by Charlie Trimm | Talbot School of Theology & Brittany Kim | North Park Theological Seminary
For a school to run smoothly, talented administrators are required to direct the ship, and scholars can find it to be a fulfilling role to help facilitate the work of others. However, it could be difficult to get a job in educational administration without first holding a full-time faculty position. In addition, administrative roles generally allow less time for publishing and teaching.
Dr. Clayton Coombs
Academic Dean | Planetshakers College (Melbourne, Australia)
As the Academic Dean of Planetshakers College, an accredited third party provider of Alphacrucis College and a ministry of Planetshakers Church, I oversee the development and delivery of our academic programs; manage accreditation; recruit, train, and supervise faculty; and am working to develop a research culture. But unlike some deans in more traditional settings, I have a full teaching load as well. As a pastoral staff member of Planetshakers Church, I have the opportunity not only to teach in the college but to preach in our church services and other church-based education programs, and to travel to other churches in our network in Australia and overseas to preach, teach, and develop educational programs. From time to time I am called upon to consult with our church senior leadership and eldership on theological matters and to support and resource our preaching and teaching team.
My advice to PhD students is to broaden their horizons not merely beyond the ‘tenure track’ (whatever that is) but also beyond the US system. Think mission! The US is over-resourced with biblical scholars and theologians, but there are other parts of the world that could use your gift. I would also encourage PhD students to ask God to give them vision for how their gifts and training may be deployed in the local church context, particularly in large churches with educational ministries or Bible colleges. I know it is easy, particularly for those studying in Christian Higher Education, to be skeptical of and to critique large churches, and if I were to be frank, I don’t think Jesus likes it. Why not rather choose to focus on the good that such churches accomplish, join the team, and be the change that you want to see? You may be surprised at how God may use you.
Dr. Douglas S. Huffman
Associate Dean of Biblical & Theological Studies | Talbot School of Theology at Biola University
While exceptions and variations can be found, there are basically two pathways to a career in higher education administration: by way of staff or by way of faculty. The staff route to an educational administrative job typically begins with a lower-level role at a college in the business services sector (e.g., accounting, marketing, information technology) or in the student services sector (e.g., admissions, financial aid, records, student development). While serving, the staff member becomes interested in the higher-level operations of the institution and seeks the training and graduate level education necessary for moving into an administrative role. Doctoral degrees in higher education administration are typically earned while continuing to serve on staff at a college or university the job.
Conversely, the faculty route to a role in educational administration begins first with an earned Ph.D. degree in an academic discipline and then a role on the faculty of a college or university. While teaching and researching at the institution within the academic discipline, the faculty member becomes involved in some of the administrative operations of the institution. This is often due to committee work and/or a stint as the academic department chair. Serving well in such roles sometimes leads to invitations to consider additional managerial responsibilities, often with course release time in exchange for the administrative labor. Many times, faculty members on this route to administrative service reach a point where they feel the need to assess their ability to be effective contributors to their academic discipline and/or to be responsible administrators. For faculty members preparing to shift their career energies toward higher education administration, the premier training program is the American Council on Education’s Fellows Program, a year-long cohort experience of learning, networking, and on-the-job mentoring.
My own journey into academic administration might be mapped as a midway variation of the two routes just described. While working on a master degree in biblical studies, as a source of income I took a staff job in the admissions office at a Christian college. Upon completion of that master degree, I got married and thought it best to remain in the staff job so as to adjust to marriage before pursuing doctoral studies. Thus, my temporary stint on staff went from one year to two years to four years with increased low-level administrative duties. But then I went back to graduate school to earn my Ph.D. so as to become a full-fledged professor and to leave this venture into administrative work behind … or so I thought.
As it turns out, upon completion of the Ph.D., I was hired onto the faculty of the school where I had served on staff. And after three years as a full-time faculty member, the institution asked me to consider oversight of the admissions office in addition to my continued faculty service. My prior experience in the admissions business had help me realize some administrative abilities, so I agreed to the combination faculty-administrator role for a trial period with a clear backdoor opportunity to return to full-time faculty should I so desire. Year by year, my administrative successes broadened my duties, increasing my oversight to include admissions, records, institutional research, church relations, financial aid, and graduate studies. Eventually I reached the place where the institution asked me to consider a vice presidential role, but I was not convinced that I had surpassed my effectiveness within my academic discipline; so, I requested that I be allowed to return to a faculty role in biblical studies. To steward well my administrative gifts, I agreed to serve as the department chair with a fitting course release to do so. Of course, the pull of administration began again, and a few years later I found myself serving at another institution (and arguably with a bit more balance) as associate dean overseeing the academic realm of biblical and theological studies and interfacing with various other administrative arms of the institution on behalf of my faculty colleagues.
This experience has given me the opportunity for considerable reflection on the purposes of educational administration. A good academic administrator is one striving to protect the educational endeavor by smoothing the way for students to have access to faculty and resources for learning and by empowering faculty to be more effective in their ministry to students. As an administrator, my goal is to help other faculty become more successful in their ministries. To add such a mission to one’s aspirations can complicate a faculty member’s life. Indeed, the ubiquitous struggle for balance in the life of an academic is heightened for faculty members exploring the world of higher education administration. All faculty juggle the responsibilities of teaching, scholarship, and service. And for the faculty member moving toward academic administration, the service component becomes larger, heavier, and more unwieldy. To extend this in the juggling metaphor, instead of three rubber balls (teaching, scholarship, and service), the administrating faculty member juggles two rubber balls and a running chainsaw that might catch fire at any moment.
For myself, as an academic administrator, I have tried to think in terms of good stewardship. Recognizing that I have been gifted with some administrative skills (or “cursed,” as some would say), I have felt a responsibility to invest myself in fitting roles for the proper stewardship of those skills. But I still feel the need to serve as a faculty member even as I serve other faculty members. In order to manage the service component in the juggling game as well as to retain some time and energy for teaching and scholarship, I have turned down opportunities to ascend to the realm of upper academic administration. Rather, I have been content to serve in middle management positions (e.g., department chair, associate dean, and other such roles), being sure to keep expectations clear with administrator’s above me that I want to be treated as a faculty member. It seems that regularly teaching at least one course a term makes me a better administrator with more credibility among the faculty I seek to serve. Furthermore, a faculty contract that gives me summers for academic research has been helpful as well, even if administrative duties unavoidably creep into those precious summer months. On a practical note, whenever I am on campus, the administrator part of me is active, so I have found it most effective to have my personal library at home where I can retreat to attend to research and writing projects. On a related note, a faculty contract keeps me eligible for sabbaticals and research leaves, which in turn, affords me the opportunity to disciple other faculty members in carrying out some administrative duties in my absence.
Indeed, I wonder if the time will come for me to turn over my leadership duties fully to some other aspiring administrative faculty member so that I can step away from middle management. Will I step into upper academic administration, which is its own academic discipline, step back to full-time faculty in my original disciplinary realm, or step over to retirement or some other ministry with new adventures? I’m not sure. But for me, all this has to do with stewardship as well. It’s not about “getting to the top” so as to be “getting something back”; rather, it’s about taking what I have been given and investing it into a worthy cause for the benefit of something bigger than myself. This is what academic administration should be about.
Dr. Joanne Jung
Associate Dean of Online Education and Faculty Development | Talbot School of Theology, Biola University (La Mirada, CA)
I have taught in the undergraduate division of Talbot School of Theology since 2001. For the first six years, I was an adjunct professor, during which I completed my Ph.D. in Practical Theology, and I have been a full-time professor since 2007. In 2017, I accepted the administrative responsibilities as the Associate Dean of Online Education and Faculty Development at Talbot. Working closely with colleagues helps ensure the quality of Talbot’s online course and program offerings. Developing and maintaining healthy relationships and communication within the school and with other departments across campus is foundational for the collaborations needed to extend the reach of our institution. The Faculty Development part of the role encompasses a wide variety of involvement in university-wide committee work and in-house faculty matters. My Ph.D. affords me the opportunity to continue teaching a half load of two courses per semester, which accommodates my administrative role.
My academic entry level as an Assistant Professor led to promotions to Associate and currently Full Professor. Promotion criteria include accomplishments in the scholarship of Research, Teaching, and Service. Along the teaching journey new interests were further piqued and established abilities continued to develop. As needs presented themselves, the skill set that included pedagogy, relationship-building, and problem-solving, were incrementally shared with the academic community. Opportunities were given to serve others out of my growing desire for others to offer their best for our students.
The inquisitive nature of research and the ability to make connections to that research led me to an interest in providing quality education in an online format, a key responsibility in my current role. Poor quality online courses with little or no engagement between students and their professors had characterized much of online education. This created a personal holy discontent that I felt compelled to address. My Ph.D., online teaching experience, and collaborative spirit gave credibility to my consultations with colleagues, articles, webinars, podcasts, and presentations for both within and outside the university.
Interestingly, my Ph.D. studies explored the discipline of conversation among the English Puritans. More specifically, their use of conference, which blended one’s biblical literacy with care for one another’s souls. The application of my research has contributed greatly to not only my profession and position, but most importantly, to my own character formation.
Research and writing evolved during, after, and well after my Ph.D. studies. As a professor, summers usually afford more intentional time to write. And though administrative responsibilities continue through the summer months, these lessen in demand and frequency. These practical pieces of advice contribute to taking advantage of time devoted to writing while exercising self-care for my soul throughout the year:
- Spontaneous ideas need to be captured and recorded. Even when I tell myself I will remember it, I usually don’t. So, I jot a discernable note to myself or audibly record thoughts onto a notes app on my phone. I later email these to myself and transfer them to a waiting document of other collected thoughts on my computer.
- Discern the best, most productive times to settle into reading, reflecting, writing, and editing. My best daily times are in the evening for about an hour, having collected notes to myself from throughout the day. I block out my Thursdays to work from home for times of midweek restoration and a different pace that allows more dedicated time for writing projects, which may be professional or institutional.
- My colleague Ken Berding advises that writing should be a worshipful experience. That’s truth.
Advice to you the reader is simple: Pursue what God has in front of you, but hold your plans loosely enough to allow him to direct you in the way and ways you are to go. I would not have ever imagined the place God has me now. He has orchestrated everything so I might have an impact on the people and the world around me. Be observant of the intentional ways God weaves who he designed you to be with the range of people you have encountered, the places he has orchestrated you to have experienced, and the curiosity and confidence of where he is leading you from here.
Dr. Michael Kibbe
Dean, College of Communication and Theology, and Assistant Professor of Bible | Great Northern University (Spokane, WA)
My name is Michael Kibbe, and I am administrator. [Admitting you have a problem is the first step to solving that problem, right?] I am also a theologian. Actually, that word “also” isn’t quite the right one. Because I am an administrator, I must be a theologian.
My administrative title at Great Northern University is “Dean of the College of Communication and Theology.” Sounds more grandiose than it really is. Mostly I convince the President and Provost to give my faculty what they need, and I convince my faculty to give the President and Provost what they need. I play a role in writing and distributing faculty contracts, completing faculty evaluations, proposing changes to the Faculty Handbook, and establishing the budget for the personnel and programs in my college. I also serve as an advisor to the Curriculum Committee, which governs such things as the Academic Catalog, B.A. core requirements, and the like. And we are currently in the 11th hour of a particular phase in the accreditation process, so I do a lot of document review and communication of that review to various interested parties on campus.
It is certainly true that my doctoral curriculum did not include training in accreditation, committee leadership, financial aid distribution, and the like. But my formal training in Bible and theology at the doctoral level has been absolutely essential to my fulfillment of the duties assigned to me as an administrator. A couple of ubiquitous scenarios illustrate this point:
1. A faculty member might or might not be teaching things that violate your institution’s doctrinal statement.
No amount of specificity in the doctrinal statement and procedures for handling violations of that statement is going to keep administrators from needing to exercise wisdom in that moment. A mentor of mine once told me (when I was a doctoral candidate pursuing employment at a confessional institution) that there is a “hermeneutics of the doctrinal statement.” Recognition of this fact is crucial to healthy theological dialogue at a church, a missions organization, or a university. The question therefore becomes, in certain situations, “who is/are the chief hermeneutician(s) for the university?” In a healthy system, the answer is a combination of “those to whom is delegated the ultimate responsibility to uphold the (doctrinally constrained) mission and vision of the institution,” and “those in the organization who possess the greatest theological acuity.” The first group is probably the Board of Trustees, and the second group is hopefully the biblical/theological faculty.
In between these two groups stands the academic administration. What I as an administrator must bring to the table is 1) sufficient (to the faculty) grasp of the theological issues, 2) sufficient (to the Board) ability to communicate those issues in appropriate terms, and 3) sufficient (to all parties) clarity on the relation of those technical issues to the core values of the university.
2. Some members of your organization want the organization to take public stances on current social or political realities.
The first—and often forgotten—question is “why?”: why would it be necessary and good for us to have a position and to make it public?” The answer is not “because x is going on and therefore we need to say something about it.” The answer is in fact “because our organization plays a particular role in public discourse such that it is appropriate for us to enter into that discourse in a definitive way.” But if you don’t know what your organization is with respect first to Christ and then to the Church (big “C”), you can’t unpack what it is with respect to the world. In other words, if your organization self-identifies in relation to Christ, its ecclesiological identity is primary and its public identity is secondary. I need to unpack the identity of Great Northern University as a “para-church” entity, before I can say whether we ought to take a public stance on a public issue. The answer to this question is not driven by enrollment metrics or financial pressures, or the general stance of individuals in or related to the organization. It is driven by theology.
The second question—assuming a public stance will in fact be taken—concerns the content and presentation of that public stance. And this question is no less theological than the first. For example: Great Northern University has an official position on marriage and sexuality. I don’t have to tell you what happens if that statement is formulated without deep biblical and theological reflection. And I don’t just mean the content—I mean the tone, the design, the presentation, the sensitivity to what sorts of things are being communicated and what sorts of things are not being communicated. And by the way: relational and financial and legal concerns pertain as well to this conversation, as well as, or perhaps ultimately, the need for wisdom to discern the relative pressures of each. Potential legal action (for example) is not the chief concern, but it is certainly relevant. Christian organizations are far too often guilty of being thoughtless (both theologically and legally) and then crying “martyrdom!” when criticism mounts.
So to those having or pursuing a PhD in theological studies who are considering administration as a viable career choice: as in so many cases, what we most need is the wisdom to adjudicate between viable competing interests. Financial needs are real. Enrollment needs are real. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to such problems, particularly when their collective weight is placed on the shoulders of mission-specific curricular pieces like “everyone gets a Bible minor,” or some such thing. And at such times you need something like a Chalcedonian solution—fences that limit the range of options while leaving suitable space in which wisdom may be exercised toward a viable solution.
Administrators must be theologians—in the sense that they must purposefully bring their beliefs about God and all things in relation to God into every institutional endeavor. Graduate theological education does not, of course, guarantee success in this undertaking! But the sorts of virtues prioritized in that education (skilled interpretation of Scripture, humble engagement with diverse viewpoints, reticence to draw irreversible lines in the sand, awareness of the cultural locatedness of theological discourse)—all these are vital to fulfilling the calling of an academic administrator in a confessional context. And hopefully, the examples I’ve given barely scratch the surface of the ways in which my own theological training has helped me navigate—imperfectly!—the complexities of administrative decision-making in a Christian university.
Charlie Trimm is Associate Professor and Chair of Old Testament (Undergraduate Division) at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. The testimonials above were first published on his blog. Brittany Kim teaches Bible classes at North Park Theological Seminary.