversify the board. You have to diversify the group that’s selecting the president. Um, that’s really where the change comes from. I know that sounds so simple, but you have to start there, right?
Todd Ream: And different institutions have different means by which board members are selected and
Deana Porterfield: Yeah. Yeah. Denominational requirements, what does that look like? But I’ll just speak for Seattle Pacific University. I’m the first female president in 132 years, and I was the first female president of the college. Now, there was a high school that had women at Roberts, but our denomination was founded with the belief in women’s ordination from the 1800s and it took a while for us to get there.
And there is another Free Methodist school now that has a female president and we have our first ethnically diverse president at Roberts now. I mean, that that’s huge, right? In the number of years we’ve been in existence. And, and the denomination itself has a female bishop with now our second female bishop.
All of those things play into normalizing what it means to have women in leadership, to have diversity at the table right, for the conversation. And we know by research that a diverse table, a diverse team brings better thinking and greater innovation to organizations, right? Because of the different perspectives.
Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. As we get ready to close our time, I want to ask a little bit more about the Free Methodist Church and the broader Wesleyan tradition.
And in particular, say at Seattle Pacific, in what ways does that tradition and does that church impact the relationship shared by faith and learning, in both curricular spaces, but also co-curricular spaces?
Deana Porterfield: Right. So we are in covenant relationship with the Free Methodist Church, which means our theological positions are defined by the theology of the church. And so behavioral expectations of faculty and staff, and what that looks like around the campus. But each Free Methodist institution has its own unique mission and statement of faith.
And so let me just explain the, the, and describe to you the statement of faith for Seattle Pacific and how that actually demonstrates the work we do in the uniqueness of the institution. So imagine concentric circles that go out.
The center circle is historically orthodox, right? We believe in the authority of Scripture. The Lordship of Christ. And that is at the center of who we are. We are anchored in Christian faith and that theological perspective is tied to the Free Methodist Church. That’s who we are. But the creed is there. I mean, it’s just, it’s solid.
But because we’re solid in that center space the next area on that circle is evangelical. The good news is available to all people, right? And so we’re going to proclaim that and that’s part of our mission as an institution, because we’re an open enrollment institution.
Then the next is a Wesley Wesleyan component of who we are, which is personal and social transformation of each, each of us in the society and engaging in that. And then the last circle is ecumenical, which is really ecumenical defined by, you know, a broken church, a broken community that we’re trying to bring together. But it all stems from this anchored position of who we are.
So at Seattle Pacific, what we’re trying to do is graduate with excellence our students into areas that where they can serve that allows them and prepares them to have the courageous conversations, be ready for a diverse world of which they’re going to enter, and to do that with a generous hospitality that really defines who we are as a Christian institution and who they are as individuals. And so that really is the uniqueness.
So, where it gets complex as Free Methodists, we are convinced that because we are clear in the center, we have freedom to engage in these other ways. And when you engage in the world in different ways and engage with the society of which you’re a part with people with different beliefs, then all of a sudden people are trying to judge you by what you do and you don’t do. And we hold that in a different space.
So I always say, and I think I said it a few minutes ago, we will be too Christian for some and not Christian enough for others, but it is not a compromise on the core of who we are. It is because we’re not afraid to be engaged out there.
Our founder, one of our founders, B.T. Roberts, B.T. and Ellen, his wife. Um, you know, this is the 1800s. They’re living in Rochester, New York. And very clear that the Bible is the anchored space, that historically orthodox component. But he’s an abolitionist. And this is Rochester, where Frederick Douglass is doing his work at the same time.
he believes in women’s ordination, that’s when Susan B. Anthony’s casting her first vote right there. Um, believed that we shouldn’t be charging people to sit in their pews in church. The free was part of this freedoms for people to elevate the poor and to share, share the love and joy and peace of Jesus Christ.
And so that’s what embodies and is part of who we are, even out here in the Pacific Northwest, right? Because it is this tension. They had very much had rules in some of, you know, some of the tight parts of what Christianity can be at times. We don’t want to be legalistic. We don’t want to be fundamentalist over here too extreme, but we do have some boundaries of who we are and what that means.
But that clarity propels us into a world so we don’t have to be afraid to engage in it. And that is the unique space, I believe, of a school anchored in the Free Methodist tradition.
Todd Ream: The last set of questions then, if I may, for our conversation is, what do you believe a Church-related university, such as Seattle Pacific, in the age in which we live, owes the Church?
Deana Porterfield: I grew up at Azusa Pacific, if I can say that, right? I’m a graduate of Azusa, worked there 26 years. And the president that I was under for the majority of the time used to say we are not the Church.
But how we describe that, and, and I, I have owned this our job is not to be the Church. We want our students engaged in local church so that when they graduate, they are engaged in ways that continue beyond their education and their four or five years that they spend on our campus.
But we want to give them the tools on how to engage, right? We want to give the tools and the, and the skill sets and the knowledge so that they’re ready.
But really we want students engaged in the Church. And so what do we owe the Church? We owe the community, not just the Church. We owe the world thoughtful graduates that know how to think and discern, that bring with them an understanding of their faith and who God created them to be and are unafraid to serve in a world that’s complex and unafraid to jump into difficult situations. And ultimately, that’s what the Church needs. That’s what the Church needs.
Um, you know, I use the phrase intellectual and spiritual humility that came at a time when we were looking at how we engage in difficult conversations and intellectual humility seemed to be a framework we could have around that.
It said good people can differ and, and how do I go in as if there’s something I don’t know. But we added the phrase spiritual humility because the Church was as divided and as is, is as divided as the world sometimes. We don’t want to lose this generation and the next. We’ve already lost some because of the division within the Church itself.
So if we can graduate students that know how to help heal a world that is divided by valuing and still, holding a belief system that they have, valuing others and valuing difference. And coming alongside in that way, maybe we can help the Church.
Todd Ream: What then, our last question is, does the Church owe the Church-related university, such as Seattle Pacific?
Deana Porterfield: Hmm. I don’t like those words: owe.
Todd Ream: I’ve searched for a better one. I’m still working on it. I’ll take recommendations.
Deana Porterfield: Right? Sometimes I laugh at the criticism. I don’t laugh. I go, huh? But I’ll say laugh today. Sometimes I do laugh at the criticism of the Church on Christian higher education. Um, because the assumption that all of a sudden these 18 to 22 year olds that show up on our campus, are who they are because of the moment they stepped on this campus.
They come from our churches, from our homes, from the community, and it is our opportunity to walk that journey with them and make sure that they know that there’s an opportunity on this campus to discuss and explore their faith and strengthen their faith and leave ready to impact the world in a different way.
I think if there’s anything that I would ask for the Church is an understanding that the complexities you live in in your own church are the complexities that we live in on the college campus every single day. And somebody once said, really, our Christian universities are at the tip of the spear because it is the next generation.
So what the Church owes us is prayer for us and partnership with us. Again, I don’t like the “owes” word but what I’d love is prayer for and a partnership with not judgment of.
Todd Ream: Thank you. Thank you very much. Our guest has been Deana Porterfield, president of Seattle Pacific University. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and your wisdom with us.
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.