IPP 2.0: From Seminary to Theological PhD Program - The Importance of a Good First Impression in Influencing Powerful People

Author: Christian Clement-Schlimm | | Categories: Christian's Colloquy , IPP , IPP 2.0 , Teamwork

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IPP 2.0: From Seminary to Theological PhD Program - The Importance of a Good First Impression in Influencing Powerful People

By Christian Clement-Schlimm

Thanks to Christian Clement-Schlimm for this blog entry. It is part of the IPP 2.0 Blog Series, which revisits the “rules” introduced in Dirk’s book Influencing Powerful People and invites experts from various sectors to share their perspective on the topic.

Christian is a PhD student of historical Theology at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto and the host of Christian’s Colloquy, a show that explores personalities from church history and their relevance to the present. Christian earned his Master of Divinity from Heritage College and Seminary in Cambridge, Ontario, and his BA in History from St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.

The world of Christian academics, denominational life, and church government can be confusing and hard to explain, even for those who grew up in a church. On the one hand, as you might expect and assume, mercy, grace, and honesty are all highly respected and valued traits. Since all of us in this world profess to find Jesus Christ (the God who humbled himself and took on flesh as a sinless saviour who was obedient even unto death on cross) as our perfect example, we bear and share many obvious expectations: Relationships often result in sacrifice, failures are often to be responded to with understanding, and achievements, if advertised at all, are meant to be shared with complete humility. While that probably all makes sense, there is a lot more going on. Even in a world openly governed by the principles of love and service, there are situations, contexts, and opportunities where members are expected to be tactical, calculating, and even competitive. For as much as grace and mercy have their place, discipline, strength, and wisdom are also virtues seen as desirable.

Even in Evangelical Protestant circles, entirely divorced from the structures of authority which form the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, with all its cardinals and councils, there are still powerful people that will be encountered and that one working or seeking to work in these circles will need to navigate. For example, many young seminarians aspire to be pastors, certainly a noble calling, but the reality is that there only so many churches at any given time looking to hire a pastor. Often, in addition to proactively seeking positions and making yourself a strong candidate through an online presence and experience, the make or break factor in whether you are truly considered for the position is your network. Who do you know? Who trained you in preaching and teaching? Who can affirm your orthodoxy and diligence? Who can speak for your character and integrity? These are big questions that churches, boards of elders, and search committees will all be asking, and the reality is that some of those voices answering for you are heard louder than others: The president of a Seminary is heard louder than a Sunday school teacher, and the lead pastor of a downtown church is heard louder than a youth pastor from the suburbs. This is simply a reality and so you must network to get where you want to be.

I encountered this reality first hand while navigating seminary life and the application process for a PhD program in theological studies. As I have come to learn, a good first impression can make the difference between a powerful person politely acknowledging you and maybe passing along an email out of a sense of Christian obligation, or a powerful person becoming your ally, someone who will advocate for you, promote your work, and mentor you for decades to come. The first impression sets the tone for a relationship that can either end with a respected professor giving you a generic letter of recommendation or them writing a letter that states that the institution would be foolish to reject your application; them meeting with you for coffee once or them insisting that you keep them updated on your educational journey so that they might continue to support you. There is no doubt: In the world of Christian academics, first impressions are an art that must be mastered.

So, how can you make sure that your first impression is a good one? Well this is something I learned from an unlikely (or very likely, depending how you look at it) source. Almost 10 years ago I read Dirk Schlimm’s Influencing Powerful People. Some will understand that this is an unlikely source for me as the book largely focusses on the world of business and management. Yet, others will know that this obvious source for me as, full disclosure, Dirk Schlimm is my father. That said, I had to read the book all while thinking that it would never apply to my life and work since I had no intention of going to business school and becoming a businessperson. What I learned through the process of navigating seminary and then my PhD application, however, is that many skills, qualities, and realities of the business world are universal and certainly carry over to the world of Christian academics. Even in a world where you can assume that people are genuinely concerned for your success, not just what you are able to offer, many truths remain the same.

When discussing the “art of first impressions,” Dr. Schlimm presents five guidelines. Right now, I will discuss the first three of them:

  1. “It’s About Them.” When meeting with a professor you are hoping will take you under their wing, write you a top-notch reference letter, or be a potential supervisor, you need to remember that “it’s about them.” While you might be meeting about your future and plans, and you might be doing most of the talking, ultimately you want something from them. In a lot of ways, they are the focus. What I learned from Influencing Powerful People is that to increase your chances in getting what you want from this powerful person is that you should take and express a genuine interest in them. What did and does this look like in my context? If I am meeting a professor that I want something from I will make sure to do the following: (1) Be intimately aware of their work and accomplishments, (2) do my best to understand their own interests, and (3) be sure to express through comments and questions that I genuinely understand and appreciate their significance. By doing these things I am able to communicate to a professor that I am someone who is genuinely interested in their work, someone who they can be comfortable working alongside, and someone who is diligent enough to prepare for a meeting (a virtue which now stands out in 2020).
  2. “Likability Helps.” Just as it is in the world of business, it helps in Christian circles to be likable. People, no matter who they are or what they do, are much more inclined to help and support you if they like you! So, what can we do to make ourselves likeable? As Dr. Schlimm suggests, embrace the importance of similarity and personality. Rather than just making sure you know the background of a person you are connecting with, find places where you can personally relate to that background. In my circles, this might be the mutual appreciation of another scholar, a shared experience in a particular location, or a place of agreement on a particular conviction. By emphasizing these points of similarity, in a way that is genuine and indicative of passion (or personality), I make myself likable, a potential friend and ally in years to come, someone they truly want to advance in our world.
  3. “Manage Your Appearance.” While not so much concerned about specific dress codes, it is still important to look the part in Christian circles. Being presentable, dressed appropriately, and well groomed communicates a lot about your character, work ethic, and again that you respect the person you are seeking something from. The reality is that the potential mentor or advocate has their reputation to think about when they take a student on. Critical to a first impression, is letting someone know (in part through your appearance) that you are someone they are not taking a risk on. You are ready and able to learn, put in the work, and reflect them well through your presentation, conduct, and other relationships. If you do not present yourself well, you communicate you are not taking a powerful person’s time or yourself seriously, this results in a person not longing to be your supervisor or stake their reputation on your qualities in a reference.

While there certainly are major differences between my father’s world and the world that I know, work, and live in, there are certainly major areas of overlap and even some direct parallels. While not everything in the book was applicable to my situation and context, much of what was said in Influencing Powerful People was critical for my ability to come out of seminary with many friends and allies, all this, while also being accepted into a PhD program at a leading theological college.

This blog is designed to inform readers and stimulate discussion. It is shared with the understanding that it does not constitute legal, accounting, medical, securities or other professional advice to be relied upon. If such advice is needed, the services of a competent professional person should be sought.

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