Dr. Sarah Sumner joined Simpson University as dean of A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary in January. Prior to that, she served as an adjunct at Wheaton College (1994), a church staff member at Willow Creek (1995-1996) and a faculty member at Azusa Pacific University (serving as professor of theology and ministry (1997-2009), chair of ministry (2000-2004), and special assistant to the dean (2005-2009) in Haggard Graduate School of Theology. She also worked as a Teaching Pastor at New Song Church in San Dimas, CA (2001-2009).
Dr. Sumner has extensive experience in teaching, leadership and scholarship. She has written articles for Leadership Journal and Christianity Today and authored three books: Men and Women in the Church (2003), Leadership Above the Line (2006), and Just How Married Do You Want to Be? (2008). In addition, she has served as keynote speaker for hundreds of events nationwide.
She holds a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where she also obtained an M.Div equivalent. She earned an M.A. in Theology from Wheaton College and an M.B.A. from Azusa Pacific University. She has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Baylor University.
She is also an aerobics instructor (1990-present).
Her husband Jim is an adjunct instructor in the Religion Department here at Simpson University.
What made you decide to apply for the position of dean of A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary?
I had been prompted by about fifty friends (as I counted in my journaling) to step into a dean role, and the timing in 2009 turned out to be right. There’s a long story to it, but the gist is I felt equipped—and therefore responsible—to get formal theological education into new regions. As I was praying about this, I decided to look on the Internet because otherwise I couldn’t see how else to follow through with what seemed to be God’s leading. There it was: an open spot at A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary (which I had never heard of). I marveled because Tozer Seminary was already set up to offer courses and degrees outside of Redding. To me, that made applying irresistible.
Please describe the basic steps of your faith journey.
I became a Christian on a ranch in Texas at the ripe old age of three. My parents did a great job of introducing me and my brother and sister to the living Lord. I had a full set of Bible commentaries on the shelf in my own bedroom, even before I could read—as did both of my siblings. Daddy bought three sets because he wanted us to be students of God’s Word. It’s hard to explain my testimony succinctly because I have many testimonies that describe my relationship with God. If I can ramble through this a bit, I will tell you that by third or fourth grade, I felt compelled to go into ministry. My spiritual gift of evangelism to this day has been thematic. It wasn’t until college, though, that I really learned to worship God and not just sing at church. My mid-twenties were particularly formative because I traveled alone extensively for over two years for my job; that’s when God truly became my very Best Friend. Before then, God was merely my quote/unquote “best friend,” when really I turned to my mother instead of Him at an emotional level. I can honestly say now that I have drunk deep draughts of God’s love. I have been familiarized repeatedly with Scripture. I am intimately acquainted with the comfort of the Holy Spirit. I have read a lot and prayed a lot and been forgiven of many sins, including pride, self-centeredness and fear. God has healed me. I’m not “there” yet (I’m still in process), but I’m not the same person I used to be before. My affections are more God-ward, and my inner life is rich. For over thirteen years now, I have been married to my handsome husband Jim. He and I are partners in forgiveness. What helps me in my journey is to receive from God again and become a brand new Christian each day.
What is your vision for Tozer Seminary?
It is not enough for pastors and paid church staff members to be the only ones prepared for active ministry. The vision for A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary is for elders, pastors, deacons, teachers, preachers, small group leaders, parents, counselors, supervisors, and mentors to be equipped to think Christianly—especially about God—so they can serve the Lord in wisdom and articulate the gospel intelligibly as they meet other people’s real needs.
How do you plan to accomplish your goals for the seminary?
First of all, I am leading from a posture of prayer. I’m a workhorse; it’s in my constitution to persevere. My intention is to accomplish my goals by soliciting other people to help me achieve those goals. So look out, because I’ll be asking for money, for wise input, for people to sign up for class, for attendance at pivotal meetings, and for ongoing continual prayer.
What do you consider Tozer Seminary’s biggest assets to be?
I think the biggest asset of A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary is our name. The name attracted me right on the spot. I think it will do the same to many others. Of course, our very biggest asset is God Himself—though God is not an asset—He is God! The same could be said of our faculty, staff, students and alumnae—they cannot be rightly labeled as “assets.” On the contrary, they themselves are Tozer Seminary. I wonder if our second biggest asset is that we are here in Redding. I trust that our location is providential.
How would you describe yourself theologically?
Theologically I am similar to Tozer. I firmly believe in full agreement with him that “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” I have taught from this quote—literally quoting this quote—throughout my tenure as a professor. I have a high view of God’s Word. I believe in both Spirit and Word. In short, I am a card-carrying evangelical who is ecumenical in the sense of wanting unity in the Church while being careful to remember that true unity only comes when we unify in Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, who is Himself the Truth (John 14:6).
How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m a vision caster, an inspirer. I lead by teaching people to consider all the reasons why following Christ makes sense and why it’s realistic to hope for great things from Him. I’m not a micro-manager. I like for team members to be empowered. I feel very comfortable asking other people for help. Creating jobs and generating work seems to come naturally to me. I see it as a privilege
to labor and give generously to God’s work. And I’m a networker. I can’t wait to meet all the people I’m going to meet. Overall, I think of myself primarily as an exhorter, someone who builds by calling people to contribute to a vision that brings honor and glory to our God.