Journey to the Presidency

March 01, 2020 - 9 minute read


President Thomas with students

Dr. Michael A. Thomas grew up in a small logging town in Montana and had no ambitions for an academic career, until his family reconnected with their local Lutheran Church while he was finishing high school. The pastor’s mentorship helped Thomas launch into a career in Christian education. In January, Dr. Thomas became the fifth president of Concordia University Irvine, bringing to the job a relentless curiosity, gregariousness, and a love for listening and teaching.

“I’ve been exhilarated by the whole thing,” Dr. Thomas says of becoming president of CUI. “This was not on my radar at all, but it felt exactly right. I knew immediately that God wanted me here.”

This was not on my radar at all, but it felt exactly right.

Ron Levesque, chairman of the Board of Regents at Concordia Irvine, says Dr. Thomas is “very relational, focused on students, collaborative and open. He encourages involvement and is the kind of guy you can sit down and talk to. We all felt that the Lord was leading him to us. I think it was the hand of God, looking back. Although the process was sometimes frustrating and took a lot of time, I marvel at the results.”

In Dr. Thomas’s hometown of Columbia Falls, near Glacier National Park, most high school graduates went into the timber industry or worked at the nearby aluminum plant. Like most everyone else, Thomas grew up hunting and fishing, riding motorcycles and dirt bikes. (He owned a dirt bike until a few years ago, and still rides a street bike.)

He was not an especially spiritual youth.

“I was a little bit of a hellion in high school,” he says with a laugh, then revises his description to “rambunctious — I got in trouble here and there.” But his parents made one thing clear: their three children were all going to attend college.

“My parents had never gone to college, and somewhat regretted it,” Thomas says.

His father owned an auto repair shop which specialized in alternators and starters. Thomas grew up “wrenching on all kinds of stuff,” he says. For a while, he worked in a chainsaw store.

The family had roots in The Lutheran Church— Missouri Synod. Michael was baptized as a baby, but had stopped attending for a while until one Christmas Eve when his younger brother (who is now an LCMS pastor) insisted the family go to a service. “It stuck,” Thomas says. The family kept attending and went through confirmation classes together. Thomas experienced what he calls “a renewal of my Christian faith.”

“I ask a lot of questions, so those were interesting confirmation classes,” he remembers. Pastor Michael Warmbier patiently fielded every one of them, and became Thomas’ mentor.

“I bonded with Pastor Warmbier and got involved in Ongoing Ambassadors for Christ, an LCMS youth evangelism organization,” Dr. Thomas says. “I got to know other youth at LCMS churches in Montana. It expanded my social network and got me out of my crowd that wasn’t as spiritually reflective.”

Around that time, he also began to discover his intellectual gifting.

“I’m an academic, but at the time I didn’t know it,” he says. “In a logging town in Montana, the last thing you want to be is the smart kid in the class. So I never acted like the smart kid.”

After two years at a community college in Kalispell, Thomas felt called to pastoral ministry, and because of Pastor Warmbier’s example, he applied and was accepted to the pastor’s alma mater, CU Portland. With no fanfare, he drove himself to campus, checked in and got his classes.

It was exactly the right environment. He threw himself into studying Greek, Hebrew, religion and more. He spent a summer in ministry in Panama and explored the possibility of becoming a missionary. After two-and-a-half years at CU Portland, he moved to Japan and spent six months teaching at Concordia University Tokyo, then a branch of CU Portland. When the opportunity came to an end, Thomas found himself back in Portland.

His girlfriend, Kim, was there. They had met just before he left for Japan. Sensing a call to academics rather than vocational ministry, Thomas was accepted into the University of Washington’s prestigious Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies to study religion and culture.

“I’m fascinated with religion and its interplay with society,” he says.

To support himself, he became the caretaker of the Agape Center, a campus Lutheran ministry, living and worshiping there. That summer he and Kim were married on the CU Portland campus. Three years later, the couple headed to the University of Virginia where Thomas continued to meet faculty who practiced their religion, not just studied it. Their example helped him navigate out of a crisis of faith that had begun in Washington.

“I had the privilege of studying with people who completely lived their academic and faith lives together,” Thomas says. “It was a model to me that you can live them together. That worldview — the ability to move in and out of cultures — helped save my faith. It told me I could play by the academy’s rules but not have to lose my faith.”

At UVA, Thomas focused on early Christianity and began “reading the Bible with the church fathers, which I ended up dedicating my academic life to,” he says. “They became my spiritual mentors.”

He wrote his dissertation on Origen’s interpretation of Isaiah’s vision of God (in Isaiah chapter 6), and studied John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine and others.

“They were the intellectuals of their age,” Thomas says. “Watching these talented intellects wrestle with the Bible showed me that there was no disconnect between the academy and the church. I am still impacted by their stuff. To sit at their feet when I’m translating their homilies, I’m hearing them preach it from the pulpit to me. These guys worked the text and found Christ everywhere. They were preaching this kind of expositional depth from the pulpit.”

The Thomases, with their newborn son, moved back to Portland in 2000, and after working for two years as a webmaster at a public school, Dr. Thomas was hired by CU Portland to teach ancient languages. Never one to stay idle, he served on various faculty committees and discovered how to make things work: “When I faced something I needed a solution for, I just started doing it and started a committee,” he says with a laugh.

For example, in 2006, while teaching Greek and Roman history, he decided he wanted to take students to Europe to see the things they were studying. He started recruiting students, local congregational members, alumni and friends of the university, and though the university administration was initially skeptical, the trips became a huge success. Dr. Thomas has led student trips to Europe since 2006. This summer he will be leading 45 travelers through Prague and Budapest on their way to see the Passion Play of Oberammergau.

He also spent nine years transforming the university’s honors program with a team of student leaders and admissions officers. At one point they were frustrated that so few students were attending honors program events, so Dr. Thomas canceled all future events until they came up with something students would respond to. Student leaders brought him a simple idea: “We want to come to your house for dinner.”

The Thomases hosted a home-cooked Italian meal and created a tradition which became hugely successful.

“I had to ask faculty to host dinners, and they cooked homemade meals, too,” Thomas says. “Some cooked Indian. Others had barbecues. The students really wanted to see where their professors lived, and to get to know our families.”

Dr. Thomas had been serving as dean of Arts and Sciences at CU Portland, and had just been named the executive director of the Lutheran Institute there, which helped maintain and strengthen its Lutheran identity, when in 2019 he learned he had been nominated for all four open CU presidencies.

“I follow the calling, whatever I’m called to do,” Thomas says. “I’ve always been that kind of person. I love new things. I am a ‘walk through open doors’ kind of guy.”

I follow the calling, whatever I’m called to do… I am a ‘walk through open doors’ kind of guy

But becoming the president of a university was not in his plans. Friends and mentors encouraged him to go where the opportunities led, and the words of a particular mentor, Herb Hofer, an LCMS missionary in India and CU Portland faculty member, were especially meaningful to the Thomases.

“His advice changed everything,” Dr. Thomas says. “He said, ‘The church has nominated you. You need to put your best foot forward. Don’t push doors open and don’t pull them closed. Just walk through open doors.’ That advice catapulted me forward.”

CUI was in the middle of a two-year process of calling a president, led by a call committee under the leadership of Board of Regents member Craig Olson. Dr. Thomas progressed through several rounds of interviews and in-person visits, but was still surprised by the board’s decision in October.

“I was expecting a ‘no’ call all day long,” Thomas says. “Students were in my office. Craig called my cell phone and said, ‘I’m letting you know that the board has called you to serve as the next president of Concordia Irvine.’” Dr. Thomas’s response was, “What? Are you kidding me?”

“I need to inform you that you’re on speaker phone with the entire board,” Craig said. “They apparently had a great laugh over that,” Dr. Thomas remembers. “I’m not the kind of guy that can fake anything. I was speechless.” Levesque says the board was impressed by the positive feedback the call committee received about Dr. Thomas from students, faculty, staff, trustees, regents and the Synod.

“He is the right guy,” says Levesque. “We need enthusiasm, someone who has passion, the fire in the belly. There are headwinds out there. We are a private Christian college in California. We need a strong, relational, creative, energetic, transparent, collaborative leader who is committed to the Lutheran Confessions and will help lead us through challenging times ahead.”

Dr. Thomas spent his first weeks on campus having lunch with students, faculty and staff, and introducing himself to people. He is also asking questions — lots of them.

“It’s how I learn — I ask questions and take notes,” he says. Within three weeks of arriving, he had interviewed more than 30 people on campus, taken 125 pages of notes, and sent ten pages of single-spaced questions to various people on campus regarding things like the endowment, the transition to NCAA DII, and how the ideals of the Q&I Curriculum are infusing graduate programs and online programming.

He considers himself a practical leader.

“I’m not an ivy tower intellectual,” he says. “If I need something done, I form a committee and get it done. I have a work ethic where I put my to the grindstone. But I think vocationally. I am still teaching, just different people. I will be teaching donors about what Concordia University Irvine is all about. I will be teaching faculty what the administration does as their vocation. I will be teaching students what a Lutheran liberal arts education is all about. I will be at enrollment events, meeting with prospective students and parents.”

He also plans to lead trips overseas which will be open to students, board members, trustees, friends, and faculty. He and Kim — and their children, Delaynie, 16, and Darien, 20 — are looking forward to putting down roots in the community, finding a church home, and hosting many people at the president’s house on campus.

“I like big groups, so I want twenty-five or thirty people there each time,” Dr. Thomas says. “Right now I’m trying to listen deeply. I’m learning a ton, and I have ideas, but I am a listener and a collaborator. I am diving deep and learning as much as I can.”

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