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‘Moments like this were designed for the church’

University of Dubuque President Jeffrey Bullock talks leadership during the pandemic

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Bullock is president of the University of Dubuque.

LOUISVILLE — Now in his 22nd year as president of the University of Dubuque, the Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Bullock still finds he has a lot of work to do — even during a pandemic at a university and PC(USA)-affiliated seminary well known for distance learning.

Bullock, a Presbyterian pastor, scholar and administrator, was the guest Wednesday on a Facebook Live interview hosted by the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director of Theological Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation. The topic for the half-hour segment was leadership during a pandemic.

Bullock, who left parish ministry to be the dean of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary and accepted the presidency of the university two years later, said the university’s team of administrators, faculty and staff “is rowing together. Prior to COVID-19, you’d have dustups here and there, because we are human. But once this hit, everyone is focused and rowing in the same direction. This team has not wavered a bit.”

“We all have gifts, and we are to use them for the glory of God and to bear witness to the good news,” he told Hinson-Hasty. “We all have responsibilities, and if we do them together, we are serving students in the way we are intending to serve them.”

He and his team “believe that organizational culture trumps organizational strategy every time,” he said. “We communicate a lot. We know we are going to get through this because we have a strong culture and God has a purpose for us.”

And as for the church, “moments like this were designed for the church,” Bullock said. “If we can’t find a way to be useful, productive and helpful in the midst of all this, it’s time to do something else.”

Presbyterians in many ways “are dabbling in minors, and this (coronavirus pandemic) is a major. This is a time we should really shine. We have the opportunity to point people in a direction that is hopeful, rather than fearful.”

He told Hinson-Hasty that Habakkuk, a prophet who constantly wonders when God will bring judgment and release, remains one of his favorite books of the Bible.

“The end of that little narrative is, ‘Yet I will rejoice,’” Bullock said. “That is how we were designed as faithful Christian people, and that’s part of the witness of the church at this time.”

Bullock said he marvels at the rural ministry that goes on every day in Eastern Iowa and in other places where UDTS graduates serve.

“In these rural communities, the congregations are difficult to serve, because so much is expected of the pastor,” including running the food pantry and handing out everything from donated clothing to mental health services, “even to folks who aren’t part of the congregation. Pastors are doing so many things right now, and it’s easy to get discouraged.”

Bullock said the university he heads is known for at least two things: its distance learning program and the fact that students at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary can earn a varsity letter while preparing for ministry.

Begun about 15 years ago, the seminary’s distance learning program has “demonstrated outcomes equal to or superior to many residential programs,” according to Bullock. It’s also made UDTS one of the most diverse seminaries in the nation: The seminary serves students in 30 states and 10 countries.

And, he added, “we have seminarians on the (university’s) tennis team and the golf team. With God,” Bullock said with a grin, “all things are possible.”

“Be people of hope,” Bullock said in a charge to wrap up the interview. “As (the Rev. Dr.) Brian (Blount, president of Union Presbyterian Seminary) has let us know, we know what the last chapter is. Let’s be purposeful and focused and understand that the best is yet to be.”


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