Open Leadership as Creative, Loving, and Just

By Joshua Canada

Christian higher education leaders should seek to co-create loving and justice-seeking institutions.

Higher education in the U.S. is in transition. Hardly can one turn on the television, read a newspaper, or go on social media without coming across a piece about the challenges faced by leaders in higher education: tuition costs continue to rise while federal and state grant funding stagnates, the intentions and limits of free speech are being challenged by polarizing campus speakers, mental health concerns are overwhelming counseling centers, and dominantly-White institutions are finding themselves unprepared to educate a racially and culturally diverse student body. These industry stressors contribute to a high turnover rate for middle and senior leadership. In turn, this unrelenting change in leadership creates organizational instability and ambiguity about the identity and purpose of these colleges and universities.

What does open theology have to say to these challenges? How can an approach to leadership, rooted in a theology in which humanity co-creates the future with God, bring clarity during this era of transition? I propose that a view of God that has not fully determined the future requires leadership to take responsibility for these efforts and not displace that responsibility solely on the divine actions. Moreover, leadership in an open theological framework necessitates that higher education leaders actively create educational organizations that are lovingly engaged with people and communities and invested in creating a just future. This article posits that open leadership is creative, loving, and justice seeking.

Leadership as Loving

Leadership is a posture of love. This love comes as a response to an outflowing of God’s love given to us as individuals and corporately. Love is not passive; it pursues, it seeks, and it continually motivates us to know others better. Poor or oppressive leadership often occurs within a context in which a positional leader has power but does not truly know those whom they have power over. In scripture, knowing and loving are entangled. God’s love for creation is inseparable from engagement in knowing creation. The Christ is the paramount example; God’s love for creation was expressed by God becoming human and thus engaged in knowing humanity and creation in an intimate way.

This knowing-love requires leaders to carry the responsibility for the impact of their decisions on others. Leaders are not simply pawns in a cosmic chess game, leaders have agency to act and respond to others—including God. The decisions of leaders have real consequences. Decisions that have negatively impacted historically marginalized persons, groups, and communities do not fall upon God, but rather on those humans who made—or remained complicit with—those decisions. Often such decisions are made because the perceived “other” is not truly known by those with power.

The priorities of higher education institutions are not always the same priorities of the local community. Yet colleges are embedded within communities, cities, and regions. Although studies show that colleges contribute to the economic welfare of a region, they also strain public resources and utilities, can drive-up the cost of living, and college students often occupy important housing stock. Moreover, as non-profits, institutions of higher education are not directly contributing to the taxes in the city or region. Open and relational leadership requires the leader to develop values and make decisions that foster deepening relationships with the local community.

What might this mean in practice? I argue that leaders should learn the assets and needs of the local community and those assets and needs should become important to university leadership. The welfare of the community should become integrated into the institution’s posture toward the community and its own welfare. Academic divisions can cultivate engaged scholarship—scholarship linked with local community development—and action-based research as a fully respected track of research (that benefits faculty promotion). University expertise can combine with community expertise to cultivate flourishing.

Moreover, institutional decisions should be made with the involvement of local leadership and the community. New building or annexation projects should be subject to public forums about the impact of such projects. More significantly, institutions should be willing to delay or even cancel projects that are likely to impact the local community adversely, even if those impacts were not foreseen during planning. A loving relationship between the college and community pursues commonality and mutuality even if at the cost of perceived progress for the institution.

Leadership as Creative

In times of chaos or confusion, people often retreat to a theology of God’s ultimate providence: when a key leader suddenly departs, when finances are tight and cutbacks occur, or when campus issues become a public relations problem. In these times, it is common to try to calm the chaos within ourselves and within our organizations by claiming, “God is in control” or even suggesting that God intentionally brought about the crisis for some expression of God’s will which we are simply not privy to. Conversely, when things are operating well and there is little anxiety for the future there is little talk about God’s plans. Perceived organizational stability often leads people to assume that all is well with God, but chaos sends us searching for God.

An open and relational view of God runs counter to either posture. God’s engagement is always present and active, but that presence is not deterministic of the future. We engage with God and God engages with (and for) us as we make decisions about our reality. We co-labor and co-create with God to bring about restoration and wholeness in the world. Higher education leaders embracing creative leadership will not simply double-down on the past or attempt to revive historical organizational mythos. Rather, they will take stock of what is present, good, and life giving about their institution and be critical about what is unjust and detrimental. From that posture of being present, they then will work to co-create with God and others.

It is common to read commentary on the status of higher education and the diminishing of the liberal arts or humanities. Professors and commenters argue for a revival of classic literature that undergirds much of the curriculum of early liberal arts colleges and curricula in the United States. Yet, our culture has changed and our students are no longer predominantly White and financially privileged as was the case for those “classical” liberal arts programs. Open leadership assesses what is present in the here-and-now and asks, “How will today’s curriculum cultivate the future?” as opposed to looking backward. This may mean creative intersections of the sciences and humanities, expanding the core courses beyond White and Eurocentric curricula, or building experiential programs based on diverse learning styles that prioritize experiential learning. Students do not thrive in a systemized, unresponsive, education machine. In contrast, students thrive by being in culturally relevant and responsive academic communities that are inherently relational and in which students can partner with others, take responsibility for their learning, develop a sense of ownership of their education, and experience belonging and membership (Museus, 2014, Schreiner, 2006).

Leadership as Justice Seeking

Leadership in the context of an open view requires partnership with God’s restorative, redemptive, and reconciliatory mission—God’s mission of justice. Paramount to the pursuit of justice is addressing racism and racial inequity in higher education. Organizational studies literature reminds us that simply changing the composition of an organization does not guarantee an equitable and inclusive culture for people of color. Leaders must actively pursue changes to practices, policies, cultures, and the systems that prevent equity. This means confronting white supremacy and the white norms of their institution’s culture.

Colorblind approaches to race are common for white people and dominantly-white organizations. However, this colorblindness in which people “do not see color” attempts to minimize and delegitimize the experience of people and communities of color. Overwhelmingly, research in higher education shows that race matters for faculty, staff, and students and that people and communities of color have more complicated, less satisfactory, and more inequitable experiences as compared to white people.

Open leadership must unabashedly be race conscious, anti-racist, and actively pursue justice. White leaders should avoid taking on the label or posture of an ally or justice warrior—both of which often benefit that white individual rather than people of color—and relinquish power so that people of color can influence and shape the culture and values of the institution. Moreover, leaders need to ask exploratory questions of their institutional culture and thus the future that culture is constructing.

  • Does the faculty and staff composition represent the racial diversity of the students?
  • Is the Board of Trustees predominantly white? And what cultures are represented and expressed on the Board?
  • Are faculty and staff of color experiencing racism in the tenure or promotion process?
  • What external relationships are the institution informed and formed by? Are these relationships racially and culturally diverse?
  • Are there racial differences between measurable student outcomes of graduation rate, GPA, campus climate rating, debt, job placement, etc.?

These questions are not rhetorical. The answers should change the way institutions fund programs, recruit, and hire faculty and staff, develop a board, and apply financial aid. The answers to these questions should lead leaders into a deeper “knowing” of their campus. A knowing that is racially conscious and critical of the status quo. Christian justice occurs within God continually knowing and wanting to know of those struggling against injustice. Likewise, racial justice in higher education cannot happen without a deep rootedness in the experiences and cultures of people of color.


As beings created in the image of God, we are to mirror God’s essential characteristic—Love. Proceeding from this open view of God requires responsibility on the part of leaders. For those in higher education this responsibility requires a disposition that transcends contemporary challenges and seeks to create new, more relational and more just institutions of learning.

Museus, S. D. (2014). The Culturally Engaging Campus Environments (CECE) Model: A new theory of college success among racially diverse student populations. In M. B. Paulsen (Ed.), Higher education: Handbook of theory and research (pp. 189–227). New York, NY: Springer.

Schreiner, L. (2006). [Psychological sense of community on campus index]. Unpublished raw data.

Joshua Canada, M.A., serves as the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Azusa Pacific University. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Higher Education at Azusa Pacific University. His research focuses on organizational theory, culture, and religion as they relate to higher education. In addition to his professional work, Joshua serves as a lay leader in the Free Methodist Church. He and his family reside in the San Gabriel region of Los Angeles County.

To purchase the book from which this leadership essay comes, see Open and Relational Leadership: Leading with Love.

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