Kriegbaum returns to FPU presidency


Kriegbaum leads different school than the one he served 20 years ago

By Myra Holmes


When Richard Kriegbaum got a certain call from the Board of Trustees of Fresno Pacific University (FPU) last fall, he expected the call to be about consulting work. After all, he has extensive experience as a leadership consultant and had already been working with FPU’s seminary in that capacity. 

But the call was to ask him to serve—again—as president of the MB-owned school on the West Coast. Kriegbaum served as president from 1985-1997.

Kriegbaum consulted with his wife, Peggy, and, to his surprise, she immediately agreed that he should pursue the opportunity. “That’s not Peggy,” he says. “She said that God had already been at work in her heart, preparing her for this change.

By the next morning, he had agreed, and he was installed Oct. 24, 2014, as the 12th president of FPU.


An inauspicious start

Kriegbaum’s second term as president got off to a messy start. The FPU board announced the resignation of outgoing president Pete Menjares Sept. 11, 2014, followed just days later by Kriegbaum’s appointment. The abrupt nature of the transition left many scratching their heads and some with significant pain.

 “That’s a very disorderly process,” Kriegbaum says. “There’s no getting around it.”

But in many ways Kriegbaum has been preparing all his life to step into the role now, even on such short notice.

A passion for Christian education began around the family dinner table when he was growing up, where conversations often turned to the questions and issues surrounding the Christian college where his father served as dean. 

From there, the thread of Christian education ran through his education and experience. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Wheaton (Ill.) College and a master’s degree from Ball State University, then served at Wheaton as a teacher and administrator, which he calls “enormously great preparation.”

Similarly, a passion for leadership began early, when he was shoulder-tapped in high school as a potential leader in his denomination, the Grace Brethren. “That was an early affirmation that I was supposed to think in those terms,” he says.

Because of that early nudge, he not only pursued leadership opportunities but also began to think about what it means to lead well. His doctoral dissertation was on “A Typology of Boards of Trustees of Private Colleges.” He authored a book for Christian leaders, Leadership Prayers, in 1998 and has consulted or presented on leadership, planning and governance with more than 170 organizations.


Coming to FPU

He was first introduced to FPU through one of those consulting assignments, then served as administrative vice president before becoming president in 1985. To hear him tell it, the board literally couldn’t find anyone else after the resignation of then-president Edmund Janzen. Finally—somewhat reluctantly—he agreed to give it a try.

He says that good “followership” on the part of the FPU board and faculty helped him succeed as president and taught him the value of followership. After all, he points out, if no one is following, no one can lead. “Leaders do not make followers; followers make leaders,” he says.

At FPU, he says, he has always felt the needed support of the board and faculty. That helped him feel optimistic about stepping into the presidency now. “I don’t walk into the office saying ‘I’ve got to figure this out,’” he says. “I walk into the office saying, ‘We’ve got to figure this out.’”

Other lessons learned during that first presidency also helped prepare him to step into the role now, such as the importance of distinguishing between “my role and my identity.” He says such separation helps in light of the pressures and painful decisions that go along with leadership.

Another lesson he learned from his predecessor, Edmund Janzen: “The direction is more important than the present location.” When applied to students, for example, he learned to focus not so much on their current spiritual or academic standing but on where they were headed.

When applied to an institution, that philosophy helps focus on a healthy future rather than getting bogged down in current circumstances. “You’re able to get a lot more kingdom work done,” Kriegbaum says. 


That was then; this is now

FPU’s current “location” is a challenging one. Kriegbaum leads a different school now than he did the first time around. Then, enrollment hovered around 600; now it tops 3,700. What started as a small Bible college is now a multi-campus university, with centers in Bakersfield, Visalia, North Fresno and Merced, Calif., in addition to the main campus in Fresno, Calif.

Then, most of the students and faculty were Mennonite Brethren; now less than half the faculty and a very small percentage of students claim Mennonite Brethren background. Kriegbaum says FPU is now a university for, rather than of, Mennonite Brethren.  

External pressures from government, accreditors and financial requirements have increased, and American culture has shifted dramatically. “Like most evangelical colleges, we have to deal with moral and ethical behavior policies in light of the context of changing social and legal environments,” Kriegbaum says.

The school’s relationship with the church is changing. Once, the question was whether the school was a drain on the denomination. Now, he says, the question is, “How does a very small denomination properly serve and give its college to the church worldwide without restraining it unnecessarily?”

Given the realities of FPU’s current location, the challenge before Kriegbaum is to continue to move the university in the direction of long-term, sustainable health. Top priorities include a new leadership model and financial stability.


Trying a dual-leadership model

When the board appointed Kriegbaum, they also initiated a new dual-leadership administrative model that he is responsible for fleshing out. Under the new model, the president is responsible for the overall spiritual life of the university, community relations and external contacts. “My job is to provide the context and the resources that FPU needs to succeed,” says Kriegbaum. 

Meanwhile, the provost, now senior vice president, is responsible for all internal university programs. Stephen Varvis holds this position.

The new model recognizes that external and internal leadership are complex jobs that don’t necessarily require the same skill set. Kriegbaum says that decision-making under the new model will be more efficient and that, so far, the new model is working very well. “We’re making very rapid progress.”


Financial stability a priority

A second major priority at the start of Kriegbaum’s presidency is financial stability. Kriegbaum says the university faced a “very urgent situation” with finances: The school had operated in the red for the past two fiscal years and was rapidly heading toward deep debt.

Kriegbaum says that a revised, “very severe” budget, combined with generous giving from many, has set a new trajectory. He expects that by the end of FPU’s current fiscal year, April 30, he will be able to call the turnaround a success.   

“We are moving in a direction that will ensure financial stability,” he says, “and that reverses the previous direction.”

It’s all part of moving deeper into FPU’s mission and vision. While Kriegbaum says that FPU leaders will be evaluating and discussing the FPU mission and vision statements, as is healthy for an organization, he doesn’t talk in terms of major changes, but in terms of “unpacking the next level” and fleshing it out further for the long haul.

Once again, it’s about direction: “Everything we do is trying to move toward the incoming and the expression of the kingdom in us individually and in the world around us,” he says. “That has to be directional.”


PHOTO courtesy of FPU: Richard Kriegbaum, left, and Stephen Varvis share the leadership of Fresno Pacific University under a new administrative model. Kriegbaum calls his path to the presidency "interesting." He says, "Whatever we're doing today is God's prepraration for what he wants us to do next."


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