By Jeff Finley

Deana L. Porterfield is known for breaking barriers in higher education and for building bridges between Christian universities and their communities.

After nine years as the president of both Roberts Wesleyan University and Northeastern Seminary near Rochester, New York, Porterfield was inaugurated Feb. 23 as the 12th president of Seattle Pacific University in its 133-year history and its first female president. In an interview with Light + Life a month after her inauguration, she emphasized that Seattle Pacific remains faithful to its Christian commitment even as the university attracts students from a variety of backgrounds and connects with its city.


“More people have come in because they’re drawn to that light, or that uniqueness of who we are.” – Deana L. Porterfield


“We live in a very polarized society right now, and we’re trying to lead with a message that says good people can differ, but we’re not going to be ashamed of being a Christian university in the city of Seattle,” said Porterfield, who noted that people who aren’t Christians are also attracted to the university because of personal development that occurs along with the academics. “More people have come in because they’re drawn to that light, or that uniqueness of who we are.”

She also reflected on the common roots of Roberts Wesleyan and Seattle Pacific, and their ties to Christian education pioneers B.T. and Ellen Roberts who also were the principle founders of the Free Methodist Church. She began looking more closely into the institutions’ shared history after discovering they launched with the same motto, “Education for Character.”

“B.T. and Ellen did not intend for Bible colleges. They intended for liberal arts colleges,” said Porterfield, who added that Alexander and Adelaide Beers, Seattle Pacific’s “first president and his wife, are graduates of Chesbrough Seminary [forerunner to Roberts Wesleyan and Northeastern]. B.T. and Ellen came on the train to this [Pacific Northwest] Conference to decide where this campus will be located. They chose Seattle.”

Porterfield expressed commitment to Seattle Pacific remaining true to its founding motto.

“Our goal has got to be not just educating students of competence, but it’s got to be educating them for character, and our mission statement at SPU says we will graduate ‘people of competence and character, becoming people of wisdom, and modeling grace-filled community,’” she said. “You only do that through character development. You only do that with humility and grace, and entering conversations that are hard, and trying to get people to know that you value them despite difference. You don’t bring communities together by yelling or arguing.”

She said that bringing communities together includes standing for justice “in a way that uses intellectual and spiritual humility. It says, ‘I come to the conversation to get to know you, because there might be some things I need to learn. There might be some things I don’t know, but it doesn’t require me to compromise my held belief in Jesus Christ.’”

Porterfield is clear about the university’s theological identity while seeking greater community connections. While leading Roberts Wesleyan and Northeastern, she served on several area boards and received community awards such as being named a Circle of Excellence honoree by the Rochester Business Journal for being among local women with “longstanding, notable success in the community who lead the way for other women.”

She looks forward to connecting with Seattle community leaders and organizations while also being upfront about the university’s faith foundation.

“As a Christian university in covenant relationship with the Free Methodist Church, SPU has always led the way, bringing new insights and thoughtful discussion to complex conversations that face our society,” Porterfield said in a news release the week of her inauguration, which was held at First Free Methodist Church next to the university campus in the city’s Queen Anne neighborhood.

“How God showed up at the inauguration and on our campus that day was vibrant and honestly overwhelming,” she told Light + Life. “The Holy Spirit was here.”

SPU’s ongoing connection to the denomination was reflected during the inauguration with Bishop Kenny Martin and First FMC Lead Pastor Craig Brown leading a time of consecration and blessing for Porterfield.


“The church defines our theology. We are anchored in the church.” – Deana L. Porterfield


God at Work Amid Cultural Challenges

In a pluralistic metropolitan area of nearly 4 million people, some people question whether SPU should continue its relationship with the church. Porterfield emphasized that she is “spending time trying to help people understand that the covenant relationship with the Free Methodist Church for us is important.”

Porterfield noted the vision of second SPU President Orrin Tiffany “that we could be the spiritual movement in the Northwest,” and she said the university’s founders specifically placed it strategically in a city on a hill (Matthew 5:14).

The day before Porterfield’s inauguration, the Seattle Times published an article titled “First woman to lead Seattle Pacific University takes on steep challenges.” On inauguration day, Seattle news radio host Travis Mayfield published a supportive commentary on the KIRO station website under the headline “New president deserves space to help SPU find way forward.”

The university has faced intense coverage from local and national news media, protests, litigation, and even an investigation by a state official for its lifestyle expectations for employees and its Statement on Human Sexuality although many Christian campuses and universities have similar stances.

“We choose to be in covenant relationship with the Free Methodist Church, so this issue — or any other issue of theological definition — is defined by our church and our theology,” Porterfield said. “I don’t get into a theological battle with anybody. I just don’t, because we’re anchored in the Free Methodist Church, and the experts in the Free Methodist Church theologically have wrestled and will continue to wrestle with these issues.”

When people try to present theological arguments against Free Methodist doctrine, she responds, “The church defines our theology. You did not hire me to be the theologian to redefine our theology on the whims of where society is. We are anchored in the church.”


“God is doing something here, and He is moving, and He’s moving in big and small ways.” – Deana L. Porterfield


Porterfield noted that human sexuality isn’t the only area of theological disagreement that community members have. For example, some university employees belong to denominations that — unlike the Free Methodist Church USA — oppose women’s ordination, and she doesn’t publicly call out these employees for their theology even though she agrees with the FMCUSA’s support for women pastors.

Since arriving at SPU, she has realized that misunderstandings have occurred because some members of the university community did not have a full understanding of where the Board of Trustees was in relation to these issues and their role in missional decisions.”

News reports aren’t revealing the complete picture of what’s taking place on the campus.

“God is doing a new thing at Seattle Pacific University. That’s our theme for the year — anchored in Isaiah 43:15–19,” Porterfield said. “The encouragement to our community and to others is keep your eyes open and see what God is doing, and don’t miss it. God is doing something here, and He is moving, and He’s moving in big and small ways.”

Although she and her husband, Doug, were happy in New York and loved what was happening at the university and seminary there, they sensed God wanted them to enter the conversation when a search firm reached out to her about becoming SPU’s president. She said that with a major building project at Roberts Wesleyan, the couple did not initially think a move to Seattle would be God’s plan, but “we knew after the interview, if they offered us a job, we were supposed to go. There was such undeniable peace as crazy as that sounds to everybody.”

She continued, “So is it crazy at times? Yes. Is there work for us to do? Yes. Did we get here overnight? No. Will it take time for us to reestablish ourselves as a leading Christian university? Yes. But even in all the crazy and even in the challenges, we do not question if we’re supposed to be here, and we do not second-guess what God has done in bringing us here.”

Called to Higher Education

Porterfield earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from Azusa Pacific University with plans to be a high school music teacher and a part-time music minister. One day, the university’s admissions director stopped her and said, “Your name has come up, Deana, and people think you’d be a good admissions counselor.”

At the director’s request, she quickly put a résumé together for a lunch meeting with him, and he offered her a job four days later. The position allowed her to cancel the student loan she was going to be using to live on while she completed her teaching credential.

“I loved it. It transformed my life as a first-generation college student,” Porterfield said about the admissions job. “I loved telling the story of what Christ could do in your life through education. I loved talking about how the faculty made a difference in my life, how they spoke into my life, not just academically but from a spiritual perspective, and who I was when I began and who I was when I graduated.”

She served her alma mater for 26 years and eventually held leadership positions such as vice president for enrollment management, chief of staff, senior vice president for people and organizational development, and APU affiliate Los Angeles Pacific University’s executive vice president. Meanwhile, she earned a master’s degree in organizational management from APU and a doctorate in organizational leadership from the University of La Verne.


“I’m just telling my story, and they’re seeing all the connections that I hadn’t made.” – Deana L. Porterfield


While sharing in a fireside chat at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) Women’s Leadership Institute, she said, “I just don’t know what God would have for me next.” Multiple institute participants responded with variations of “What are you talking about? God is calling you to be a president of a university.”

“I’ll never forget it because, with all sincerity, I’m just telling my story, and they’re seeing all the connections that I hadn’t made,” Porterfield said.

Shortly thereafter, she received a call asking her to apply for Roberts Wesleyan and Northeastern. She had just graduated with her doctorate and had not even written her curriculum vitae yet.

“I still don’t know who put my name in, but I have a good idea,” she said. “I think actually it was one of the women that was sitting in that circle who got a call and gave my name.”

In contemplating a move from Southern California to Northwestern New York, she and her husband decided, “We’re going to go in, and every step of the way we’re going to pray over it, and if we have peace, we’ll take the next step.”

When she eventually accepted the presidency of the university and seminary in the area where Free Methodism began, she and her husband also joined the Free Methodist Church. Between the two of them, they had experience in a wide variety of denominations from Pentecostal and Church of God (Anderson) to Nazarene and Christian Reformed.

“Reading the [Free Methodist] Book of Discipline, all aligned for me,” said Porterfield, who added that living and working in an area that was home to the movement’s founders helped her appreciate the denomination’s “vibrant history of understanding the complexity of what it means to live in a world with both holiness and social transformation.”

Roberts Wesleyan had female leadership during its origins as a high school, but she became the first woman to serve as the president of a Free Methodist college or university. Now she is serving as the president of another Free Methodist university, and Greenville University also has a woman (Suzanne Davis) as its president.

While doing research in 2013 for her doctoral dissertation, she interviewed the six women serving as presidents among the 120 CCCU member institutions at that time.

“Today there are about 12 out of over 180 institutions globally,” she said. “Our denomination is leading the way. You are not going to find female presidents at schools that don’t have a theological position on women in leadership.”

Pray for SPU

As her interview with Light + Life concluded, Porterfield mentioned that she is asking SPU’s faculty and staff along with other people to pray for the university. She noted, “The prayer request I have for our greater Free Methodist denomination is: Pray for us, and don’t make assumptions based on what you hear. Come visit us, and see what God is doing.”


Click the image below for more photos. (Photos courtesy of Seattle Pacific University) 


Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He joined the Light + Life team in 2011 after a dozen years of reporting and editing for Sun-Times Media. He is a member of John Wesley Free Methodist Church where his wife, Jen, serves as the lead pastor.

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