Interview by Todd C. Ream

Leadership for Christ and His Kingdom

A conversation with Philip Graham Ryken.

Just as Wheaton College was celebrating its sesquicentennial in 2010, it also found itself naming a new president. Duane Litfin had announced his retirement plans a couple of years earlier, and the community turned to an alumnus and son of a celebrated faculty member to wear the mantle of leadership. While the decision to leave the pulpit of Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church was not an easy one, in many ways the journey back to Wheaton proved to Philip Ryken that one can truly go home again. Shortly after he had completed his first year in office, Todd Ream sat down with President Ryken in historic Blanchard Hall on the Wheaton College campus.

You grew up on campus, and your father has been a professor of English here for more than 40 years. You were a member of the class of 1988, and you have been a member of the board of trustees, so in many ways serving as the president is like coming home.

I've actually been surprised at how familiar the campus context feels to me. They say you can't go home again, but I feel in so many ways I really have come home. The vibrancy of the student community, the ongoing life of teachers and scholars who are engaged as faculty members on a liberal arts campus like this, the physical space in which we do our academic work—all of these things were part of my childhood. Whenever I came back for a visit, during our many years away, I had a sense of being in my natural habitat. This may be the only place in the world I can go where people still call me Philip—there are faculty members here who remember me from when I was a boy.

What in particular propelled you to accept the presidency?

The short answer is it became really clear that God was calling us to do this. My wife and I had for some period of time been open to the possibility of coming to Wheaton. From the very day I started Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, I approached that as potentially a life-long calling. We were very happy there, those were our close relationships and all the things about leaving were negative, not positive. We loved living in the city, loved the people I was working with on staff at the church. But we were open to the possibility of coming to Wheaton partly because as the college developed its profile, it seemed to us just as a matter of sober judgment that it might be something that I would have the gifts to do. It was a process of the door always just being a little bit more open and a little bit more open and a little more open, rather than closing at one of any number of places where it could have closed. So I view it as both an inward calling and an outward calling that's a matter of obedience to the Holy Spirit.

What do you see as the most important dimension of your role as president? Your predecessor, Duane Litfin, said it was encouraging or cultivating an environment for the integration of faith and learning. You may have a different answer.

My answer would be very similar to that. The way I usually say it is that my primary responsibility is to do what a president can do to cultivate, maintain, encourage, and promote into a new generation the theological orthodoxy, spiritual vitality, and intellectual rigor of Wheaton College as a Christ-centered liberal arts campus. There's a theological dimension to that, and there's also a spiritual dimension, which of course is closely tied to the theological but is a thing unto itself. We're an academic institution, so there's always a commitment to the life of the mind. And we do talk about integrating learning with faith or learning with faith and living. I prefer to talk about integrating learning with faith so that faith is clearly seen to be the fundamental thing—the reintegration of learning with faith, partly for historical reasons, because I think that's something we've gotten away from in higher education in America, but also thinking in terms of the flow of redemptive history.The life of faith and the life of the mind were always intended to be together, and it's only in the fallen world that they get separated and need to be brought together again.

Wheaton is an evangelical institution. In their recent book The Anointed, which takes a critical look at evangelical populism and anti-intellectualism, Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson observe that evangelicals "are arrayed along a broad spectrum of believers." Some schools have a denominational connection, but Wheaton is rooted in the larger evangelical movement. In what ways does that "broad spectrum" influence the statement of faith, the educational purpose, and the lifestyle expectations of the school?

The definition of "evangelical" has been a contested issue for a long time, and that's undergone a lot of sociological and historical scrutiny. At the end of all that, I'm not sure if we're any clearer on what an evangelical is or isn't. We certainly are very comfortable talking about Wheaton as an evangelical institution, but if you ask how we're defined, it's not so much by that label as it is by our mission statement and our statement of faith itself. Students and faculty and staff at Wheaton College come from many different denominations and backgrounds. I think that's always been one of the great things about Wheaton. I have a lot of respect for many other Christian colleges and universities in the United States, many of which have vital denominational connections. At the same time, I think there is something healthy about us living in community with believers in Christ who do not have all of the same views that we have and do not have all of the same background and practices that we have. It's similar to the kind of physical health that comes to a community when it's not so homogenous that it's susceptible to certain kinds of viruses and diseases; there's a spiritual health that comes through those communal relationships in the wider body of Christ. What unifies us fundamentally is our relationship to Christ and the work of his Spirit, but what enables us to live in community is also our statement of faith and our community covenant, and so if you want to know what the boundaries of our community are or what we mean by evangelical, it's in large measure defined by our statement of faith and community covenant.

In that same book, Stephens and Giberson refer to Wheaton as the premier Christian college in America. What role or roles does or should Wheaton play among other Christian colleges and also within the larger evangelical community?

I am very careful about claiming any leadership role for Wheaton College, and I made that clear even in the presidential search process. In life in general, we shouldn't be quick to claim for ourselves any kind of leadership position. We prove our leadership through our service—we see that lived out in the character of Christ. A great example for us is what the Apostle Paul says: insofar as I imitate Christ, imitate me. He's recognizing that his leadership is not perfect, that the true leadership comes from Christ, but if there is anything that is Christ-like in that leadership then it should be followed and it's healthy to embrace that role. I hear again and again from people in higher education, faculty members on other campuses, people in the community generally, who are looking to Wheaton College for leadership. So to the extent that people do that, then we want to provide a Christ-centered leadership that others can follow if they choose to follow it.

I like to remind us all here that there's no campus in the world that needs the gospel more than Wheaton College does, and I want to encourage us to have a very healthy self-criticism that we are free to exercise because we know that we're accepted in Christ. We don't have to prove our worth in comparison to other institutions or try to justify who we are by our own works; we've received the grace that God has for us in Christ. We can then pursue excellence with everything we have, being honest about the areas where we fall short and seeking God's help in those areas.

What are the qualities that define faculty members here?

The ideal Wheaton College faculty member is a teacher, a scholar, a mentor, and a servant. It's a very demanding calling to pursue excellence in all four of those areas over a sustained period of time. But I see many, many faculty on our campus excelling in all of them. One of the things that thrills me as a college president is to talk to students and ask the question, "Tell me about your favorite course this semester," and have them typically want to tell me about two or three or four courses and what they're learning. When we are looking at awards of various kinds, we don't get nominations for the same handful of faculty every year. We get a wide variety of nominations for a wide variety of faculty.

How does the out-of-class experience at Wheaton—residence life, student activities, leadership programs, intramural sports, and so on—relate to what happens in the class, and vice-versa?

If you were to talk to our trustees and to our student development leaders and to many at least of our faculty, there would be widespread recognition that the learning that takes place outside of the classroom is a huge part of spiritual formation and of what happens in college. That's one of the reasons why residential college education has a unique place in discipleship and development. Whether you're talking about what students are doing in music, or student organizations, or athletics, or ministry, it's very important to have leadership that understands the centrally academic role of a Christian college and can support that mission while at the same time recognizing the spiritual development that takes place on the practice field, in the rehearsal hall, at camp, and in the city of Chicago, which is a kind of laboratory for us as well.

One thing we've gained over time at Wheaton is a deeper understanding that experiential learning is a particular type of learning that doesn't just happen on its own but requires preparation, oversight, and reflection. It's becoming increasingly recognized, for example, that simply sending students overseas doesn't mean that they have a transformational experience or gain any cross-cultural competency. You have to have an educational program that is really designed to teach cross-cultural skills in order to achieve that goal. All those other things that go on beyond the classroom are complementary in developing a whole person in Christ. That wholeness implies not just intellectual training but also spiritual, physical, and emotional learning—the whole person is shaped through those beyond-the-classroom experiences.

Do you find that faculty understand that?

Faculty understand that to varying degrees. Some of our faculty are very involved in experiential learning at Honeyrock; we have faculty members who go up every year with small groups of six to eight students and traipse through the woods. We have faculty who make a connection with one or another sports team or are plugged in to other programs outside the classroom. As a president, I see how committed people in some of these other areas of campus life are to the academic enterprise. They aren't, for example, providing leadership for Christian ministry through service by saying it's "spiritual" and thus takes priority over academics. Quite to the contrary: they understand that Wheaton College is an academic institution. Our coaches are very strong on the academic mission of Wheaton College. Of course some students get so caught up in other activities that they give less attention to the life of the mind, and our faculty then are wanting to insist on academic learning as the center of gravity for us. I'm fully supportive of that and emphasize it in my own work at the college.

From your vantage, what role do the visual and performing arts play here at the college?

I see the visual and performing arts—and the arts in general—as the leading edge of culture. If you want to know where culture is heading, look at its leading artworks. They're not just responding to and reflecting on what's already there, they're showing you what is to come. One of the reasons why the evangelical community perhaps has not had as much influence culturally as it might have had is that it has not been at the forefront of the arts. I am someone who appreciates the arts without being strongly gifted in the arts. One way, I think, that God prepared me well for my current role was the experience of serving a congregation in center-city Philadelphia that included many professionals in the arts, particularly in music but also in the visual arts. And being very close to a couple of leading art schools, and having students who were seeking discipleship from those schools as part of our congregational life. To say nothing of the home in which I was raised, which put a high value not just on literature but on the arts generally. And the very stimulating conversations around our family dinner table with visiting scholars who were interested in the arts. I am thrilled that we are seeing increasing numbers of majors in the visual arts at Wheaton College. I am thrilled by the work that's being done at our conservatory of music. I think it's healthy for the Christian community at large for Christians to be thriving in those areas—and certainly healthy for our campus.

What comes next in terms of a master plan for the school?

In a couple of weeks I'm going to be introducing to the campus what I'm calling the president's green paper on the mission, context, and direction of Wheaton College. I'm calling it a green paper rather than a white paper because with a white paper, properly understood, you pretty much have your policy set in place and you're announcing an agenda. A green paper is not quite as far along in the process; it's a more collaborative document, and it says we are inviting discussion. It's very welcome for you to say, "Wait a second, you've left out something very important," or "I like this goal, but I'm not sure you're framing it in the way that you should," or "If you really want to achieve that goal you have to do something about this." And we'll have that kind of discussion with students, faculty, staff, and leadership groups of the college, including our alumni council.

There are a variety of issues to touch on here, but it's widely recognized that we need to do better in making global connections to prepare students for global service. I believe we need to continue pressing forward with making Wheaton a more culturally, ethnically, and internationally diverse community. This was a huge area of growth under Dr. Litfin's leadership: there are three times as many students of color on this campus now as there were when I was a student. Roughly a quarter of our incoming class will be either international students or ethnic minority students from the United States. Our on-campus makeup is looking more like the worldwide body of Christ. But having said that, we need to do much more. For example, we need a much stronger representation from the Latino community on Wheaton's campus. I personally desire to see more ethnically international students. We've grown in that area, but we can't just say we're at the place where we would like to be.

I am excited about the possibility that our review of general education will refresh and renew our commitment to the liberal arts. I'm looking for a liberal arts curriculum with a simplicity and unity that will inspire our faculty and also help our students make sense of their college education. We've tinkered with our general education requirements over the years, and there's been a little adjustment here and a little adjustment there, adding up to an unintended cumulative effect; I think we're in danger of having something that's less than the sum of its parts because of that. There are a number of areas where we'd like to grow our facilities, and I'll be touching on that in the green paper as well, but for future fundraising for the college, a major priority is doing everything we can to keep what is a very costly kind of education to provide affordable for as broad a range of students as possible. Keeping Wheaton accessible to a broad range of students, having a need-blinded admission policy—so that this won't become a school that you can attend only if you're wealthy—requires effective development work. Any future fundraising we'll be doing for the college will include a strong dose of student scholarship support.

Last question. One day when you announce your intentions to leave the presidency, what contributions do you hope will mark your legacy?

You gave me these questions in writing, and I have to say that when I came to that question I was a little teary, just at the thought of leaving a job I love as much as this job and a place I love as much as Wheaton College. Of course I am aware that a day will come when I need to leave, and I pray from time to time for my successor as I often did in pastoral ministry, pray for the person who will follow me. There's a sense of being part of something that's much bigger than you are, and I look with huge admiration at the men who have preceded me in this office with unique abilities, just the right person for the right era of Wheaton College.

"Legacy" is the kind of thing that you leave to others to assess. I want to be found faithful in what God has given me to do at Wheaton College, and as I consider what it means to be faithful, the model for me is Christ-like leadership, which I think of in terms of the three-fold office of Christ: his kingly ministry, his priestly ministry, his prophetic ministry. So there's a kingly aspect of presidential leadership, that is to say there's the proper exercise of authority, there is the way that you represent the institution in your own person, and that leadership should be clear, it should be decisive, it should be benevolent, and it should inspire the affection and loyalty of the people in that community. There's a prophetic dimension of the presidential work, particularly in a Christian college campus, where you're teaching and preaching regularly in chapel. I'm often running out the door with my Bible in hand to speak to this student group or that student group and bringing some part of divine revelation to bear on that. And it's prophetic in another sense, in the biblical sense, not just of speaking God's Word but also speaking God's Word to your situation. What's happening in your community and in the world at that moment and also how do you prepare for what's coming, I mean that's all part of prophetic ministry. So being faithful to teach and apply God's Word to the needs of this generation. And then there's a priestly dimension, which is partly a dimension of intercession and prayer, but it's also living with and in the community. The Old Testament priests did not live in Jerusalem by and large; they lived scattered among the places where the people of God lived all over Israel, and they were there so that when they carried the burdens of God's people into the holy place and offered prayer on God's altar, they could really stand for those people they lived among. And so our desire—I use the plural because this comes out of our marriage partnership and our family life—is to live in this community, share our lives with this community. We live right next to campus, we have lots of people into our home; this is our community.

Todd C. Ream is the Senior Scholar for Faith and Scholarship and an associate professor of humanities in the John Wesley Honors College at Indiana Wesleyan University. His most recent book (with Timothy W. Herrmann and C. Skip Trudeau) is A Parent's Guide to the Christian College: Supporting Your Child's Mind and Soul During the College Years (Abilene Christian Univ. Press).

Most ReadMost Shared