Reflections on the leadership journey
An interview with Shirley H. Showalter
by Rachel Lapp
After eight years, you are stepping down as president of Goshen
on to Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Mich. Are people asking
why you are leaving, now, an institution that
A: I was not expecting a new calling so soon, but when it
came, I was ready. While the decision was a surprise
to many, I feel
it’s better to leave a little too soon than too
When I accepted the invitation to become president in
1996, my prayer and meditation life was rich. I was using
Disciplines for the Inner Life. On the date that the
decision was due, the topic for the day was “guidance” and
the reading was Samuel 16:1-13 – the story of how David
the shepherd boy was selected by Samuel as the unlikeliest of
Jesse’s sons to be ruler. The end of the story
moved me; it described the Spirit of God entering David
This Spirit empowered him for the rest of his life. It
was the presence of this Spirit that made David a great
These words moved me deeply because I was aware of the need for
divine help, and I too felt the presence of the Spirit. Later,
in talking about the passage with the chair of the presidential
search committee, I learned that the committee had selected that
same passage as a theme for its work.
Q: You came to Goshen College directly from graduate school at
the University of Texas at Austin. Like other faculty members
and former presidents, both you and Stuart had other options
in academia. What was, and is, distinctive and appealing about
A: Goshen has unique character, and a newcomer can feel it almost
immediately. People care deeply about ideas, and talk
about Christian faith as integral to everything that we apply
ourselves to do.
The standards for teaching, service and scholarship are high
and are internally reinforced; excellence is simply expected.
Global awareness, a passion for social justice and peace
permeate the curriculum and campus-wide events, and because these
essential aspects of our understanding of the word of God,
we are focused on sharing these with the world. This is consistent
with faithfulness to the Mennonite Church.
Goshen has developed a high quality faculty and staff, and
quality begets quality. There is a “village” atmosphere that
includes both social and spiritual dimensions: we study and work
together, play together, volunteer together, sing together and
pray together. Multiple generations meet here, grow here, share
here. These are some reasons that Stuart and I have stayed at
Loyalty cannot be taken for granted, however. That is why building
the Mininger Center fund for faculty development has been a
priority in the last two years. The Center will be one entity
for keeping Goshen’s character strong, in the tradition
of foundational leaders like past president Paul Mininger. Of
course each program also carries that responsibility.
And clearly articulating this institution’s core values
has influenced and will continue to influence the direction
for Goshen College increased our ability to define excellence and
focus our efforts.
Q: You were the first woman to be called as president of
Goshen College. What significance does that hold for you?
A: When you are the first, you bear a special responsibility.
You are accountable to those who follow after you as well
as for those who went before you who did not have the same
There’s a lovely quote in Zora Neal Hurston’s Their
Eyes Were Watching God, which I have often thought about when
approaching a podium. In the book, the character Janie’s
grandmother tells Janie that she herself could have been a preacher
but wasn’t able to and tells Janie it is now up to
Julia Kasdorf wrote a poem at the time of my inauguration, “The
First Bird,” in which there is the line that says “the
way notes, once forced into her tiny throat, come out this dawn
as song.” I have certainly thought about those “notes” and
I am grateful for all the other women and men, past and present,
who have made it possible for me to sing.
I have always felt honored to be called as a woman into leadership.
It has always been my goal that my example would not foreclose
the possibility of other women being called in this way,
but would stimulate other women to develop their leadership
and encourage the college and the church to look at 100 percent
of the possibilities. I expect women to appear on the list
of possible presidents from this time forward!
role have mentors played throughout your life and career?
A: Mentors have been extremely important to me from the time
I was a child. I have to give my family credit for placing
a lot of emphasis on seeking wisdom. My parents pointed out
to me people in our congregation whom they considered wise.
Their respect for those people set the example that the youth
should seek out wisdom, which of course is also a lesson
from the biblical Proverbs.
Whenever I have been in a new role, my natural instinct was
to look for the best practices and practitioners. It hasn’t
been hard for me to say, “I don’t know and I
need help,” and that is how I have learned a lot. You
have to develop good judgment about whether someone is a
worthy mentor. God has provided me with worthy mentors.
Q: How has your leadership style been shaped by Mennonite
A: There is a lot of guidance about leadership on the Sermon
on the Mount, which has permeated all of Mennonite theology.
We don’t think about the Sermon on the Mount as a leadership
statement, but it is.
When you are in a leadership position, the balance you need
to achieve is in using your gifts to persuade, leading through
words and actions, and also recognizing the ways you must
encourage others to do the same thing – to contribute
their gifts to the larger whole. Some people call this servant
leadership, which is where bottom-up and top-down leadership
meet. Leaders must be actively involved in listening, shaping,
goading, prodding, developing and articulating vision that
is community-based and comes out of relationships with people
who are energetic and active followers who are ready to speak
That is what feels so good about Goshen College’s core
values: we used a process that involved many voices. There
are times when you have to modify your course because of
your relationships in the community. I think I learned those
things from my Mennonite upbringing and various Mennonite
communities of which I have been a part. I think these ideas
are congruent with the latest and best work on leadership
in books like Good to Great by Jim Collins. And in all of
Max DePree’s writing on leadership. Or an article in
Harvard Business Review about the “Level Five Leader.” So
I would credit what I have learned about leadership to my
faith community as well as secular sources.
Q: Why did you wish to continue to teach during your presidency?
A: Teaching has kept me in touch with what faculty members
are doing every day and the entire reason for our existence.
I taught four courses within the Honors
program over eight years. I can’t know a thousand students intimately,
but I can know well a few – out of the more than 2,000
who were at Goshen College during the time I have served
as president – and I can engage with them in the joy
and challenges of learning. And I’m very glad I did
Q: What are some highlights from your presidency?
A: There have been so many highlights, often in the form
of meeting alumni and Goshen College supporters or talking
about the Mennonite philosophy of higher education,
the first-year students receiving the President’s Leadership
Award each fall. Receiving the Knight Foundation Presidential
Leadership Award, which came to us as a complete surprise,
was a wonderful opportunity. Goshen College has benefitted
from Lilly Foundation Inc. grants that, building on our strengths
and addressing community and statewide issues, are funding
very good programs, like the Plowshares Peace Studies Collaborative.
Certainly one of the most significant projects of the past
nearly eight years was envisioning a new Music Center and
engaging in significant fund raising to make it a reality.
That project was a textbook case for excellence from beginning
to end. We took two simple words from Evelyn Kreider – “simple
elegance” and built an edifice around them. Hundreds
of people contributed their gifts and special talents to
turn a dream into a reality exceeding all of our expectations.
I will always enter the Music Center with gratitude and praise
I have always wanted to focus on our potential – realizing
our potential for good, for unity, for excellence. Part of
the work of strategic planning has also been articulating
our core values to describe who we are – our unique
culture as a Christian institution rooted in the Mennonite
tradition – and the significance of the beliefs we
share on our programs and campus life. People internally
and externally feel that this is Goshen at its best. It is
creating a hope for fulfilling our potential as a unified
community confident of our own identity, joined together
by a spirit of love. There is an interwovenness of these
values in this community, which will serve Goshen College
well into accomplishing future goals. The Board has claimed
the core values to the extent that this will vitally inform
the kind of leader that will be attracted to lead this kind
Q: What do you see on the horizon for Goshen College?
A: Goshen College is in a very strong position for growth. There
were a few steps backward in enrollment before we rebounded
in 2003. This fall’s numbers show we are on solid ground.
[Vice President for Institutional Advancement] Andrea Cook
and the directors that report to her have been improving
our communication to prospective students and their families
and becoming more efficient. Our quality has always been
high – excellent students are attracted to Goshen (SAT scores
and GPA averages have increased) And we have invested in
campus infrastructure in ways that should serve
future students and faculty very well. We are working
hard on issues of student satisfaction and retention, which
is so important.
One of our strengths is an $88 million endowment, which allows
us to offer a lot of scholarships without having to take
all the resources for them out of the operating budget; this
is good stewardship, in addition to sound fiscal planning.
Provost John Yordy has led excellent processes to help us
gather, understand, assess and use institutional data to
Clearly, our people are an asset. We have high quality faculty
and administrators who are not only excellent scholars
and teachers in their fields, but are very committed
institution and its goal of preparing students as Christ-centered
passionate learners, global citizens, compassionate peacemakers
and servant leaders. We must, and we will, continue to
attract such professors and administrators.
The campus has also become much more beautiful. From
my office window, for example, I see an emerald carpet of
grass on the north lawn and well-manicured flower beds. Students
also enjoy this scene from newly renovated spaces in Kulp
Hall or as they dine on the outdoor patio of our upgraded
dining hall. The residence halls have air conditioning
now, so summer programming has picked up. We have the “connector” addition
to the three largest residence halls, with the campus coffee
bar that just opened. Ground has been broken for a new
residence hall to provide apartment-style housing for seniors.
Student Life staff has worked hard to make these wonderful
plans to provide living, studying and meeting places that
both foster community and provide opportunities for students
to learn and grow as young adults.
We also enjoy quality facilities that are well maintained
by an outstanding physical plant staff and some additional
help from Volunteer Ambassadors.
The process that is most exciting with regard to the future
is the Advancing Goshen College process. We have had three
sessions – attracting alumni and friends from the two
coasts and everywhere in between – of highly focused
conversations about how to achieve the next level of excellence
in areas such as enrollment, alumni relations, faculty development,
curriculum, local community, facilities, church relations,
technology and Merry Lea. The nearly 100 people who
have offered their time to serve on these task forces are
very serious about encouraging constructive change. The
good news is that the 45 on-campus people who looked at the
recommendations offered so far were not only complimentary
about the work but excited about the possibilities that the
highest priorities can be accomplished relatively soon. The
process should result in an excellent base with which to
launch a comprehensive capital campaign which gives a new
president a great opportunity to share new dreams with
all the constituencies of the college.
The North Central Association review that will be completed
next spring will be an important part of new planning. I
expect that the visiting team will take note of the
many strengths of the college. I know that Academic
Dean Anita Stalter, who has successfully shepherded other
significant review processes for accrediting agencies on
behalf of the college, and [Professor of Psychology] Duane
Kauffmann, who has been our institutional researcher and
coordinated material and data collection for the self-study
document, are both doing an excellent job of preparation
with the contributions of all departments on campus.
Q: What about Mennonite education as a whole?
A: For the five undergraduate-based institutions in the
Mennonite Church USA, the challenge today is to find
a way to increase the number of Mennonite students attending
Mennonite colleges. Ten percent of the youth of the church,
the number we collectively attract, simply will not produce
enough pastors and lay leaders for the future. We have
the opportunity ahead to look for ways to tackle this issue
together, and the Mennonite Education Agency wants to
help that happen. We know that attending a denominational
college has a major influence on the faith of young people:
they tend to stay with their denomination if they attend,
and to join the denomination if they come from other
can help the whole church be missional through education.
is the ideal scenario for the future.
Q: Regarding your future, what do you look forward to
at your new place of work?
A: The Fetzer Institute, an operating foundation funded
by an endowment from the John E. Fetzer Estate, will
provide a new challenge, one I expect to relish. My job
finding the world’s leading experts on mission-focused
topics and bring them together in settings designed for
generating great ideas and projects.
I loved being president of Goshen College – right
up to the last minute – but I will relish weekends
and relative anonymity also. “For every thing
there is a season.” I celebrate the season of public
leadership at Goshen College and look forward to the
Q: With what blessing do you wish to leave Goshen College?
A: I am full of gratitude for all that has been given
to me, to Stuart, to my children and to all of us in
28 years at Goshen College. I believe a wonderful new
leader is being prepared for a new challenge at Goshen
She or he will bring new gifts that will be necessary
for the future.
Momentum is very important to Goshen College right now.
I have faith that the board and vice presidents will
create a plan that does not skip a beat as we together
this transition. My role is to step aside and allow that
to happen, to say thanks often and to as many people
as possible, and to praise God from whom all blessings