Donald Senior: Administration is a Christian vocation

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It’s easy to see how teaching, scholarship, preaching, counseling and other activities are the work of ministry. But it may be harder to understand how being an administrator in a Christian institution is also the work of the gospel, says Donald Senior, president emeritus of Catholic Theological Union and the author of a book on the subject.

When the Rev. Donald Senior first became the president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, he kept thinking that administrative tasks were keeping him from his “real work.”

It took a while for him to realize that the duties he had seen as less than -- or even negative -- were in fact part of his ministry.

“Right from the outset -- not at some subsequent time of compromise -- the early Christians were aware that unless they organized, they were not going to be able to continue,” he said. “Otherwise, there would be no continuity. There would be no handing on of tradition. There would be no practices that endure.”

The Gift of AdministrationSenior is the author of “The Gift of Administration: New Testament Foundations for the Vocation of Administrative Service.”

In it, he tells his own story of unexpectedly taking on the presidency of Catholic Theological Union, where he had been teaching. He ended up in the role for 23 years.

The book aims to “connect the specific tasks of administration to the fundamental resources of the Scriptures or Christian theology and Christian faith.”

A New Testament scholar, Senior was ordained as a Catholic priest after studies at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He continues to serve CTU as a faculty member and is currently its chancellor. He has also served on the executive committee of the Association of Theological Schools.

He spoke to Faith & Leadership about his book and his experience in teaching and administration. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: How did you come to see administration as something more than a necessary evil or kind of second-class aspect of your vocation?

Teaching, counseling, preaching -- the direct ministerial activities -- are easy to understand as essential expressions of pastoral ministry, and it’s also easy to make connections to our biblical foundations for these, and to our Christian tradition.

But I think it’s less clear how the components of administration fit into that backdrop and how they, too, are expressions of service and expressions of the Christian spirit.

That was not simply a theoretical question for me but was an existential question. I came into administration not by choice. It was not a life ambition. It’s sort of like an arranged marriage. You’re put into this relationship, and hopefully, over time, you begin to love it. But that’s not a given at the outset.

I was asked to be acting president [of Catholic Theological Union], and I said I’d do it under one condition -- that I would not be a candidate for president. I loved teaching. But it so happened there was a failed search, and the board came back and said, “Please, would you consider this?” And I said OK.

So I accepted to do it and became immersed in it. At first I was saying, “I should be somewhere else.” I’m trying to do this work, trying to raise money, trying to deal with personnel, trying to deal with strategic planning and so on, and I felt I was looking over my shoulder to get back to the “real stuff.”

Our board felt we needed much more outreach; we needed to get much more into development and so on. And so I did do that, and I began to realize that a lot of what I was doing was in fact teaching, too. I was interpreting what is theological education to business people, to community leaders and also to church leaders, about our particular way of doing it.

And then I found internally, as I tried to really accelerate our development work, that some of the faculty were uncomfortable with this. Their view of people with resources was -- I guess you would call a prophetic type of view -- that we risk being corrupted by associating with people like this.

So I had to explain some of the motivation of the people that were supporting us and try to educate the faculty and the school about what the public’s interests were in a place like CTU and in theological education.

So I began to see that the role of the president, one very important dimension of it, was a kind of teaching and interpretation, a communication. That [awareness], over time, helped me understand continuity between my teaching vocation and my administrative work as a vocation. I found more peace with this, and then began to make connections, began to read in the New Testament itself, the Old Testament, too, the things like tithing and upkeep of the temple and the kinds of organizing meetings and the leadership roles and the concerns about resources and so on. It’s all over the New Testament once you are reading it from an experience of being involved in that aspect.

What’s the connection between development work and the Scriptures? What is it about our institutions that’s so central to the church? It’s not just a charismatic expression. Without an institution, we would have been a cultural artifact.

Q: Where do you find joy in administrative work?

Going into this job years ago -- I was in there for 23 years -- I felt I knew the academic operation well. But I knew very little about the board. I knew very little about development, and I also discovered that in fact I knew relatively little about our staff -- our maintenance staff and food service staff and so on. Some of them, I didn’t know their names.

And so one of the most satisfying things is I found that you were dealing with a whole new set of people, that there’s a pastoral dimension to it.

The board members, for example, you counted on them for a lot of things, and I got to know them and their families. You were asked to perform weddings and preside at funerals and baptisms and all that kind of thing. You became friends with many of them, and the same is true of the staff. I knew the faculty [already], but the staff were people I got to know.

So I found myself plunged into a community of people, the vast majority of whom were very high-minded and sincere. And [the joy], I think, grew out of relationships and appreciation for people in different walks of life.

That was very enlivening for me. So I’m grateful for it. I learned a lot about myself and about others, and even the hard side of that, you know, personnel problems and challenges and people reacting to you. You began to realize they’re reacting to you because you’re in a position of authority.

And it’s humbling, and it also can strengthen you. You temper over time, and that strengthens you as a human being and as a Christian to have a more even-keeled view, a more compassionate view of the human condition.

Q: Talk a little bit about what you call the necessary institutional character of the church.

I remember going to the internet and putting in “institutional church,” and I was amazed at the hostility toward that concept that I found -- that to become an institution was a betrayal of the original inspiration of Jesus and of the earliest church.

And I began to think that first of all, in Acts or in Paul and so on, you see immediate efforts to institutionalize. Paul’s taking up a collection and they’re appointing leaders and they have communication and they set meetings for representatives to come and so on. And already in Judaism, there was the temple complex and the tithing and the temple tax and so on. There was elaborate organization. The temple priesthood and so on …

Right from the outset -- not at some subsequent time of compromise -- the early Christians were aware that unless they organized, they were not going to be able to continue.

We have in Acts the problem of distribution of goods to the Greek-speaking Jews and the Jewish Christians and the Hebrew-speaking, and so there’s a dispute. So they appoint deacons to help with the distribution. Organizing, sending emissaries up to Antioch to see what’s going on, accountability …

I found myself being very basic about this, because I think you have to be basic to make the case.

So we’re going to have a gathering of the Christians. We can do it in somebody’s home if it’s big enough. Who’s going to set the time for this? Who’s going to get the word out? Who’s going to do the upkeep? Who cleans up? These very basic things are the stuff of the institutional church, and the bigger it gets and the more it spreads, the more that is necessary.

Otherwise, there would be no continuity. There would be no handing on of tradition. There would be no practices that endure. There would be chaos in who’s convening, who do we trust with this, and so on.

So it just struck me that surely institutionalizing can stifle the spirit of the church, and it can be the wrong structures or inflexible, or they become off track. But to see them as necessarily compromising or stifling the spirit, I think, is a big mistake. And in fact it didn’t happen. It doesn’t happen.

I remember early on one of our board members, who was a very shrewd man, said, “You know, as president you have to think of this as like the family store. You don’t do all the tasks, but you’ve got to know everything that’s going on. There can’t be some part of the institution that’s strange to you. You have to be able to have an intelligent conversation with the director of maintenance or the food service manager or the staff or the faculty.”

So this accumulation of the details that come together that have to be orchestrated for an institution to be alive and moving forward makes up an institution. If you let this go, you become sort of an observer rather than an actor. You want to be able to delegate but have an awareness of the components of a place.

So that led me to see that, certainly, preaching is an expression of discipleship, healing and so on. But so is serving the body by enabling it to carry on its mission, to surround it, envelope it with the structures it needs to be alive, and provide the resources for it.

Q: You also in the book warn about idealizing institutions, and of course, sadly, this is underscored by recent news about the clergy abuse scandal in your own Catholic Church. How does this clergy abuse crisis speak to the need for good administrative practices? It was clearly a moral failing, but was it also a failure of administration?

I think so. Everyone I’ve met is disheartened by this -- more than disheartened. But their anger is directed as much toward the leadership of the church as it is toward the pedophiles, the perpetrators of the crimes, and they see this as a failure of administration, transparency, honesty, initiative and so on.

And how I think it relates to administration is this clericalism, I would call it -- seeing yourself as part of a more elite group. In a sense, you begin to believe you are the institution. You own it, and you control it. And so something that is shameful or a failure, you try to mask it, because it reflects on you, as a failure of your leadership.

This goes to some of the things I deal with in the last part of the book, the attitudinal questions, the habits of the heart. I think the question of humility is really important here. That the person who is a leader within a church organization, an institution or a congregation, if they begin to feel they’re superior, if they begin to think it all depends on them, if they sort of box themselves in, they become less effective as a leader.

And it can be dangerous, as in this case, where you start to put the institution’s reputation, which you very closely identify with, you begin to put that as more important than the well-being of vulnerable people in the community.

And that can happen in ways that are not necessarily criminal, as in the case of the sex abuse. It can happen in running an institution where certain people get shut out or certain people are ignored or you don’t deal with some conflict that’s been going on because it’s painful.

In a healthy administration, that good communication, transparency, is imperative. Ultimately, anything affecting the life of the institution and the lives of the people who are stakeholders -- faculty, staff and so on, your publics -- they have to know what’s going on for better or for worse. They’ve got to know the mistakes. They’ve got to know the financial problems.

In how many institutions have the leadership masked the fact that they were in dire financial straits, and they’ve masked that until it’s too late?

I know this personally from being on ATS and doing visits and so on. In one memorable [instance, a school asked] a group from CTU to come to work with them. We were sitting around the table with their new dean and the president and a couple of the trustees, and they had hired a new treasurer, a new finance person, who looked at things and at that meeting gave a report of the situation the school was in.

And we realized that some of the leaders of that school were finding out this information at the same time we were, and it was too late for this institution to recover.

Not because of any malfeasance but just because of the number of mistakes in strategy and so on. They’d spent down their endowment, that kind of thing. Again, it was nothing evil at all.

We came out to the parking lot afterward, myself and two of my board members and my finance person, and we all said to each other, “We can never let that happen at our schools, where vital information is held back because of embarrassment or not knowing what to do.”

Good administration would not let something like this fester.

Q: As you read the New Testament, what’s the concept of leadership that you would lift up?

Well, I do think maybe servant leadership is interesting. I think particularly of the Gospel of Mark in chapter 10, where Jesus counters the request of the sons of Zebedee -- “Give us positions at your right and your left when you come into your glory” -- and he sits them down and says, “The great ones among the Gentiles exercise oppressive leadership. They lord it over them.

“It can’t be that way with you. You must be the servant of all, and the Son of Man has come not to be served but to serve, to give his life a ransom for many.” And to me, that’s a text right at the heart of this question of leadership within the community. That it is to be self-transcending, not in a demeaning way, but this is where it becomes real ministry.

So you do expend yourself, maybe some of your own personal ambitions. You adopt a more respectful, dialogical way of dealing with others and different viewpoints. You cannot simply pursue your own interests. You have to be sort of knitting things together, convening different viewpoints within.

There are other qualities. The person has to have energy. The person has to have some vision of where to go, a vision that also draws on the community. You have to have some perseverance and peace.

The underlying motivation is that you believe in the mission of the institution -- congregation or school or whatever -- you believe in the mission, and you see its connection to the gospel, that this is a worthy mission. And so you are willing to transcend some of your personal, immediate goals to foster that mission, and that’s what gives you some of the strength. It helps you get through some of the wounds that come from having to deal with people. It’s part of the deal.

That’s a kind of humility also, I think. That there’s something greater here that you are serving, and you don’t own it. You’re an instrument, maybe an important one, that people are counting on, but you don’t own this. You don’t own the mission. It’s bigger, and so you serve it, you know. It’s this sense of ownership -- exercising authority with the feeling that this is yours -- that I think gets people off track.

There’s a virtue called detachment, which is you give your all but you don’t identify yourself and your own needs and your own ambitions with the mission. It transcends that. So you have a certain distance you keep between your own personal desires and ambitions and the mission of the community. You can’t collapse it all to your perspective.

I remember Donald Shriver, who was president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York. We were meeting as part of a project of a few charitable trusts that involved several schools. And I remember he was about to retire, and someone asked him, “What’s the most important lesson?”

And he said, “The spiritual discipline to deal with unwelcome realities.” And I remember that phrase, because I think that’s the detachment. It’s a spiritual discipline at its heart.