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The John Jay Institute: Cultivating Leadership Through Dialogue

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Leadership is best cultivated in dialogue -- the same place where we meet and get to know friends, fall in love, and learn of the world. And dialogue is where growth, healing, and inspiration occur. It is one of the great gifts of humanity. Along with a heart to serve, a vision of what could be, and a love of those to whom one is called to lead, a willingness to engage in dialogue is one of the marks of a strong leader.

On an October afternoon, when nature leads residents of the Northeast out of the warmth and deep greens of the summer, into the brisk air and the reds and browns of the autumn, I visited a diverse group of individuals who were participating in The John Jay Institute's 2011-2012 Fellows Program -- a faith-based gap-year program which seeks to cultivate leaders for careers of principled service. Those selected for this highly competitive fellowship (named after the Founding Father, former Governor of New York and First Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) live expense-free in a beautiful mansion just outside of Philadelphia where they share meals, study, and worship together.

My first moments in the mansion flashed images of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the community and underground seminary for which he wrote his timeless book Life Together. Admittedly, I also envisaged the mansion in the fictional Marvel comic book series and films about the "X-Men", where "Professor X" mentors and teaches his students how to use their abilities to help save and protect the world. Both images, of Bonhoeffer's community and of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, are surprisingly appropriate.

The young women and men in this year's class of fellows represent a broad array of traditions within Christianity. The composition of the group was just one of several surprises that I found that afternoon. Sitting around the table where we gathered were individuals who identified as Anglican, Non-Denominational, Roman Catholic, PCA, Southern Baptist, and Russian Orthodox. Along with denominational affiliations, some used words like "Evangelical" and "Charismatic" to describe themselves. With an age range spanning about fifteen years, some of the fellows came directly after college, one is taking off time from law school in Texas, another is finishing up a dissertation, and another left a teaching job to enroll in the program. One very winsome student just completed a year serving in missions, while another just finished a master's thesis on Liberation Theology. Among this diverse gathering is even a popular rock star from Slovakia. Ecumenical Christian spaces of learning and dialogue are rare and present tremendous opportunities for growth and a deepening of one's own faith journey. The fellows recognized this during our conversation as both a "blessing" (in that for many of them this was the first time they had been in community with Catholics or Protestants or Orthodox believers), but also as a challenge, as those traditions and the various streams within them, bring different perspectives and interpretations of Christian doctrine and even of scripture -- let alone the political and ideological teachings that may come from church authorities. This can make dialogue both rich and mutually educational as well present opportunities for conflict and debate.

A great training space for young leaders.

The fellows spend the first semester in an academic residency allowing for intensive study in a community of peers who discuss and wrestle with both texts and ideas in daily seminars. Nightly, the young women and men participating in the program spend hours working through thick philosophical, political, theological, and historical texts - preparing for the following day's discussions. In between these class sessions they take cultural outings into Philadelphia, hear from guest lecturers, share communal meals, as well as pray and fellowship together. The second semester, the fellows are placed in internships in governmental, international, and non-governmental agencies. This effort towards praxis seems to be one of the most attractive traits of the fellowship.

I originally was interested in writing a piece on John Jay because of the unique nature of the program. A post-collegiate, faith-based, para-academic center interested in cultivating leaders is to me an exciting, albeit extremely hyphenated, idea. These gap year programs can be strong spaces for vocational discernment, community building, and growth. I wanted to learn more about the effect that programs like this can have on the lives of those who participate in them. That said, my time at the Institute proved to be revelatory on a personal level.

When pressed, I describe myself as someone who is officially an "Independent" politically and a "Non-Denominational Christian" theologically. I resist labels and sides. I certainly hold many liberal positions, but some that would be described as conservative as well. I like to think that no one's ideology can be reduced or simplified to one word. Still, because of my position in a university with a liberal reputation and because of many of the things that I have written about and spoken on behalf of, no one has ever accused me of being a conservative.

Similarly, no one has ever accused the John Jay Institute of being liberal. Thus, I admit I entered into my conversation with the fellows and the institute's leadership with some trepidation and sadly some characterizations and stereotypes. I expected the composition of the class of fellows to be very different. I was expecting, and I'm embarrassed to confess this, a room full of white men who were all very conservative Republicans. It's easy for those projections to be followed by accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, greed, and a hawkish insensitivity. Perhaps worst of all, these projections, that I was guilty of, dehumanize the other and lump them into a monolithic "them" -- a fictional group of straw men that share the same beliefs and world views. And these dehumanizing projections make dialogue nearly impossible. Conversations get reduced to shouting matches and sound bites.

I was pleasantly surprised. Now don't get me wrong, at the end of the day, The John Jay Institute is not 'going liberal' -- I wouldn't even call them (there I go again) moderate. But there is no "them" and that is part of what makes this program so special. Like young Evangelicals today, there is a great diversity of opinions on issues like LGBT rights, war and violence, how to address poverty, and more. There are some well known names from "The Right" associated with the institute and some of those individuals have very strong opinions. But the program is not designed to tell the students what to think... but rather how to think, and after thinking to be in dialogue and conversation about these ideas.

This democratic (small "d!") dialogical safe space really all stems from the program's founder Alan Crippen. The comparisons to the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer are appropriate in that Crippen both teaches and helps in the leading of the devotional life of the students. His vision of reforming a culture by challenging its future leaders is not dissimilar from Bonhoeffer's efforts at raising up a generation of faithful pastors in his Confessing Church who would help to reform and reclaim a Germany that was heading in a dangerously wrong direction.

As a life-long fan of comic books, I mean my comparison to Professor X as a compliment as well. The fictional character identifies the potential abilities within his students and helps them to learn how to use their powers for good. Crippen, according to the John Jay alumni that I spoke with, has a similar ability to see the "not yet" within a person and to subtly encourage people to be all that they may someday be. He's unique and time with him demands questions like -- Why are you doing this? Why spend day after day leading discussions about Max Weber, Hobbes, and the Founding Fathers? Why spend tireless hours traveling the country raising funds for this tuition-free, stipended program? Or organizing the continual speaker events held on the John Jay campus and elsewhere? What is the end goal?

I think that Crippen does what he does because he is a man who simply wants to be faithful to his God as he seeks to live out his faith and calling. He, and the institute that he founded, are about the cultivation of leadership.

I am quite sure that I disagree with Alan on some political "hot-button" issues. I'm sure that some of the fellows do as well. But stances on issues are not the point. The institute isn't teaching students what to believe about issues or about which is the "right" doctrine. They are teaching participants to think critically and to lead in a time with difficult challenges ahead.

In a moment where there are many accusations made towards the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement, not least among them that they are each respectively pulling the right further to the right and the left further to the left, our nation (and world) deeply needs to be moving closer to one another if we are to solve the major issues of our day. The institute is not making future GOP candidates for office, though they certainly have fellows and past fellows with sincere political aspirations. The Institute is challenging individuals to be able to think and be in dialogue with others -- even others who think differently than themselves. This is an admirable enterprise.

Case in point: some of the students came to visit me on campus soon after my visit with them at the institute. Over lunch one of the students asked me about my dissertation. I smiled at the thought of anyone but my former committee members being interested in hearing about something I poured so much of my life into! But I hesitated. I remembered how much of an issue Black Theology was during President Obama's run for the White House and I didn't really feel like getting into a debate over lunch with them. Yet they seemed sincerely interested, so I happily shared and rambled on about Liberation Theology, Black Theology, James Cone, Cornel West, and a number of other theologians and concepts that I spent so much time with while writing.

They asked questions and wanted to hear more and more about the study. They listened. They nodded. They smiled and they grimaced. They pushed back on some things like the need to "reconstruct the center" in much of the regular discourse in scholarship by bringing in marginalized voices. And then they listened more. I doubt I sold any of them on it. But that's not the point of dialogue. I think they heard me and I heard them. And we both learned. We dialogued.

I believe that they are doing something right over there at John Jay. I look forward to the day when these fellows are in office or are leading think tanks or working in the leadership of other fields. We need more leaders like them -- not because of the political positions that they will hold, but because they, unlike too many in public leadership today, won't be afraid to engage with those who disagree with them.

While leaving my conversation with Alan and his Confessing Church X-Men, I couldn't help but smile at the irony. They are conservative -- saying that they are working to effect the "restoration of American Civilization." I don't love that phrase. And I, like many others, while deeply loving America, know that there are parts of our past that should not at all be conserved. Yet, while the John Jay Institute and those affiliated with it might be described as "conservative", in many ways they are "progressive" for encouraging mutual respect, mutual learning, a commitment to serving, loving our neighbors, and dialogue with both the ideas of the past and the ideas of the present. The Institute's work is an effort that I think will bring much progress, no matter how one politically identifies.