One of my first interviews as editor of In Trust magazine was with Constantine Papadakis, the formidable Greek-born president of Drexel University, who also serves on the board of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Papadakis is a truth-teller. "If the board feels that the president is not doing a good job, the board should have the guts to dismiss the president," he told me in 2005. "Most boards do."
Needless to say, the presidency can be lonely.
Experienced seminary presidents know that when things are going well, they share the praise with everyone else, but when there's bad news, it's all the president's fault. They know that if their school is typical, finances are precarious. Faculty are already teaching a heavy load. Vacations for presidents are merely tolerated (if that!), not encouraged. The development office wishes that the president would visit a few more donors. And it's almost impossible to find the time to get to know (much less mentor) many students, even though that's sometimes the most satisfying part of the job.
Yes, the presidency can be lonely.
But as Daniel Aleshire and his coauthors note, there's no such thing as a president leading in solitude. By virtue of their office, presidents are compelled to act in community.
What does that mean? There's no president without a board, a faculty, and a student body. The president stands in the center of buzzing activity -- trustees and church leaders, deans and teachers, students and alumni. And in fact, the "office of the president" has become an executive team, not one person barricaded behind closed doors. For most presidents, there's very little "alone time" until they've been given their gold watch.
So presidents get used to the dynamic tension of feeling alone while at the same time being in the middle of board members, faculty, cabinet-level administrators, support staff, and a hundred other people demanding everything right now. This can lead to paradoxes and frustrations -- sometimes a president's best friend is the board chair, but sometimes the board must fire the president, as Constantine Papadakis reminds us. Sometimes a president's best friend is her husband, but details of a campus scandal must be kept from that spouse. Sometimes a president's best friend is his own pastor, but that pastor may be part of the same church politics that beset the seminary on all sides.
I wonder if this dynamic tension isn't the common calling of every Christian. Aren't all of us faced with this same dilemma? Following our Lord can feel lonely, forcing us to take unpopular positions. Living a life of integrity sometimes means standing against the whirlwind -- of prevailing values, of pettiness, of the all-encompassing cynicism that enervates our contemporary culture. Jesus himself warned that persecutions were likely to hound his followers, but sometimes those persecutions are subtle, and sometimes they come from the very people who ought to be our friends!
But Christians are called not to solitude, but to be an ekklesia -- a gathered people, a church. We live out our lives working together as God's people. And that's the knotty paradox that besets seminary presidents and ordinary Christians alike: even if we feel alone, we must not -- indeed, we simply cannot -- follow our Lord or do our work all by ourselves as if we were superheroes.
So what's the solution? Pray alone, and pray with the whole church. Talk with a trusted colleague. Take a long walk on the beach. Confess feelings of isolation to a wise friend, a confessor, and God. Confide in that board chair even though he may have to fire you later.
And follow in Jesus' own steps. He took time away from the crowds to pray and be rejuvenated so that he could face them again. Living fully in the tension between demanding crowds and solitude, his work encompassed both the throngs of Palm Sunday and the isolation of the cross. Fortunately for us, the Lord to whom we pray is also a model for living -- in spare loneliness and in rich community.