Higher education has scripted my life. Does this mean it was my call? For me it has never been clear how my calling would unfold. Discovering vocation, or as Frederick Buechner observes, the place where one’s deep gladness meets the world’s deep need, is rarely linear or straightforward. It takes patience, discernment, and wisdom.
My journey—from farm boy, student, biology professor, academic dean, development officer, to president—has been anything but straightforward yet the destination has always been a liberal arts college. This chronology might suggest to some that my vocational path was clearly linear, tracking to a liberal arts college presidency. Not so! I would say my call—and desire—to become a college president evolved over time and occurred at just the right time. Yes, timing is critical when discerning a call. My call to this place was clearly influenced by specific individuals and the circumstances, needs, and opportunities present at Luther in April 1999.
The opportunities in my vocational journey have always begun by giving my all and my best in whatever I was doing at the time. We didn’t use the term vocation or call in my family, perhaps because we weren’t Lutheran. I first became acquainted with Martin Luther when I enrolled at a Lutheran college. But my parents modeled for me the notion that you can serve God and neighbor by using your gifts to the fullest in whatever places of responsibility you find yourself. They demonstrated that your gifts are affirmed when passed on to others and that by sharing your gifts you enrich and strengthen places where you live and work.
I have been on a Lutheran college campus for all but eight of the past 46 years. Lutheran higher education helps students connect faith with learning in ways that provide the freedom to ask any question, explore any idea, and affirm all of life as a gift from God. My life has been enriched at these places by rigorous liberal arts learning, profound worship experiences, exceptional music and athletic programs, and an abundance of opportunities to watch students grow as learners and become leaders in their own workplaces and communities.
From the beginning of my career, I was interested in all aspects of college life, and I contributed where I could, be it admissions, athletics, or development. My perspective was the whole institution. Being part of a planning team as a young faculty member stimulated my interest in developing a vision for a place and devising strategies to achieve that vision. In addition, I am energized by change and challenge, and I have been willing to take prudent risks to try new ventures in new places.
There have been no regrettable turns in my vocational journey. The move from the academic side of college life to development and fund raising was a major change and challenge. The opportunity to share and excite others about an institutional vision drew me to resource development work. Knowing I would be working with an experienced mentor also influenced this career decision. It is important to have mentors in your life and I have had many wonderful ones. Author Sharon Parks says a mentor is someone who really sees you, and by really seeing you, has shaped you in profound ways.
I was once asked what I don’t like about my current position. I responded, “I can’t think of anything.” Even though being a college president is a 24-hour commitment seven days a week, I continue to be energized by the variety, the uncertainty, and the opportunity that each day brings. It is an awesome responsibility to nurture and care for a place about which you care deeply. You manage that responsibility by surrounding yourself with very capable people and letting them do their jobs. You also hold fast to that wonderful Lutheran concept of grace!
For Judy and me, ensuring Luther has a strong and vibrant future is our higher calling, a calling buttressed by the encouragement of a widespread network of Luther supporters. Martin Luther said, “Next to faith this is the highest art—to be content with the calling in which God has placed you.” I have found contentment at Luther College.