College Installs "Pastoral" President
When Cowley College in Arkansas City, Kansas, chose Dr. Dennis Rittle as its next president earlier this year, on paper and in person he seemed to be the natural choice. However, when looking back at how God has prepared Rittle for this prestigious leadership role, it soon becomes evident that Rittle was a "supernatural" choice as well.
Cowley College, which has a rich, 93-year history of producing "career-ready" individuals -- from EMS responders to professional athletes -- was still reeling after the abrupt departure of its fourth president. The circumstances surrounding the former president's departure were challenging for the college and its community to reconcile.
"Healing was a central need of the college and the community," Rittle explains. "There also had to be a move away from transactional and authoritative leadership to one that exhibited strong qualities of 'others-centeredness,' credibility, integrity, wisdom, and vision."
Well qualified through his two decades of higher education service, having earned his doctorate at Regent University and most recently serving as the provost and executive vice president of learning at Ozarka College in Arkansas, Rittle can look back and see how God was working in his life, even as a child, to prepare him for this moment in time.
He explains that when he was young, the extended illness and premature death of his mother led him to make God the centerpiece of his existence. "God granted me the strength to be courageous through difficulties and blessed me with a patient spirit and a strong mind," Rittle says.
After earning degrees in teaching and meteorology at Air University, and serving as a meteorologist in the U.S. Air Force, Rittle made the decision to attend Central Bible College (now a part of Evangel University). "My time as a meteorologist helped me to become a strategic thinker," he says, "and due to the time demands required in studying apologetics, logic, theology, and biblical languages at CBC, my education was heavily focused on critical thinking and self-discipline."
Yet it was the eight years he spent as pastor of Glad Tidings Assembly of God in Clearfield and then at Crossroads Community Church (AG) in Mechanicsburg, both in Pennsylvania (2000-2007) that Rittle can point directly to in order to fully reveal God's hand of preparation.
"As a pastor I learned that you don't just pastor your church, you pastor your community," he says. "You are personally visible in your community, you minister to members of your community, you look for the needs within your community and then try to meet those needs."
Rittle also witnessed how character was key in melding communities and congregations. "You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don't have strong moral character, strong values you live your life by, talent is soon tainted and dismissed -- I've seen it happen time after time."
A bivocational pastor, who worked part- or full-time in higher education since 1995, Rittle also earned a masters in Leadership Studies while pastoring, with his Ph.D. being in Organizational Leadership with an emphasis in Human Resource Development.
Rittle credits the Assemblies of God for its role in his life as well. "I appreciate my heritage with the Assemblies of God more than I can explain," he states. "My wife, Christy, and I have found the Assemblies of God transformational in helping us shape our faith, deepen our faith, and live our faith."
Reflecting on his life, Rittle says, "My work experiences and my formal education have worked hand-in-hand to develop my set of soft and hard skills to serve as the president of an institution of higher education. The scripture, '. . . be wise as serpents and innocent as doves' resonates deeply within my being (Matthew 10:16b)."
"He has a passion for the Lord," says James Newman, senior pastor of Ark City 1st Assembly of God, where Rittle attends. "He and his family all love God and they do anything they possibly can to help."
Pastor Chris Clem of Highland Assembly of God in Hardy, Arkansas, who was the Rittles' pastor from 2012-2015, agrees with Newman's assessment. "They are an absolutely amazing family," Clem says. "Dr. Rittle truly exemplifies true servant leadership. He's one of the best examples I've ever seen in that role -- he gets it."
But how has this clearly "pastoral president" impacted Cowley College?
Rittle says the changes he has witnessed in the last several months are clearly evident. "There's a new attitude about the school, a 'hop' if you will, in people's step," he says.
"He has really put a fire under it [the college], an excitement," Newman confirms. "He's a servant leader. His enthusiasm, his intensity, has been great for the college and he's brought an excitement to the community as well."
Rittle credits much of the transition to simply being who God has prepared him to be and using biblical standards to live his life by. Modeling servant leadership, Rittle sees his role as not only serving the college, but just as he did as a pastor, serving and being involved in the community as well. "We recently held a clothing drive and the students and staff donated 10,000 articles of clothing to the needy in our community."
Clem says Rittles' "pastoral" compassion for the community was evident in Hardy as well. "He led Ozarka College in partnering with us and Rural Compassion in distributing thousands of backpacks every year to the children in our community," Clem says.
Rittle says another key factor in the change at Cowley has been the emphasis on hiring for character, drive, and then talent. "When you hire people with the objective of hiring those with strong character -- those who have the type of character God is expecting from us (higher levels of trustworthiness, honesty, respect for others, etc.) -- who are driven to excellence, and are also talented, it makes a difference. It is permeating our culture at Cowley. People are doing the right thing not because they are told to; they are doing it because it's who they are."
This new approach to hiring has also helped the college turn the corner financially. "I did not realize the depth or breadth of the financial difficulties we were facing," Rittle admits. "But as our culture has more fully transformed, so have our finances."
Rittle says he has seen a trickle down effect among his staff as they are replicating his methodology. "They are embracing my example because they see it works, and I'm just using basic biblical principles," he says. "There may be limitations on what you can speak, but there are no limitations on what you can model, and that's the beauty of it."
On Sunday, Nov. 15, Cowley College held the official installation ceremony for President Rittle. He says the ceremony was very moving and attended by hundreds, yet the one thing that spoke deeply to how "pastor" Rittle has affected change at Cowley came when leaders within the community, who were once deeply offended by the college, approached Rittle afterward and expressed their deep appreciation for what they call one of the "most transformational" events they have ever seen.
"Not only are the students, faculty, and staff of Cowley College fortunate to have Dr. Rittle leading them, but the entire Arkansas City community, Cowley County, and the college's peripheral satellites are fortunate to have a man of Dr. Rittle's caliber of leadership, character, and integrity in our midst," says Sydney Bland, director and CEO of The Arkansas City Area Chamber of Commerce. "He exhibits a level of authenticity not usually recognized in such a short amount of time. It is obvious he truly understands the meaning of executive presence while practicing humility and selflessness. Dr. Rittle is one of those servant leaders who lives by 'walking the walk.'"
"As a pastor, reaching out to the community is a very natural fit for me," Rittle says. "And now, just like in a church, I'm involved in changing people's lives in very tangible ways . . . and this all goes back to making God the centerpiece of my existence."
To watch an interview with Dr. Rittle following his installation, click here.
Images courtesy of Cowley College