Depth of leadership

Pouring into the next generation

Tonya Brown ’86

In 2006, when the decades-old Mechanicsburg Area Community Pool looked like it might close, Tonya Brown ’86 led the charge to save it. The Mechanicsburg Area Parks and Recreation director rallied support, wrote grant applications and organized a committee that, in six years’ time, helped raise the $1.1 million needed to save the beloved community resource.

She still remembers the day it reopened.

To stand there and watch the kids that day lining up outside the pool to get in, I cried,” said Brown, a community recreation major who played basketball for Messiah from 1982-1986. “It was awesome.”

When asked if she took personal pride in that opening day, she gives an answer that speaks volumes about the philosophy and practical application of leadership she learned at her alma mater more than 30 years ago.

“It’s not about me at all. It’s about completing whatever the project may be,” she said. “Everything I’ve ever done is with a committee or a team. You can’t win a game with just the point guard. You have to have all five players.”

Brown’s explanation of how leadership looks when executed well dovetails with the College’s definition of it: “a benevolent, mission-minded, purposeful influence.” A core tenet of the College’s overall mission involves developing students into leaders, and it has specific processes in place to do that. But true leadership is a nuanced collection of traits and behaviors that, when integrated into a life or a career, come to define a person more than any particular title or position ever could.

Following Christ’s example 

Rob Pepper ’92

Rob Pepper ’92, dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and assistant professor of leadership studies, says the first and most famous example is one the College continually looks to for inspiration and direction.

“A big focus we have here is looking at the model of Christ,” said Pepper. “How did He lead? How did He treat His people? What did He do? Did He call people to a higher understanding? He would help people by putting the needs of them ahead of His own needs, but, at the same time, He would draw people to a higher vision.”

Pepper, who helped to create the College’s leadership development model, says showing people a higher vision than what they can currently see is a cornerstone of transformational leadership.

“‘Come and follow me, I’ll make you fishers of men.’ That’s taking people from an understanding of what they thought it meant to be a fisherman, to something greater,” he explained.

A contemporary example of such a leader, he says, is Martin Luther King Jr. “King described a vision of racial equality that was inspirational. He stayed true to his vision even in the face of danger,” said Pepper. “His unswerving commitment to that vision resulted in transforming society--but also the loss of his life.”

Similar to transformational leadership is the servant-leader ideal, which Messiah affirms, along with its key concepts of empathy, stewardship and self-awareness.

“Servant leadership argues that to lead, first the person must serve,” Pepper explained. It’s a philosophy of leadership that underscores the importance of serving others as a way to positively impact an organization, business or society.

“Think about a perfect isosceles triangle, with people at the bottom and the leader at the top. So people serve the leader,” he said.

“In servant leadership, you turn that model upside down. The leader is at the bottom and they’re serving and upholding and helping the other people, lifting them up.”

Rising to the occasion 

Doug Flemmens, director of the Collaboratory on campus

Doug Flemmens, director of the Collaboratory on campus, describes a servant leadership instance from his earlier career in the business world. Just days into his new job as a production manager, the company closed the plant.

“In that moment, I was able to step in and be the calm, guiding hand, a little bit detached from the personal relationships,” recalled Flemmens. “I was able to, at an individual and corporate level, counsel people through that process.”

He set aside his own anxiety about his impending job loss to serve his charges.

“Having a solid faith foundation, knowing that God’s in control and that He’s got work for us to do, I was able to see the work that I was called to do in that moment,” said Flemmens, who now equips the next generation of leaders in Collaboratory applied research teams serving for the good of all. “I never aspired to leadership but now believe God calls us all to make a difference in different ways. We have a responsibility to rise to the occasions that God provides.”

It’s not about a big title 

Kevin Villegas ’98

Along with their personal faith guiding them, proven leaders say they cultivate certain traits to lead effectively. Kevin Villegas ’98, director of Student Involvement and Leadership Programs, began honing those skills in the Marine Corps, where he also learned an impressively long acronym to help him remember them: JJDIDTIEBUCKLE. 

“The Marine Corps was good at giving acronyms,” said Villegas, rattling off from memory the 14 leadership traits identified by the military branch: justice, judgment, decisiveness, initiative, dependability, tact, integrity, enthusiasm, bearing, unselfishness, courage, knowledge, loyalty and endurance.

“I think if you looked in Scripture, you can find good evidence of why those traits matter in a leader,” he said. There is, however, a marked difference between military leadership and biblical leadership. “In the Marines, you lead by rank. You listen to someone who outranks you. Whereas, I think more of a biblical or Christian approach is that people follow you because of who you are—not what you can do for them or to them.”

Today, Villegas helps students find ways to strengthen these traits, as well as their faith, as they develop into leaders. Through the Experiential Learning Initiative (ELI), students can gain experience in leadership positions on campus that help to prepare them for their chosen careers and to make a difference in their communities. Villegas says about 180 student leaders come together for special training before the start of each fall semester to learn the College’s leadership development model.

Through leadership education, character development and skills training, Messiah guides students through the “head-heart-hands” model of leadership development, which prepares them to be leaders in their careers, but is focused more on all the ways to lead outside a boardroom or executive suite.

“That’s why we like that definition of leadership, because it doesn’t necessarily mean you are in a primary leadership position. Anybody could demonstrate benevolent, mission-minded, purposeful influence,” Villegas said. “Leadership isn’t about title or position. People should want to follow you because of who you are — ideally, your Christlike-ness. People see Christ in you and are attracted to that and want to follow you.”

Standard bearers for sports 

Aaron Faro ’03, MS ’15

Aaron Faro ’03, MS ’15 works as Messiah’s assistant men’s soccer coach and director of the AROMA sports ministry program. With an undergraduate degree in sport and exercise science along with a master’s in higher education, he says the soccer program stresses the “everyone can lead” mentality from the get-go. 

“We don’t even have captains anymore,” said Faro.

Instead, the team strives to embody eight biblical core values:

  • We place the team over the individual.
  • We are relationally invested.
  • We seek excellence.
  • We choose to be positive.
  • We work hard.
  • We are mentally tough.
  • We are accountable to one another.
  • We seek to be men of character.

The players with these traits become the “standard bearers” for the rest of the group.

“Everybody is trying to embody those values, but we would pinpoint one specific person to say, ‘That person embodies that value the best on our team. If you’re struggling with that, here’s somebody you could look to as a model for that,’” he explained.

Through AROMA, whose mission is to empower Messiah students to participate in God’s Kingdom through sports, opportunities for students include weekly small groups, chapel, local service, summer camps and domestic and international sports ministry trips. By providing student-athletes with opportunities to participate in these ministry-focused activities, there is a shift in paradigm of the true purpose of sports: aligning one’s purpose in sport with one’s purpose in life.

“Many student athletes are realizing, perhaps for the first time, that they can use their gifting in athletics to spread the Gospel,” said Faro. “Student athletes are no longer placing their identity in their performance on the field, but in their identity in Christ. We believe that students who know their true identity, are empowered to pursue athletic excellence and lead from their Christian character.”

Pouring into the next generation

Pauline Peifer ’66

Pauline Peifer ’66 has had a long and varied career, which has included leadership roles in nursing and in ministry. In both fields, she has had to fire employees and says it never gets easy. But, showing compassion for the individual while ultimately doing what’s best for the organization takes that equal measure of grace and truth.   

“We need to all the time be looking at how we can serve. How do we help this person take the next step [in a personal journey] and show that we care?” she asked.

In the first half of her career as a nurse, she worked her way up to executive director and administrator at a nursing home and rehabilitation facility in Mifflintown. After switching to ministry several years ago, she became the first female bishop in the Atlantic Conference Brethren in Christ Church in 2012. She says her success has been a combination of God’s calling and her own initiative.

“I am not one of those people who just kind of sits around waiting for something to happen,” said Peifer, who now serves as the volunteer director of the Awaken Network for Women in Ministry Leadership. “I think we women need to see that we have something to offer — and not be afraid to take advantage of those opportunities.”

Being afraid — to try, to fail or even to succeed too much or too quickly — is a snag that can impede even the most experienced leader from time to time. A former boss told her how important it was for a leader to have personal courage, and Peifer has seen evidence of just how important that is throughout her life, including the courage it takes to know when it’s time to let go of a job or a career.

“I was told years ago that you should always be trying to work yourself out of a job,” she said. “You should always be looking for someone you can pour yourself into.”

In other words, teach what you’ve learned and, eventually, pass the baton.

Pepper couldn’t agree more.

“I oftentimes look at my success as a leader not so much by the things I’ve accomplished but by the people that I’ve influenced and what they’re now doing and the leadership that they now have. To me, that’s essential,” he said. “And I think that a big part of the Messiah College culture is, ‘Who are we pouring into, either professionally or our students, and how are we doing that so that they can go out and be change agents or influencers in the world?’”