On Being a President (or Chancellor-Elect) in a Theological Seminary

Virtually every president or chancellor of a seminary or theological college, in response to a poll, said that it never occurred to them that one day they might be a seminary president.

I guess that I am odd. Because I was so positively influenced by my own experience in pastoral training, by Dr. Dr. D. James Kennedy and his vision of seeing the Great Commission go forward, and sending pastors into pulpits to change the world, and figuring that chapter one of life as an and coming manager in a Fortune 50 company and earlier as top secret linguist in the US Navy must have some connecting points with the future, I suspected that I would be a seminary president one day. So, even though I went to plant a church and school (and begin my career as an Army Reserve chaplain), I pursued post-graduate education in preparation to do what I thought God would one day call me to do. I just thought I would do it when I was about seventy years old and after being in a local pastorate until then. God got me when I was forty-nine (I am fifty-three now). “Man proposes, God disposes.” That is the bottom line on how most ministers end up in seminary leadership. But I consider it an honor and privilege to labor in a “school of the prophets” that serves the Church by preparing pastors and missionaries to take the Great Commission to the ends of the earth. It is exciting and thrilling. I would do it even if I somehow received a billion dollar gift tomorrow. I would still preach, teach and support the work of the Gospel in Word, Sacrament and Prayer and through equipping others in ministry.

I am writing from the New President’s meeting hosted by the capable leadership of the Association of Theological Schools in North America. It is only day one, but already I have benefited greatly by doing something I don’t often do: just shut up and listen!

Here are some points that I have already taken away from today. I think that some of the issues are larger than my particular vocation. These vital issues touch on the church at large and on being a follower of Jesus in the Twenty First Century:

  1. Being in executive leadership at a seminary demands building coalitions to advance the work of the Church. I counted ten coalition groups that I need to encourage, steward, and bring together for the sake of the Great Commission. The ten groups include:
    1. Students and families
    2. Faculty and families
    3. Staff and families
    4. Churches and members
    5. Pastoral and Church leaders and their families
    6. Denominational leaders (we have over fifty denominations at RTS) and their families
    7. Prospective students and their families
    8. Donors and prospective donors and their families
    9. Trustees and their families
    10. Accreditation officials (and their families when we can meet them!)
  2. “The job of a president is to be handed chaos and return calm.” That sounds like a job that can only be pulled off with prayer and humility!
  3. There are enormous changes facing the seminary just as new winds of change are facing the Church.
    1. Changing church trends that glorify the moment of transformation as the moment of praise and music rather than the cultivation of the mind (this was not a “slam” on praise and worship, but a level-headed critique that decries the loss of the “cultivation of the mind” in worship as well as in Christian education, which leads to the relevance of theological seminaries).
    2. Church support for seminaries is falling; donors have less money to invest in seminary education for the future of pastoral ministry; and students are coming in with greater financial needs. Thus, presidents are faced with hard decisions about hard choices in oversight of the institutions.
    3. Evangelical seminaries (and happily RTS is among them with six campuses and over 3,100 students) are growing while mainline seminaries are struggling in the midst of these changes.
    4. The average age of seminarians is going younger. That is good. College grads are coming out of undergraduate school, going out to work in either ministry or secular work, and then making a conscious decision to go to seminary to deepen their faith or attain a stronger foundation for a life of ministry or service to God and His Church. This caused the leader of one theological consultant to say that she is more optimistic than ever about the future of ministry. From what I see of our students, I agree with her 100%.
    5. Dr. Don Sweeting, our RTS Orlando president, asked the leader of ATS, given the enormous tasks we have to conduct on behalf of the Church and our seminary communities, “How do we balance it all?” The answer was good for all of us whatever our vocation:
      1. Minister out of a genuine call of God that gives energy, meaning, and motivation to your labors. The Gospel is worth it. The Church is worth. People are worth it. “This is my calling.”
      2. Minister with a place to get away to. When you are on campus you are the president. Find a place where you can be away and alone with God. I immediately thought of Starbucks! For me, I treat daily prayer and Bible study, as well as reading devotional works, part of my work, as important as any meeting I have, class I teach , prospective student I counsel, donor I see, or book I write. Without that time, I cannot do the rest with the spiritual reservoirs I need.
      3. Minister with the same discipline you use for other vocational undertakings on your own life of retreat. “Only you are responsible for your own self-care.” Eating well, exercising, spending time with your family, and focusing on hobbies and recreation is a balanced approach to life for any of us. I would only add that when we do that to the glory of God, the joy of the Lord becomes our strength.
      4. Minister in a local church when you are not traveling and preaching. This is one thing that my wife and I along with the RTS trustees have felt that I need to do this year. So I am seeking a local church in which to minister. I won’t travel more than two Sundays per month and can thus minister within a local Christian community with my family and others who can hold me accountable, share the joys and trials of the ministry at RTS, and support me in prayer for my ministry. I can also exercise pastoral gifts in the community in a regular way. This brings meaning and joy and balance. It was good to hear that others felt what we intuitively felt and that we were on the right track (more to come on where we are responding to a call for team preaching in days to come).

So that is a summary of day one of the new presidents/seminary leaders conference put on with excellence by ATS. I look forward to more. I need this meeting. I need this fellowship. But I also need to get home to be with that beautiful wife of mine and that 6’3” high school junior that I miss so much! And I also am reminded that a seminary president, or chancellor, must be (something I haven’t heard in this more ecumenical environment but something that burns within my heart) an evangelist for Jesus Christ serving a veritable “school of the prophets” to change the world for the glory of God. And that thought will be a coming post.

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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