I had a rather enjoyable and sentimental experience this past weekend as I traveled back to Houghton College for my ten-year college reunion. It contained just about everything you’d expect: lifelong friends, familiar faces, old memories, and emotional reflections on the course of life for myself and others. I also enjoyed simply being on campus: strolling through memory-haunted old buildings, sharing a meal in the cafeteria, and walking around in the brisk autumn air. It was a special few days.
There have been changes on campus in the past decade…and one of the major ones is Houghton’s president: Shirley Mullen. Dr. Mullen has been president of the school since 2006, and is now well-established in leadership there. Just this month she and 49 other women were featured in Christianity Today‘s cover article “50 Women to Watch: Those Most Shaping the Church and Culture.” Seeing her picture on the cover of the magazine and reading about her within its pages encouraged me and gave me new appreciation for my alma mater.
In addition to Shirley Mullen, Christianity Today also highlighted Jo Anne Lyon (leader of the Wesleyan denomination) and Kim Phipps (president of Houghton’s sister institution Messiah College). It is encouraging for me to see such qualified women not only in leadership roles, but also in settings that, because of their sometimes more conservative tendencies in other areas, might often be popularly viewed as patriarchal or close-minded. It is a welcome new day in American evangelicalism.
My reflections on this intensified yesterday when, on the way home from Houghton, the news broke that my other alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary, had just selected its new president. After 200 years of history with a white male always at its head, I had simply assumed the institution would aggressively pursue a highly qualified female candidate and/or person of different ethnicity to fill the role. While the school certainly has no theological issues with any particular individual’s characteristics, only having a white man as president does tend to send a curious message for a mainline seminary in a changing world.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard yesterday that the school made its choice: M. Craig Barnes. I do not know Dr. Barnes except by what I’ve seen online. What I’ve read is intriguing and gives me hope that he will do an excellent job leading PTS as a Christian scholar-servant. He is a student of Christian history (a plus in my book) who has also done extensive pastoral work and reflection (once again, a plus for me). I think he will be a real benefit to the school and be able to provide helpful leadership for years to come.
And yet: Princeton has missed a golden opportunity here to send an important message to the nation and the world. While there have been many qualified individuals of different gender and race in professorial and other roles at the school, a seminary president tends to be its public face. I cannot claim to have know exactly what took place during the long deliberations that preceded Barnes’ selection…but I do hope that they at least realize the complicated and ironic symbol that their choice establishes. While it may mean nothing, for the evangelical world to celebrate the rising voice of women in leadership within and without their circles in the very month that Princeton Theological Seminary selects yet another white male to lead it may point us to a very interesting future.