Sundoulos - Summer 2012

A Humble Servant of Jesus Christ

The Legacy of Dennis Dirks As Dean of Talbot School of Theology, Biola University

by Michael J. Wilkins

Dennis H. Dirks was installed as the fifth Dean of Talbot School of Theology on November 25, 1992. Little did any of us know at that time that Dennis would be Dean for the next 20 years, second in length of service only to the founding Dean, Dr. Charles Feinberg (1952-1976).

Dennis came to serve as Dean at a time of significant turmoil at Talbot. Student enrollment had dropped, the number of faculty had reduced in size, and there was disorientation with respect to the vision and direction of the school within the University. Having been a colleague of all the preceding four Deans, it was in God’s leading to bring forward Dennis Dirks to be Dean at a time when he could build upon the rich heritage of Talbot/Biola, but to give it renewed stability, vision, and leadership.

I came to my position as Dean of the Faculty by the invitation of Dr. Dirks at the time when he became Dean. We have served together in a team relationship for these past 20 years, and I have no greater respect and love for any Christian leader I have ever known. I have seen Dennis at the peak of acknowledged successes, and at the lows of seeming setbacks. Yet I have always seen him ready to press forward to seek God’s will continuously for us as a school, and for his own life as our leader.

So this is a tribute to Dennis Dirks’ legacy as the Dean of Talbot School of Theology for the last twenty years. I draw upon my own daily experiences in our leadership team, but at various points I cite the tribute that others give to Dennis for the chief contributions that they believe that he has made to Talbot.

As he steps down from this leadership role, he leaves behind a school that is vastly different than it was twenty years ago, but in my view immensely healthier.

Servant-Leader

The first characteristic that stands out to most any who have known Dennis is that he has been a servant-leader. On the surface “servant- leader” appears as an oxymoron, an apparent contradiction, because in the world servants don’t lead, and leaders don’t serve. But Jesus established this new kind of servanthood, and this new kind of leadership, when He stated, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28 ESV). This was Jesus’ form of leadership in His earthly ministry and He declared it to be the standard for all Christian leaders.

More than perhaps any leader I have ever known personally, servant- leader has characterized Dennis Dirks’ role at Talbot. The faculty, staff, and students recognize that he leads by serving God, and in serving God he serves us so that we can carry out God’s will for us individually and as a school. Dennis does not draw attention to himself for what he has accomplished. He does not manipulate people or circumstances to gain more power or privilege for himself. Yet he is willing and ready to make the hard decisions that may not be popular if he determines that the decision is in the best interests of the school.

I have long described this kind of leadership by the maxim, “Take God’s calling upon your life with deadly seriousness, but don’t take yourself too seriously.” Dennis has taken God’s calling upon his life with utmost seriousness and has felt the weight of the responsibility of being Dean. Yet he wears the title of Dean lightly and does not throw around the weight of his position. He looks to the needs of faculty, staff, and students, and seeks to serve those needs as his responsibility. He does not take himself too seriously in his position as Dean, but he has daily taken God’s calling upon his life with deadly seriousness.

But the seriousness doesn’t exclude his joy nor the fact that he is just a lot of fun. Dennis is always ready with an infectious smile and hearty laughter, helping all of us to know that it is quite possible to take God’s calling on our lives seriously without taking ourselves too seriously, and how to do this in the true joy of the Lord.

Dr. Clint Arnold, Chair and Professor of New Testament Language and Literature captures this aspect of Dennis’ ministry as he makes the following statement:

I thank God that Dennis Dirks was my dean for twenty years. I am fairly certain that if a “vote of confidence” were taken right now among the Talbot faculty and staff, Dennis would likely receive 100%. A big part of the reason for this is that we all know that we are loved by Dennis and that he would be willing to do just about anything for us. I cannot adequately express how grateful I am for the countless hours of work that Dennis has invested in Talbot and the way that he has lightened all of our loads by taking so much upon himself.

Dr. Henry Holloman, Chair and Professor of Theology, concurs and states that “Dr. Dirks has practiced servant-leadership consistent with Scripture, which he steadfastly upholds as God’s inerrant Word. The Lord has wonderfully ministered through his spiritual gifts (especially his gift of leadership) to fellow-administrators, faculty, staff, students, and many others, including other seminary deans.”

A major part of the legacy of Dennis Dirks is that he has been a servant-leader.

Facilitator of Vision

A second characteristic of Dennis’ legacy has been the way in which he has been a facilitator of the vision of others at Talbot. He has not tried to impose his own vision on others or the school, but instead has tried to articulate, defend, and facilitate the shared vision that we have as a school.

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Dr. J. P. Moreland stated, “I think Dennis’ three main contributions were his work ethic, his fairness to/integrity with the faculty, and his willingness to try new things if they were presented to him in the right way.” Dr. Moreland experienced the last point directly when he presented to our leadership team the vision that he had for developing a Masters of Arts in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. Largely due to the facilitation and support of Dr. Dirks, the vision came to life and has become perhaps the largest and most successful program of its kind in the world.

Dr. Judy Ten Elshof, Professor of Spirituality and Marriage & Family, likewise stated,

I believe one of Dennis Dirks’ chief contributions to Talbot was his ability to empower the visions and ideas of individual faculty, bring other faculty on board thereby strengthening the community in which the ideas could take root and grow for the benefit of the whole. This is what happened with the Spiritual Formation program at Talbot. It started with a vision and an idea, and its foundation is rooted in Talbot, but it is permeating the whole of the University. And it has now gone beyond the University and is impacting the community, the church, missions and therefore the world in incredible ways. This impact continues to grow. There are many other things I could say, but to be a catalyst for an idea that takes root in a whole university is a powerful contribution that has long lasting impact. This is truly amazing.

The vision belonged to Dr. John Coe and Judy Ten Elshof and others, and Dennis saw that his role was to help facilitate that vision. As a result, the Institute for Spiritual Formation came into being, which spawned academic programs including M.A. and M.Div. degrees in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care. But it also spawned the Center for Spiritual Renewal that serves the faculty and students across the University and the wider community, Talbot’s Intentional Character Formation / Spiritual Formation Focus that is a required program for every student at Talbot to help develop their spiritual growth, and the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care that serves national and international educational ministries of the church, Christian education and other para-church organizations.

Talbot professor Dr. Kevin Lawson had a vision for the renewed life of the Christian Education Journal. With help from the facilitation of Dennis Dirks, Dr. Lawson’s vision led to the journal being published by Talbot School of Theology in cooperation with the North American Professors of Christian Education the journal.

In similar fashion under the facilitation of Dennis Dirks, three Talbot extensions have come into being. The able leadership of Dr. Mark Saucy led to the vision of establishing a joint relationship between Kyiv Theological Seminary and Talbot in Kyiv, Ukraine to provide theological education for Eastern European and Russian evangelical churches. Dr. Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries, and a Talbot alumnus, had a vision to train men and women who were called to Jewish-Christian ministry. This led to the establishment of the Charles L. Feinberg Center for Messianic Jewish Studies in New York City. And the call from pastors and students in southern Orange County for seminary training led to the vision for the Talbot extension in Orange County, California. In each of these three extensions, Dennis Dirks facilitated their establishment through thousands of miles of travel, hundreds of hours of working through logistics, curriculum, and accreditation, and many days and weeks away from home.

Dr. John Hutchison, Chair and Professor in the Department of Bible Exposition, points to the role that Dennis has played for twenty years in providing stability and the facilitation of others’ vision: “Dennis’ godly character, deep faith, and steady implementation of vision have provided a wonderful security in which faculty follow his lead and are able to “be themselves,” to use their unique gifts to glorify God. He has the rare ability to be both a friend and a motivating leader, always setting the bar high for all of us.”

Talbot Bible Lands programs under the leadership/vision of Dr. Richard and Donna Rigsby have taken hundreds of Talbot students to Israel and Turkey/Greece/Rome, and the reality of the implementation of these programs is due in large part to the facilitation of Dean Dennis Dirks. This could be said of many other programs at Talbot, including the worldwide impact among Talbot alumni of Talbot Support Ministries under the visionary leadership of Dr. Mick Boersma, the impact among the Korean-American community of Korean Talbot Institute for Biblical Studies under the visionary leadership of Dr. Victor Rhee, Talbot After Hours that serves students working during normal class hours, and the Good Book Blog that is led by Dr. Joe Hellerman. In all of these, the vision was shared with Dennis Dirks, and he saw that his role was to help facilitate the vision so that it could become a reality.

The ability to facilitate the vision of others does not come out of weakness, but out of the strength of his servant-leadership. He serves others and their vision because of his love for them and the relationships that we share. Dr. Joanne Jung, Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, understands this aspect of Dennis’ legacy as she states, “Relationships are deeply important to Dennis. His words, whether written or spoken, stem from an intimate relationship with God. His love for God, His Word, His people and the lost fuels all he does. Those of us who have been privileged to call him Dean know the quality of relationship in community he has fostered among his faculty.” Only this kind of Dean can seek to facilitate the vision of others, not just his own.

An Acadmic for the Church 

A third aspect of Dr. Dirks’ legacy is that he is an academic in service of the Church. He is a highly respected academic, both in his training and in his research and writing. But what makes him so effective in his role as Dean is that he understands that the academy, including Talbot, is only effective when we are serving the Church. We train men and women for service in the church, missions, parachurch ministries, and countless other venues. And unless we know and love and serve the Church, we will not be effective.

Dr. Mick Boersma, Professor of Christian Ministry and Leadership sees this role that Dennis plays as he says,

When I think of Dr. Dennis Dirks and the ministry he has had among us, I see the faithful shepherd. He is the epitome of the pastor-scholar, one whose mind is full of the knowledge of God, and whose heart is saturated with His love. He is a dear brother, colleague, friend, and fellow servant who will continue to be an incredible encouragement to all who know him personally, and to countless others who have unknowingly been touched by his gracious and visionary leadership both in the academy and in the church.

Prior to taking a position as Professor of Christian Education at Talbot in 1976, Dennis served in three different churches in various capacities. From 1974-1976 he served as Minister of Education at First Covenant Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. From 1970-1974 he served as Director of Education at Claremont Covenant Church in San Diego. And from 1969-1970 he served as Youth Pastor at First Baptist Church in North Hollywood. But even while at Talbot, Dennis and his beloved wife Karen co-founded an adult fellowship class in 1985 called “All Ages and Stages” for which they provided leadership for twenty-six years at First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California.

That example of Dennis Dirks as an academic in service of the church has impacted all of the Talbot community. The faculty and staff are vitally involved in their local churches, and the training that students receive has the goal of service to the Church. This is a legacy that has set a profound trajectory for all training at Talbot.

International Mentor

Another aspect of the legacy of Dennis Dirks has been his role as mentor. In the twenty years that he has been Dean he has been a vital member of the Provost’s Council of Instructional Deans. Many Deans came on and off of the Council in those years, and the Provosts increasingly came to rely upon Dennis to mentor the Deans in their roles in the various schools across the campus.

Dennis has also been known nationally as a leader for many years in higher education in the Evangelical Seminary Deans Council and Fellowship of Evangelical Seminary Presidents. His lengthy tenure made him a reliable mentor to Deans across the nation.And he has offered significant leadership internationally as demonstrated in his many years of service on the Executive Board of the International Council of Higher Education based in Zurich, Switzerland and the many significant relationships that he has developed with Christian leaders around the world. Dennis’ experience has been drawn upon as he has been invited to offer guidance to Christian leaders in places as diverse as Indonesia, Singapore, Nigeria, Korea, Kenya, Kyiv, India, Russia, and the Philippines.

Dennis’ role as mentor locally, nationally, and internationally is a powerful aspect of his legacy as the Dean of Talbot.

Example of Personal Godliness

Although there is much that could be said of Dennis Dirks’ legacy in many other realms, the final aspect that I would like to address is the example that he has left for us of personal godliness. Dr. Robert Saucy, Distinguished Professor of Theology states this powerfully:

It is difficult to single out the greatest contributions of our beloved Dean Dirks. For me it is just who he is—his heart. He loved his Lord and diligently served him at Talbot and in the church. He loved God’s Word and deeply trusted its truth and power. He led Talbot like a strong, gentle shepherd, seeking in every way to encourage our growth and meet our needs. He was the epitome of integrity and faithfulness. In sum, therefore, his greatest contribution was just his godly example of a genuine follower of Jesus in word and deed. It deeply impressed us and strongly encouraged us to the same diligent faithfulness in life and doctrine, and thus came to leave a deep impression on all of Talbot.

Dr. Henry Holloman says likewise, “As Talbot’s Dean for twenty years, Dennis Dirks has exemplified an authentic disciple of Christ, humbly depending on His Spirit and obeying His Word.”

There is perhaps no greater testimony to the legacy of Dean Dennis Dirks. He loved his Lord with every aspect of his life, and he allowed that relationship to determine his every decision and action as Dean.

I’d like to close this tribute with a word directly to Dennis and Karen Dirks:

Talbot School of Theology has become like a family to all of us on the faculty and staff, and that is almost entirely due to your loving, selfless, humble care for every individual. In turn that has allowed us to love and care for each other. But it would not have taken place without your leadership and example. Your love for the Lord and commitment to serving Him and our students has always been without guile or pretension, giving to all of us a needed example of how to follow our Master. Thank you.


Michael J. Wilkins (MDiv, Talbot; PhD, Fuller Seminary) is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Dean of the Faculty at Talbot. Mike is the author of a number of scholarly and popular books and articles, including an award-winning commentary on Matthew in the NIV Application Commentary series (Zondervan, 2004). Mike and his wife Lynne live in San Clemente, where Mike tries to surf responsibly.

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