Dr. David S. Dockery is president of Trinity International University and serves on the Ministry Council of God Centered Life Ministries. I had the opportunity to recently talk with Dr. Dockery about leadership and Christian higher education.
Josh Moody: David, you’ve been in significant leadership positions for many years now. Are there particular stresses and challenges unique to those roles?
David Dockery: Thank you for this question, Josh. As you know, I have had the privilege of serving as a university president for 22 years at two fine institutions in addition to years as the chief academic officer at another school. It is a great blessing to have such an opportunity, one that I have never taken for granted. At the same time, these positions come with significant responsibility. Leadership roles like these have oversight of the institution’s mission, for financial matters, for a host of personnel issues, for relationship with Boards as well as a host of internal and external constituencies. The combination of these things results in long hours and many stressful situations. Certainly others in different roles and professions also deal with stress; I do not want to imply that stress is unique to institutional leadership, but it does come with numerous challenges associated with the position. Stress is response to pressure that affects us physically in ways that we are often unaware. This stress tends to compound over the years. When we respond to these situations negatively, we often call it stress and when we respond more positively, we sometimes refer to it as adrenaline. The reality, however, is that the impact on our bodies and our personal systems is quite similar either way. We learn to trust the Lord in the midst of these situations, seeking not to be anxious, but to pray and seek God’s help, strength, and guidance each and every day.
JM: Have you developed particular techniques or disciplines to deal with those?
DD: I spend a lot of time reading the Psalms as a source of strength. I try to use wise counselors to help think about and process the issues that leaders face each and every day, seeking to anticipate challenges rather than waiting to respond to them. Of course, one needs much grace and strength from the Lord. As I mentioned in the earlier question, learning to pray, recognizing one’s dependence on the God’s Spirit is quite important. I listen to hymns and seek brief times of quiet, which can be quite helpful. I am learning in my mid-60s that getting enough rest is vitally important. Learning when and how to deal with these things becomes a priority for leaders. Some things can wait until another day while others need your attention immediately; learning to distinguish these things remains a daily priority.
JM: Over the past six months, you have been recovering from a serious heart attack and heart procedure; what was that like? What have you learned during this process?
DD: On March 6th of this year, I suffered a serious heart attack, which my cardiologist described as “a serious brush with mortality.” This was followed by a complex heart procedure and five days in intensive care. By God’s grace, I am making steady progress. I have completed 3 1/2 months of cardiac rehab, which was extremely helpful. It included not only a physical aspect, but nutritional and educational ones as well. I have learned to eat differently, to exercise more regularly, while learning a great deal about my heart, about my medicines, about stress and the need for rest. The Lord has been abundantly kind and merciful to me during this time. Family, friends, and colleagues have been sources of great encouragement. I have learned much during this process about spiritual, physical, and emotional matters. I have experienced, as the hymn says, “echoes of mercy and whispers of God’s love” in the midst of these personal health challenges. I am now functional at about 65% capacity. I have returned to work, though I have to limit my travel and speaking opportunities. I have to think differently about my time, my work, my schedule, my involvements, and my priorities. My family has been extremely helpful, as have good friends and counselors. I will need to continue to think wisely and carefully about the future, but we are grateful to God for his goodness and for the privileges of service that he has graciously provided.
JM: What advice can you give us regarding seeking first the kingdom of God, doing all for Christ, leaving nothing on the field, and avoiding “burning up”?
DD: For many years, I have worked long hours with few vacations and no sabbaticals. Over those years, I have learned to function at a pretty high level with less sleep than most require. I do not think that others would have seen me to be a good example for them in thinking about personal health. On the other hand, I have tried to provide faithful leadership for churches and institutions, to invest in people, to give wise direction and counsel to others, and to offer guidance to the team of people around me. One of the first Bible verses I ever learned was Matthew 6:33, and I have tried to build my life on a commitment to seek first God’s kingdom. As noted, I have not been as balanced in all areas of life as I should have been, but I am, like others, continuing to learn. I am a work in progress, and I trust the work of God’s Spirit to guide my steps and direct my paths for the days and years that I have remaining on this earth. With God’s help, I will continue to seek to be a joyful, prayerful, thankful, and hopeful person.
JM: What particular opportunities does Christian higher education have in the 21st century?
DD: I have now been involved in Christian higher education as a faculty member or administrator for about 35 years. I have not only been involved at the institutional level, serving at four different institutions during these years, but I have been blessed in the most unexpected ways to speak or provide consultations at more than 65 other institutions in almost every region of the country and in international settings as well. Beyond that, I have served as chair of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, the Consortium for Global Education, and the Christian College Consortium, the three most significant organizations that provide support for Christian higher education. I say those things to provide a context for responding to your question.
I would say, and I think that others would echo these observations, that Christian higher education in North America is facing the greatest challenges that it has faced, culturally, financially, educationally, legally, demographically, and denominationally. Enrollment trends in Christian higher education peaked about a decade ago, following the best decade that Christian higher education has ever known in a variety of categories (from the mid-1990s until 2007 or so). Of course, there continue to be wonderful opportunities to make a difference in the lives of students, to engage the academy and the culture, to serve the church, and to make a distinctive difference in helping God’s people learn to think and serve Christianly. Global opportunities for Christian higher education have probably never been greater, which is a hallelujah moment in our shared work. Everyone involved in Christian higher education, as we near the third decade of the 21st century, will need to look for new opportunities of partnership and collaboration with like-minded institutions in this country and around the globe. We will all need to refocus our attention on the primary mission that makes our work distinctive so as not to be drawn into dozens of good, but less important matters. Christian educators are learning afresh the need for recognizing our full and complete dependence on the Lord and his grace for the days to come. We will need to work more closely with churches and other Christian organizations. Most importantly, we will trust the Lord to enable us toward greater faithfulness, seeking to work and serve with much wisdom in the days to come. Thank you so very much for your thoughtful questions and for the opportunity to think about these things with you. May the Lord’s blessings be yours.