Four new presidents took office this year at Lutheran colleges, all with one thing in common: None of them is Lutheran.
Presidents from outside the denomination aren’t unusual at Lutheran colleges. But in the wave of new, non-Lutheran presidents this year, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran president of Augsburg College saw an opportunity to define the future of Lutheran education — a future in which neither college leaders nor a majority of students are likely to be Lutheran themselves.
“One of the things that becomes clear is that it can be a nostalgic piece of the identity of these institutions, or it could have some relevance,” said Paul Pribbenow, president of Augsburg. Pribbenow grew up Lutheran — his father was a minister — and, on sabbatical this summer, was working on a research project with the church on colleges’ Lutheran identity.
When he heard about the new presidents, Pribbenow saw an opportunity to pass along some of his research. In meetings over the summer, he and officials from the church met with each of the new presidents to give them a better introduction to Lutheran higher education.
Questions of religious identity are especially salient for colleges affiliated with mainline Protestant denominations, who tend not to have the religious requirements for their leaders that some evangelical or Roman Catholic colleges do. In the past decades, many of those colleges have eliminated the religious requirements for their presidents; another, Davidson College in North Carolina, is considering  doing so now.
As more leaders at religiously affiliated colleges come from outside that affiliation, they’re likely to confront their own versions of the question Pribbenow researched: What is a Lutheran education, and how can it remain relevant?
The 26 colleges affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination, have had non-Lutheran presidents for years, said Mark Wilhelm, the church’s associate executive director for educational partnerships. But for many of those colleges, explaining how they embrace their religious affiliation — since they often appear similar to secular colleges — can be a challenge, Wilhelm said.
“It’s a religious enterprise motivated out of religious conviction, but it doesn’t look like religion when it’s on the ground,” Wilhelm said. “It confuses Americans to no end.”
The four new college presidents -- at Carthage Collage, Newberry College, Pacific Lutheran University and Wittenberg University -- all said they knew something about Lutheran higher education when they applied, and that they were drawn to some of its characteristics. But over the summer, Pribbenow helped the church provide more of an orientation on what he considered the five key characteristics of a Lutheran college: a sense of vocation, or calling; a tradition of “critical and humble inquiry”; engagement with other religious traditions; a commitment to service; and reformation — being open to change.
All four presidents said that one of the most helpful parts of the orientation was understanding how the colleges can work with each other, and with Lutheran congregations. Each mentioned plans to reach out to Lutheran churches in their region.
“We’re actually re-emphasizing that we’re a faith-based Lutheran institution,” said Maurice Scherrens, president of Newberry College in South Carolina. The college has sent letters to students going through confirmation at local Lutheran churches, a milestone usually reached in the eighth grade.
Scherrens, who is Episcopalian, said that the college’s identity appealed to him. “There’s no way you can be on the campus without feeling it’s a faith-based college,” he said.
Gregory Woodward, the first non-Lutheran president of Carthage College, in Wisconsin, also plans to make the college’s religious identity more prominent. About 40 percent of the college’s students are Catholic, 30 percent are Lutheran and 30 percent are other religions, he said. During his interview, Woodward said, he suggested moving optional chapel services from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., when more students might be willing to attend.
“We’re not going to push it on you, but aren’t there opportunities to make the presence of religious study a little more prominent?” Woodward said.
Both Pribbenow and Wilhelm mentioned Jesuit colleges as a possible model for Lutherans. While the leaders of Jesuit colleges are all Catholics, and most are members of the religious order, the colleges also have a pluralistic identity and a commitment to vocation and service — and are a well-organized group that support each other, Pribbenow said.
Laurie Joyner, the first Catholic president of Wittenberg College, spent much of her career at Loyola University New Orleans, and said she hoped Lutheran colleges would unite around their mission in a similar way.
“I feel like I can bring a lot to the Lutheran network in terms of sharing those experiences: how do we talk about this in a way that’s very inclusive, and in a way that can really strengthen our institutions?” Joyner said.
In some ways, the new presidents might be more willing to ponder those questions than Lutheran presidents might be, said Pribbenow, adding that he was impressed by how interested the new presidents were in their colleges' religious missions and identities.
“Maybe they came in more open to this because they weren’t Lutheran, yet they knew that was an important part of the identity of their institution,” Pribbenow said. “The institution might just take that for granted, but somebody new coming into it needs the support and help.”