Should a seminary president speak out on public issues facing churches, the community, and the nation?
“Yes,” say Father Ron Rolheiser, president of Oblate School of Theology, and the Rev. Richard J. Mouw, president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary. Both say that while exercising a public voice is risky and must be done with discretion, it’s an important role for the leader of a theological school.
Rolheiser and Mouw spoke about this topic at the Presidential Leadership Intensive Conference, sponsored by the Association of Theological Schools, which was held this past January. In Trust followed up to hear more about the public voice of a president.
“In today’s climate, if you say the wrong thing, you’ve lost a million dollars and a donor. Or bishops will pull their seminarians out,” warns Rolheiser, a priest of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He is the author of 21 books on spirituality and writes a column, “In Exile,” carried by 80 newspapers worldwide. Rolheiser has been president of the Oblate School of Theology, his order’s theological school in San Antonio, Texas, since 2005.
Mouw, who now holds the title of professor of faith and public life at Fuller, was president of the seminary from 1993 to 2013. “As an educational institution in the service of the church, the seminary needs to be addressing the issues of public life,” he says. Mouw has written more than 15 books. His 1992 volume, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, calls for civil discussions while recognizing the difficulty of holding onto convictions and at the same time treating vindictive opponents with decency.
Rolheiser believes that he needs to use his bully pulpit on behalf of the poor. “We’ve got to be speaking out for the poor,” he says, “and if we aren’t, we lose the reason we’re here.” Yet while addressing issues like immigration and poverty, he tries to avoid partisanship. “I don’t talk about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton,” he says. “I will talk about Jesus and how we’ve got to welcome the stranger and the poor. It’s easy to get your ideology from the right or the left mixed up with the Gospel.”
Mouw also believes that seminary leaders should cultivate their public voice. “Each institution has obligations to speak beyond itself to its peers in the academy, the larger church, and the larger society,” he says. Mouw cultivated relationships with the media and has been interviewed by NPR, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today. He has occasionally written for Christianity Today and the Christian Century. “I always saw it as a part of my role to get out there be a part of public conversations,” he says.
Mouw offers six recommendations to presidents who are formulating their public roles:
1. “A president has to expect crises,” Mouw says. “There are going to be issues that come up in the larger society that we ought to be speaking to.” He cites gay marriage and transgender identity as two examples. Mouw tells the story of a former Fuller student who is now pastor of a large evangelical church. When a family started attending with their 12-year-old son who now identifies as a girl, another parent told the pastor, “If that thing comes to church here again, we’re outta here.” Mouw says, “Pastors must be trained to deal with conflict like this — and with parenting in a culture where transgender identity is a part of the picture,” he says.
2. Mouw encourages presidents to “cultivate a sense of presidential responsibility for explaining the role of a seminary.” He cautions that if a faculty member signs a petition supporting or criticizing a political candidate, the president must be prepared to explain the role of a seminary and defend the academic integrity of its faculty.
3. Mouw encourages presidents to strengthen the public teaching role of the seminary community. “We need to do a better job of catechesis for public life and to encourage people to think about citizenship in public life,” he says. “When we take a stand, we have to be willing to do the education that goes with it.” Mouw warns that it’s not enough to be prophetic and to proclaim the truth in public. “No,” he says, “we must be willing to take on the teaching task that goes with the issues that we choose to speak out on.”
4. Mouw says that seminaries should provide “training for a public voice” and identify faculty and staff who are equipped to help journalists writing for a public audience. “There has to be public voice training on how to communicate with the larger public and the media,” says Mouw.
5. “We need to convene larger conversations such as bringing together journalists, pastors, and campus ministers to talk about controversial issues,” Mouw says. Rolheiser agrees, adding that presidents need to cultivate frequent conversations with students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
6. Seminaries must nurture sensitivity to deeper hopes and fears, Mouw concludes. That means listening to spiritual seekers who are not church-goers and who don’t identify with institutional forms of faith. “How do we listen to them and talk with them?” he asks. “A theological school has to be a place where this happens.”
Both Rolheiser and Mouw encourage presidents to proceed slowly in their first couple of years and build trusting relationships with their faculty members and board of trustees. “Surround yourself with people who will give you advice,” says Rolheiser. “Have some open forums with your faculty. Talk to your board about it before you venture out. It’s easy to put your foot in your mouth on just one issue.”
Mouw agrees. “When a president speaks, it has to be with a sense of trust from the community,” he says. “A lot of presidencies fail because they don’t have that. You’ve got to spend time with faculty as individuals and in small groups. Be candid at faculty meetings so that they’re not always trying to figure out what you’re doing. The convening of conversations is very important.”
Rolheiser adds that a “public” voice isn’t just the president’s own voice. “It’s whom you invite to speak. It’s whom you give honorary doctorates to.” He says that at Oblate School of Theology, they’ve tried to balance their impulse to be “prophetic and risky” with the need to be responsible. “We’ve tried to bring in people who aren’t just a bland voice,” he says, “but it’s been a delicate balance.”
As a widely published author and conference speaker for 25 years, Rolheiser developed his own public voice before he became a seminary president. In some ways, the president’s office limits what he can say. “Some days I long to go back to private life when I could write whatever I wanted, and it only affected me,” he says. “Now anything I write affects this entire institution. It took me not very long to realize that everything you say is going to reflect on your institution and may affect your enrollment and donor dollars.”
But there are two sides to this coin. “On the other hand, being the president of a school lends gravity to your voice,” Rolheiser concludes. “I must be more careful of what I say, but I’m not just a lonely prophet crying in the wilderness.”
As a president, Mouw was frequently approached by groups asking him to sign a statement or join a cause. While he did participate in interfaith dialogues with Mormons, Muslims, and Jews, he declined invitations to join in discussions with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists. Mouw and Rolheiser agree that issues must be measured carefully against their own consciences, the risks of criticism, and the seminary’s identity and ethos.
And time is always a limiting factor. “Issues come and issues go, and there just isn’t time to do everything you think you should,” Rolheiser says. “There are crosses worth dying on, and crosses not worth dying on.”
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