When he was studying accounting and business as an undergraduate, and later earning a master’s in business administration, Bill Greer didn’t expect to eventually become a college president. He expected even less that he’d one day end up speaking in front of a church during services.
Then, last July, Greer became president of Milligan College, his undergraduate alma mater. He’s the first president in decades who is not a minister of the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, the college’s affiliated denomination. Still, he’s often called to talk about Milligan's Christian identity -- sometimes in front of congregations.
“It’s important, obviously, to be able to articulate our mission and our values and our purposes, and I still speak in some churches,” says Greer, who was a church elder before becoming president. “Something I never really thought I would do is speak from a church pulpit on a Sunday morning.”
The transition Milligan faced is familiar to many Roman Catholic colleges, where lay leaders have gradually replaced  priests and nuns over the past few decades, often accompanied by some anxiety about preserving a college’s Catholic identity. But it’s less common at evangelical colleges, which, while deeply faith-oriented, are less likely overall to be led by pastors.
While many evangelical colleges started out as Bible colleges, with pastors at the helm, their leadership later changed over to academic administrators. Evangelical colleges that continue to choose pastors as leaders -- Wheaton College in Illinois is perhaps the best-known -- don’t face the demographic pressures that forced Catholic colleges to move away from priests and nuns as presidents as the ranks of vowed religious dwindled.
Since the lines between church leaders and lay leaders are more blurred in the Protestant world -- an administrator could lead a church, then leave for a career in the business world, then return to work for a college -- it’s hard to track changes in leadership. The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities does not keep records on how many of its 113 members are led by pastors or ministers, but the association says about 20 percent of presidents earned a terminal degree in religion or theology.
But when leadership turns over, as it has recently at Milligan and at Dordt College, an Iowa college affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, it’s often for a reason that is a factor at Catholic colleges as well. Financial stress and growing administrative complications make colleges more likely to choose a new leader who knows his way (it’s usually a he) around academe and accounting as well as the Bible.
“I haven’t worked with that many who said, ‘We’ve got to have a minister,’ ” says Tommy Thomas, a managing director of consulting firm SIMA International, which conducts many of the presidential searches for evangelical colleges. “I think they’ve said, ‘Let’s look at where we are, let’s see what is going on, let’s see what the pool looks like and what God provides for us.’ ”
Thomas recently conducted a search for Dordt College, which chose its first non-pastor since the college was established in 1955. Erik Hoekstra, formerly the college’s provost, studied Greek in college in preparation for seminary. But he never went, feeling that he wouldn’t be adequately prepared (at 24) to minister to older, more experienced adults. Instead, he took a path much like Greer’s: an M.B.A. and a career in the corporate world, before entering academe (and earning a Ph.D) as a professor of business.
When Hoekstra and his wife were discussing whether he should apply for the presidency, the fact that he’d be the first president who isn’t an ordained pastor crossed his mind. But his Reformed faith doesn’t draw a distinction between sacred and secular professions, he says.
“The way God looks at the world, there’s no difference between a pipe-fitter or a pastor,” Hoekstra said. “God has no different standard for me as a Christian college president than if I were running the construction companies.”
Greer, who first became involved with the college’s administrators when he set up its M.B.A. program, sees his appointment as the conclusion of a gradual transition. During his undergraduate years in the early 1980s, Milligan’s president focused on renewing the college’s ties to the Churches of Christ and “spent lots of time in the churches preaching,” Greer says. That president’s successor, Donald Jeanes, was equal parts minister and academic administrator. He trained Greer, whom he made vice president for development, as a possible successor
Alumni reacted well to his appointment, although he doesn’t have ministerial credentials, he says. “It’s not necessarily so that having been a good minister is going to make you a good college president,” Greer says.
At Dordt, while an ordained pastor is dean of the chapel, Hoekstra said he could no more delegate total spiritual management than academic or financial management. As provost, he occasionally gave a speech in chapel, and he’s continued to do so as president, he said.
As for Greer, his occasional forays into the pulpit -- where he will deliver an “address” or a “message,” but not an official sermon, he says -- have been successful.
“One of the previous presidents’ wives said, ‘You may not claim to be a preacher, but that’s a good sermon,’” he says. “I do the best I can.”