When reflecting on being selected for the Daily Journal's Lifetime Achievement Award, Dr. John Bowling shared a quote from philosopher Soren Kierkegaard that sums up his current position in life: “Life has to be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.”
Bowling spoke to the decisions and experiences across 30 years as president of Olivet Nazarene University and examined how those decisions shaped his life as a whole.
A change in direction
Growing up in the small, all-American town of Tipp City in western Ohio, Bowling had his sights set on someday taking over his father’s newspaper publishing business. While halfway through his studies of business during his undergrad at Olivet, where he worked at the school’s newspaper, Bowling felt a calling to ministry and thought he would be a pastor.
Bowling recalled a breakfast with his father in which his father suggested he finish his business degree and then, if he still felt the same, he could get his graduate training in ministerial preparation.
“I thought that was a really good idea, but I didn't take it.”
Feeling like he had to make a decision then and there, Bowling opted to change his major during his junior year. After receiving his bachelor’s degree, he stayed at Olivet for another year, married his wife, Jill, and earned his master’s degree in theology.
Once the master’s program was complete, the couple moved to Texas where Bowling attended graduate school, a seminary program, in Fort Worth, where they lived for four years. Then, they moved to Colorado where Bowling began a teaching job at a Nazarene school. A year later, he was invited back to his alma mater to join the faculty.
“That was a providential shift because that then set up the trajectory that landed me in this job years later,” Bowling reflected.
Still in his 20s and just a few years out of school, Bowling was suddenly back in town and was teaching at his alma mater. A few years after teaching at Olivet, Bowling was offered the position of senior pastor at First Church of the Nazarene in Dallas, Texas, which he accepted. He would receive his second doctoral degree during this time.
“I think that if I had just stayed on the faculty at Olivet, I never would’ve been elected president,” expressed Bowling, who attributes the lead-up to his presidential position to teaching and pastoring in different places. "By the time I was elected president, I had the college teaching experience, I had two doctoral degrees and I had 12 years as a senior minister at the church of Nazarene which put me one foot in the church and one foot in higher education. Which for Olivet, was a good combination.”
Bowling followed a 16-year presidency from Dr. Leslie Parrott. Parrott announced his retirement and the university’s search committee quickly went to work to find a successor. Following Parrott’s retirement dinner, the committee sat down to vote on the two names that had been selected for the ballot. However, neither of these names belonged to Bowling.
Bowling, who had attended the dinner with Jill, returned home that night waiting for a call from a friend to let him know who had been selected as president. By bedtime, no one had been chosen and Bowling figured he would simply find out in the morning. While sound asleep at 1:30 a.m., he received a phone call from the chairman of the board of trustees who was calling to tell him that Bowling had just been elected president.
Quickly snapping out of his state of sleep, Bowling came to learn that the committee decided they wanted more of a selection than just two names and eventually Bowling’s was included in the eventual four that they would vote upon. He was declared the 12th president of Olivet just after 1 a.m., and that next night he was down in Springfield representing Olivet at a meeting.
“So I really did two jobs for the next month — I continued to pastor the church,” explained Bowling. “It was the middle of July and we needed to get ready for the beginning of the school year, so I was kind of thrown in the deep end.”
However, Bowling quickly found the footing that would serve him, the university and the community for the next three decades.
30 years at Olivet
“It’s gone so quickly, it’s been a fast 30 years,” stated Bowling, who spoke to part of his job being to facilitate and enable Olivet to adapt and evolve with the changes of the world without changing its mission and values.
During his presidential leadership — which he describes as always needing to be looking out toward the horizon — he worked with the school to start a new division called ONU Global which provides education for non-residential students.
There have also been lots of changes to the campus and the buildings, as well as increased engagement with the community.
“I recognized right away what a wonderful community Kankakee, Bourbonnais, Bradley, Momence, Manteno, the whole county was; it was a very fine cluster of communities on the doorstep of Chicago,” Bowling said. “So I just tried to open up the campus and invite groups in.”
Arguably the most impactful way that Olivet connected with the community during Bowling’s presidency was when the Chicago Bears came to training camp for 18 years, bringing thousands of people to the community.
“When I look back and think about how good the community has been to Olivet, it’s one of the changes I’m most proud of,” said Bowling, who mentioned the growing number of Kankakee County residents who select ONU as their post-high school choice.
The future of Olivet
With his retirement on the horizon, Bowling turns to what he hopes Olivet has in store for the future. His hopes are that the university stays mission-centered, while the niche of ONU’s Christian-based liberal arts college continues to grow as the programs and opportunities expand.
“I hope and fully expect that Olivet will have a very bright future,” stated Bowling “I really, sincerely believe that’s the case.”
While the years have been good to both Bowling and Olivet, he knew that it was the right time to step down and allow the university to have a fresh perspective. Bowling’s successor is ONU graduate Gregg Chenoweth, current president of Bethel University in Indiana. Chenoweth will begin this fall.
“It’s bittersweet for [Jill and I], because it’s been our life,” said Bowling, who will be relocating out of the community upon retirement. “We feel like it’s the right decision at the right time, and I feel that the university has chosen the right successor.”
“It’s a great job, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”