Brian Blount: Focusing on relationships eases transition

How does a leader change jobs well? The president of Union-PSCE talks about adjusting to his role, the connections between ministry and administration, and students as the impetus for innovation.

 

How does the Christian leader move successfully into a new leadership role that is significantly larger in scale and scope? The Rev. Dr. Brian K. Blount became president of Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in 2007.

Blount spoke with Faith & Leadership at Duke University, where he was the guest lecturer for the 2009 Martin Luther King, Jr., Lecture Series at Duke Divinity School.

Q:  What initial lessons did you learn in making the transition from pastor to professor and then, in 2007, to president of Union-PSCE?

One of the difficulties in making the transition from church pastor to professor was losing a situation where I was a central focus in the life of a community, and going to a situation where I was in a study carrel by myself for a great deal of the time. I missed that connection with people.

Maintaining a focus on people is one of the ways in which you can more easily go through transitions when they're really large ones in terms of scope. That has been the case as I've moved from the role of being a professor to being the president of Union-PSCE, as well.

Focusing on those relationships, and making sure that they are still strong, is incredibly important. The people -- the constancy of relationships -- have helped cushion the transition for me.

Q:  What have you done in your position as president to form those relationships?

Students at Princeton addressed me primarily as Dr. Blount, while at Union-PSCE, even though I'm the president, they all call me Brian. So, when I meet students on campus it's a very friendly kind of relationship. Even though there's obviously a power dynamic involved, it’s muted by the way in which we address each other; it creates an informal atmosphere.

It was the practice of the institution when I came, and it’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed since I’ve been here. It’s hard to explain how just the use of a name and the way one uses a name can build community, but it does.

Participating in various activities with students has also helped build relationships. The students had a 5K run and I participated in that, Frisbee tournaments, those types of things have been really important. I also work with students on committees. Of course, I can’t replicate the deep engagement of reading someone’s papers, but I am an advisor of students, so I have a chance to read through work of selected students.

With faculty, I still try to keep a collegial relationship. As a professor for 15 years, I decided that if I were in an administrative position I would find ways to build the collegiality I felt with faculty in my Bible Department at Princeton into the overall work of the institution, wherever I might be.

I try to still work from the sense that we’re colleagues in a larger department, working together to understand how we can make the institution better.

Another university president once noted that the job becomes a little easier if one realizes that one is really a manager of information, managing pools of information that come from different sources within the life of a school. You're not necessarily creating all the ideas, but you're helping to manage the wonderfully creative ideas that come to you and to see that they have the room to be nurtured and to grow. That makes it more of a partnership than the situation where you are the focal point and everything must develop from your center.

The center is really in the community, and you become a part of that communal structure.

Q:  On your website at Union-PSCE, you list your mentors as part of your professional biography. Why?

I wanted to include my mentors because I wanted people to know the important figures in my life. It’s a part of who I am. That’s something to celebrate, the people who have been instrumental in creating the person you have come to be. Many of them remain mentors. They’re still people I can pick up the phone and ask for advice.

Q: What did you do to prepare for your transition into the presidency?

I spent a great deal of time calling mentors, family members and colleagues. Even while talking with the search committee, I was checking with friends and mentors to get a sense of what they thought the change might mean in terms of my writing, my work with students, my work with faculty and my work with the larger church.

After the call was extended to me by Union-PSCE, I spent a lot of time talking to people who are presidents of Presbyterian seminaries. I also read strategic leadership books and learned what persons who had been in roles of deans or presidents had written about the process of strategic planning, how they went about setting daily schedules, how they dealt with information that was coming into them.

After moving to Richmond, I had the opportunity to talk with the previous president [Louis B. Weeks]. He's been a wonderful source of information about the history of the school, some of the contextual elements around key issues related to the life of the school.

Q:  How has being the first African-American president of Union-PSCE affected your transition?

It has been helpful to the transition process in many ways. People recognize this is a significant transition for the seminary as well as for me and for the church. They wanted to make sure that I felt welcomed, that I felt that it was a position that was based not on who I am in terms of being African American, but who I am in terms of the scholarship and work that I bring to the table.

I think people were conscious about making sure that the sense of respect for the work I've done in my career is upfront, and that has made me feel very supported.

So in this case, being a trailblazer has meant not being alone on the path. It is pretty nice to be a trailblazer and yet to have people all along the path saying, “What can we do to help you?” That image, to me, is an incredibly encouraging one.

Q: What connections have you found between ministry and the role of a chief administrator?

The key place where they connect is in terms of vision. I won’t disagree with those who argue that there is a certain sense of distance between ministry and administrative work, because there is some tedium to it, there simply are things that have to be done in and of themselves and that’s where it ends. But what I try to do is to see as much as I can the larger reasons why I'm doing even the smaller tasks, and that gives me encouragement.

As a pastor I was called to help set the vision for the life of the congregation, to think about programming, to think about worship services, to think about how we work with the youth, to connect all of that to a common vision. That’s where ministry is still happening in the administrative role.

How we look at curriculum, how we teach, how we connect what we’re doing in the classroom to faculty, individual research, all those kinds of things are set by the strategic vision of the school. If you can see that connection, the administrative task becomes less drudgery and more life-affirming, not just for you, but for others as well.

Q: You are quoted in an article as saying that seminaries are catalysts of the church. What do you mean by that?

We train the leaders, because that’s our primary task. Training the future pastors and educators of the church is our focal mission, but it’s beyond just pastors and educators: It's chaplains and people working in a variety of settings to fulfill their calls to ministry.

We have started a curriculum revision task force with our faculty that’s part of our strategic vision. They are examining how we think about the way we teach, how we think in an interdisciplinary way, how we engage the resources of the seminary directly with the needs of the church.

It’s also incredibly important to become a living reminder that the seminary is helping to change the landscape of the community in which we find ourselves. We involve students, faculty and staff in mission projects in the communities where the seminary is located, both in Richmond, Va., and in Charlotte, N.C., and that becomes a model for the church.

The seminary can also provide a model where conversation takes place over issues where people have different theological perspectives and viewpoints, a place where we can demonstrate for the broader church that one can disagree theologically and remain in community. We’re at a time where the church could be helped by seeing that resource possibility.

Q: How does someone in your role balance being true to institutional tradition with the role of the innovator?

We have an almost 200-year history at our seminary, so there is a great deal of tradition to hold on to at the same time that we innovate. In worship and in classroom settings, we remember to celebrate the persons who have come before us, to celebrate the life of the institution, the work it has been able to do, the strong suits, and then to think in ways in which those strong suits can be adapted and developed in light of the changed circumstances in which we find ourselves today.

For example, Union-PSCE has had a tremendous legacy in biblical studies. We want to make sure that we maintain that strong academic orientation to biblical studies, but at the same time begin to think about how the biblical work that’s done by our faculty can be connected with other departmental issues and foci at the school.

Interdisciplinary work is one way in which we can innovate within the life of things that are already. We might envision new ways to train students across the boundaries of different disciplinary fields, so that we create scholars and leaders of the church who have multifaceted capabilities and can speak in different disciplinary languages as they go out into the church.

It's hard to innovate because we’re wedded to our traditions, but students who come out of new and varied contexts bring in questions that push us and cause us to think in innovative ways. The students are the impetus for innovation, I think.

Q:  Do you find the new generation open to different ways of thinking or more wedded to tradition?

The new generation of students, both at Princeton and at Union-PSCE, has been very open to pushing the boundaries. That’s one of the exciting things that students bring, and that’s one of the reasons why it's always exciting to see the cycles of students in a seminary life. Every three years it radically changes. Sometimes the same issues arise, but always in new ways because the students are coming from different generational perspectives.

Students are steeped in their own church traditions as they come to us, but one of the nice things about working with students is that they've been taught to think beyond where they are and to look for where they might be.