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Getting to know our new principal

An interview with the Rev. Dr. John Vissers

What do we say to people who wonder about the future of the Church, who question its viability? Why should people still invest in Knox College?

It’s true that the church is facing significant challenges in Canada, and there are implications for theological education. But most fundamentally we’re doing this because we’re people of faith. As a Christian community, we’ve got to have deep confidence that what we believe is true, and therefore everything flows from that. We trust that God is at work in the world and in churches in Canada.

In philosopher Charles Taylor’s analysis of secularity, he says that the secular age manifests as: a) a decrease in institutional vitality, weakening of church numbers and resources; and also through b) decreasing influence in the public square. Christian faith becomes private, not public. Most popular theological education attempts to deal with these two issues. However, Taylor says that these two are not the real issue, the root of secularity. The bigger issue is: What is the nature of belief today? What do people believe in, and why do they believe in it?


This is where the real challenge is, and why we need theological education. The first two issues can be addressed with practical programmatic responses, but this question of belief requires deep, critical, and thoughtful reflection and engagement. That’s why a place like Knox matters. The College has a great responsibility to meet this challenge. The need for effective leadership formation is more urgent now than ever. We must help to lead the Church and help it to consider what it means, in these days, to be a follower of Jesus in the Reformed tradition.

As we think about the future of the Church, we also need to step back for larger perspective. From a historical perspective, this is just a moment in 2000 years of the church’s history; we need to see the ebb and flow of the grand narrative of God’s mission in the world. From a global perspective, Knox has a role and an exciting future as we increasingly tie in where the church is growing and flourishing in other parts of the world – whether in Korea, or other parts of Southeast Asia, and Africa. As we connect with those students and faculty, we become part of a global Christian movement. We’re situated in a local community and context, but we also have a global ministry and participate in the global church.

The future for a Protestant, specifically Reformed, witness in Canada is going to look different than it does now. What that means for Presbyterians and other denominations remains to be seen – but whatever it means, a place like Knox College matters to that future. We help to shape it and help prepare people for it.


What is Knox’s role in this future?

Knox’s role is to shape people who can exercise effective, faithful, creative leadership in the Church. That’s our charism. So why should someone come to Knox? I want people to come to Knox because it will change their lives, because they will leave prepared and excited to be active in the Church. Knox’s role is to impact lives, so those people can then affect churches and communities.

I’ve been at this for a long time in various roles and settings, as a pastor and in theological schools, and I have come to the conclusion that although it’s important to build strong institutions, strong institutions aren’t a legacy. A legacy is the impact we make on people, and then what they go on to do. That’s what my work as a teacher and as minister is about – impacting lives – and that’s fundamental to how I see Knox.

I’m really excited about the direction that the faculty is moving, as we are diversifying, broadening, deepening. At the end of the day, the type of impact I’m talking about depends a lot (though not solely) on the quality of the faculty. That’s what students remember – the teachers who made a difference in their lives.


What drives you?

This is a very classic Reformed response, but I have a very deep sense of call to this role. I’ve had a deep sense of call to theological education for some time, but I was surprised how deep the call was to this particular role as principal.

As my students may know, I think about call in three different ways: internal, external, and continuous. The internal, personal sense of call is the sense that God is asking/calling/requiring me to do something. In my own personal faith journey over the last 18 months, I’ve had some remarkable moments in prayer when it’s been very clear that this principalship was something I needed to take very seriously.

The second aspect of call is the external call of the community; that’s a very important part of our Reformed understanding of call, a bit of a test. A number of people asked me to consider this role as principal, and that converged with my personal sense of call. The community’s strong affirmation for me – through the presbytery nominations and the work of the search committee, faculty, staff, and general assembly – confirmed that this was a call from God. It was remarkably humbling and overwhelming. Those two things, the internal and the external, aligned clearly in ways I couldn’t ignore.

Then the continuous call is what reminds me, day by day, especially when the tough stuff happens, that God has called me to this and that this is about God’s purposes, not mine. It’s what Eugene Peterson calls a “long obedience in the same direction”; that’s what discipleship is, and that’s what it means to live out a calling.

I see this role as principal coming out of my identity as a minister of the gospel, as a pastor, and as a theological educator. Theological education is my fundamental call, and being principal of Knox College is an expression of my deeper vocation. Even deeper than that, it’s an expression for me of my being a disciple of Jesus. I know that if you strip everything away, whether or not I am principal of this college or a Presbyterian minister, none of that really matters at the end of the day. What matters is that, to use Henri Nouwen’s phrase, I am a beloved child of God. That’s my fundamental core identity.

What drives me, then, is a desire to serve God, serve the Church, serve our students, and make this the best possible place and experience.



I’ve heard you begin various presentations or meetings in French, Korean, and Ojibwe, and by “acknowledging the land”; how did this become a priority for you?

 The French piece comes from my respect for context and the role that French plays in my life (having lived in Quebec for 14 years) and this nation. The Korean is out of respect for the numbers of Korean students at Knox, and recognition that the Korean Christian community is a vital part of the PCC and the college’s life. The indigenous languages and acknowledgement of the land are a result of my more recent work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which began in earnest when I was moderator of the General Assembly (2012-13). This healing and reconciliation is an issue I feel strongly about, that I’d like to keep learning about, and that we’ll be exploring in the coming year as a college.

Opening meetings this way is my attempt to signal a commitment to diversity and my acknowledgement of the past. The nature of Canadian society is French/English, with the deeper identity that we are settlers on indigenous lands, and now with the multicultural reality that is Canada. I am particularly aware of this reality having grown up as a first-generation Canadian.


What’s something the most people don’t know about you, but perhaps should?

I love music and have very eclectic music tastes. On any given day, you might hear me listening to Mozart, or to Steve Earle – and everything in between.


Of what are you most proud?

I have a wonderful wife, three great kids, and now a beautiful granddaughter. I get up every day and sort of pinch myself, thinking, “Wow, how can I be so blessed?”