Changing the Face of Christian Higher Education, One Leader at a Time

How the CCCU's Leadership Development Institutes are reshaping Christian higher education.

Six years into her job as an associate program director at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, Kristin Bailey realized she hadn’t thought much about professional development. Though she’d come a long way from her first job as a fourth grade teacher before earning a master’s degree in community counseling, her move into higher education presented her with new challenges and new discoveries about herself.

When a colleague pointed her to the CCCU’s Women’s Leadership Development Institute (WLDI), she didn’t hesitate. Not only did it provide much-needed focus on her own leadership abilities, but the institute also gave Bailey the Christ-centered emphasis she’d been hoping for.

“After working a hectic schedule for years, I was more than ready to be replenished,” Bailey recalls as she arrived at WLDI the summer of 2014. “I couldn’t have known then where that journey would lead me. And since attending, I’ve often asked myself how four days together at a retreat center could empower women to do things they never thought they would do in their lives.”

The combination of Christian commitment, the latest literature and research about leadership, time spent with mentors, and space to reflect and consider new ideas made Bailey’s experience a transformative one. Empowered by what she learned at the WLDI, Bailey immediately applied to Pepperdine’s educational leadership, administration and policy doctoral program after she returned from the retreat.

“Attending a conference that aimed to nourish and empower women leaders helped me begin to embrace my own style of leadership, consider the language that I use when describing my role at work, and take more risks in my personal and professional life,” she says. “I have begun to see new possibilities and feel excited when thinking about what’s next in my career.”

And that’s the point. Since the CCCU first began offering these institutes in 1998, the WLDI, the “Mixed” (men’s and women’s) Leadership Development Institute (LDI), and, more recently, the Multi-Ethnic Leadership Development Institute (M-E LDI) have equipped more than 400 emerging leaders from nearly 90 member campuses. Like Bailey, many participants have advanced in their careers to positions as deans, vice presidents, and provosts. In fact, more than 50 participants have served or are currently serving as cabinet-level leaders, almost all of them within the CCCU membership; this number includes 32 chief academic officers and 12 presidents.

Filling a Critical Need

The initial formation of the institutes and their continued success are due in large part to the work of Karen Longman, who served as the CCCU’s vice president for professional development and research between 1980 and 1999. Today, she directs the Ph.D. program in Azusa Pacific University’s department of higher education and she continues to work with the CCCU to plan and lead the institutes. Because of her continued investment in Christian higher education, she received the CCCU’s 2016 John R. Dellenback Global Leadership Award. The award is presented to those who have made outstanding contributions to Christian higher education through scholarship, writing and public influence.

During her tenure at the CCCU, Longman saw a gap in Christian higher education for the mentoring and training of its future leaders – particularly for women and leaders of color. It wasn’t just a problem for CCCU campuses, however. “Higher education in general hadn’t been very good at providing the kind of training and mentoring that contributes to the success of those moving into higher levels of campus leadership,” Longman says. 

The institutes were designed from the beginning to be an informative, challenging and affirming experience for many who had never before considered taking on a greater leadership role. That affirming process starts during the application, Longman says, because applicants must have two letters of recommendation from current campus leaders.

“These letters typically articulate why applicants are seen as having potential for future senior-level leadership. Many participants have said that until they began the nomination process, they were not aware of their own leadership potential or the fact that others from their campus saw that potential in them,” Longman says.

That approach has led to past institute participants seeking out the next generation of leaders themselves, Longman says. That continual searching and development of others has a positive effect for all of Christian higher education.

“There’s a large and growing body of research that documents the many benefits of having diversity in senior leadership and on governance boards of both nonprofit and for-profit organization, such as improved financial performance, a strengthened organizational climate, and enhanced organizational innovation and collective intelligence,” Longman says.

Vision Casting in a Picturesque Setting

From the beginning, the institutes’ organizers focused on hosting the event at a picturesque setting, one underwritten by the generosity and vision of early advocates like Barry and Sharon Hawes, who funded and attended several of the first institutes. Held every June, participants meet at the Cedar Springs Christian Retreat Center in rural Sumas, Washington. There, far from the demands of deadlines and duties, they are guided for the next four days by a team of seasoned senior-level leaders and are encouraged to slow down, learn and test ideas, network with like-minded colleagues and consider new levels of responsibility.

(Photo: Courtesy of Cedar Springs Christian Retreat Center)

“The location intentionally invites leaders to leave their busy lives and reflect,” says CCCU President Shirley V. Hoogstra, who attended her first leadership development institute early in her tenure at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has continued to be a resource leader for the program over the years. “We want people to be in a place where their imagination can be free and where God’s Spirit is optimally evident [in nature]. It’s a quiet place of awe that prepares you for humility and learning.”

The unique location invites deeper emphasis on faith and vision. Recognizing the high turnover rates and challenges in higher education, Hoogstra says this spiritual focus provides great opportunities for institute participants to revisit their vocation.

In addition, Longman and the other institute leaders equip attendees beyond that brief retreat by supplying them with a variety of leadership articles and books, a personalized year-long professional development plan, and a subsequent two- or three-day “shadowing experience” with cabinet-level leaders on another CCCU campus.

Though hundreds of leaders have gone through the program, Longman says there’s still work to be done. “There are still many highly talented people working on our campuses who remain in functionary roles because their talents have not been affirmed and fully developed, and we in Christian higher education should be leading the way in affirming and developing those talents.”

Jo Kadlecek served as a writing professor at four different CCCU campuses, and was an invited speaker at the LDI in 2000. Recently she and her husband relocated to the Sunshine Coast of Queensland, Australia, where she writes full time.

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