Illustrations by Bill Bragg
Jason K. Allen, Ph.D., was appointed the fifth president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2012, and has led a turnaround that transformed a struggling school into one of the largest and fastest growing seminaries in North America. Allen authored a new book in 2022, Turnaround: The Remarkable Story of an Institutional Transformation and the 10 Essential Principles and Practices That Made It Happen, and spoke with In Trust’s Matt Hufman for a podcast, episode 34, at intrust.org.
Your first sentences in the introduction states: “I believe that most everything you’ve learned about leadership is incorrect. And if you’re leading as you’ve learned, you’re probably doing it wrong.” That’s a controversial way to begin a book, so let’s start with that.
I’m really pushing back in the opening chapters of the book at what I refer to as the ‘modern leadership industrial complex.’ We are awash in resources, books, workshops, magazines, podcasts, and conferences. And I just push back against all of that. Abraham Lincoln never read a book on leadership. Winston Churchill never took a class on leadership. Martin Luther never took a course in seminary on leadership. And they managed to lead remarkably well.
Each of those leaders was very clear on mission, and it’s clear there’s a strong mission at Midwestern.
Three factors create organizational identity, at least at the conceptual level. One is convictions: What do you believe? The second is the mission: Why do you exist? The third is vision: Where are you going? At Midwestern, we’re pretty intentional about those three buckets. That simplifies things and determines a lot as to what we do and don’t do. We dramatically reduced our curriculum. We cut our class offerings 25%, and we grew the enrollment by about 20%. Ten years removed from the beginning of this project, we’re an institution that grew from 1,000 students to 5,000 students.
You decided you’re going to be the “strongest seminary on the planet.” Tell me what that means.
We began to really dial in on that about seven years ago. We didn’t say the largest seminary on the planet or the best seminary on the planet. We identified 10 different marks of that; some quantifiable, some not so much. It’s really about how we are going to discipline ourselves and motivate ourselves. You have to become accustomed to saying no, and to feel good about the no. You have to do the job well, and you have to really have a clear sense as to what you’re saying yes to and what you’re pursuing.
Illustrations by Bill Bragg
It reminds me of Peter Drucker’s saying that “culture eats strategy for lunch.”
Drucker is right. Let me share a story. It’s my first week in the office here and it’s a couple minutes after the official closing time. I went out to get something from the outer office, and the lights were off, the door was closed, blinds closed, and it’s like, boom! People are gone. And so I just walked down the main administrative hallway and office after office was just closed, door after door shut, blinds down, lights off. It’s like there’d been a rapture and I was the only one left. It struck me that you have dozens of people in this building, none of which had any reason to work five minutes late today in this high-energy moment, with a new administration just underway. It was befuddling. So I did realize a culture moment then.
Culture starts with hiring the right people. If you hire people that are winsome and devoted and committed and happy, that’s going to go a long way to changing the culture. And I remember, in year two or three, I had a person say to me ‘I notice we hire a lot of A grade people and I’m concerned if we keep hiring A grade, people like the C grade people aren’t going to feel comfortable here.’ And I’m like, ‘Bingo. That’s what we’re after.’ And God has been kind to give us that.
One of the things I’ve seen at Midwestern is you’re very clear on your mission. It is for the church. Tell me what that means.
Our mission looks like us producing every year sufficient quantity and quality graduates to fulfill the ministry needs and mission-field opportunities of the churches we serve. I want those ministers to be well-formed; I don’t want them to flame out in 18 months or even 18 years. We want all the quantifiable marks of health, but you can have those and really not be fulfilling the God-called mission He has given us. That’s what we want to be most attentive to.
In Trust’s story “What Makes Seminaries Grow” (Summer 2021) included Midwestern, and you said that one of your main jobs was creating on-ramps for people to attend.
One of the most exciting opportunities is emanating from Spurgeon College, which grew from an undergraduate program we launched some 15 years ago. It has been delightful to see it grow and come into its own. We have many students that are preparing for ministry and missionary service, but many are preparing to get a degree in business leadership or communications or history or graphic design. And then God gave us the money to really transform the campus itself and amenities in our student center, which gave us the amenity base to have a more legitimate undergraduate program.
If you hire people that are winsome and devoted and committed and happy, that’s going to go a long way to changing the culture.”
How would you respond to somebody listening today who might say, well, Midwestern, they’re supported by the Southern Baptist Convention?
First of all, praise be to God for the generosity of the Southern Baptist Cooperative Program (a unified plan of undesignated giving by cooperating churches to support their respective state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention). Ten years ago, the Cooperative Program was about $4 million a year; this year it will be about $8 million. At that time, CP was about half of our revenues; the rest was tuition. This year, it’s about 22%.
We also have been intentional about growing the endowment. When I came, we had endowment assets of about $4 million; we now are north of $40 million.
Stewardship is a key theme in your book.
I believe leadership is stewardship. God has blessed us with a wonderful campus. He’s blessed us now with financial resources that are sufficient and even beyond sufficient. If God enables me to do this for a couple more decades, I want to hand off an institution that is the opposite of what I stepped into, one with an enduring mission and enduring work here until our Lord returns.