Leadership in Houston DTS

The development of leaders begins in childhood. The qualities and character people bring to leadership in adulthood start taking shape in their relationships with home, family, school, friends, and location. Growing up as the child of first-generation immigrant parents gave Dr. Pierre Cannings (ThM, 2013) early insights into a life of leadership and a keen sensitivity to the needs of a diverse city like Houston. Pierre’s parents grew up in large families in Georgetown, Guyana, South America. They married in Guyana and then moved to Dallas, Texas. Later, with their two young children, the couple moved to Houston, where Pierre’s father, Dr. Paul Cannings (ThM, 1985), became vice president of the College of Biblical Studies. Paul then became the national director of outreach for the Urban Alternative, an organization founded by his brother-in-law, Dr. Tony Evans (ThM, 1976; ThD, 1982). Paul fell in love with Houston, eventually planting Living Word Fellowship Church in the Acres Home neighborhood. Pierre’s childhood home was “maybe a little meager,” he says, “but I never knew it. It was full of love, full of discipline, full of direction and purpose, full of godliness.” He learned about leadership by watching his dad, who balanced numerous responsibilities while always making sure that he was a loving, attentive father to his children.

Pierre also knew the pressures of growing up as a pastor’s kid. “For pastor’s kids, there are a few typical pathways people take,” he says. “I chose the path of least resistance: be as good as I can.” Though saved at age five, Pierre nurtured an idea that salvation was about earning God’s grace through being well-behaved and diligent. That motivation carried him until his teenage years. In high school, he began to understand his faith more deeply—seeing it as his own walk with the Lord, not just an extension of his parents’ faith. He rededicated his life to Jesus at about age sixteen. With a friend, Pierre started a Christian club at school to help freshmen, and he led his school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes group. Along with enjoying a new depth to his faith, Pierre also discovered a love for leadership.

After high school, Pierre studied at Austin College, a liberal arts school near Dallas, majoring in communication and education and minoring in psychology. At college, he started a Bible study and continued growing in his faith. He also continued growing in his relationship with the woman he had met in high school and who would become his wife. Their relationship allowed him to learn more about himself and his weaknesses. “Beyond my resume, how good I might look on paper,” he says, “I found that there was some selfishness in me, some dirt in my closet that I hadn’t confronted yet.” Significantly, the process of refining his character took place in the context of relationship. And the process of God speaking through weaknesses and flaws continues to work in Pierre’s life.

Pierre knew he wanted to go straight to seminary after completing his undergraduate studies. With his family’s many connections to Dallas Theological Seminary, DTS was the only choice on Pierre’s list. He began ThM studies at the Houston campus. At the same time, he taught English and speech at a Christian school, coached basketball, and worked as a youth pastor at Living Word Fellowship Church. When people asked him about his goals for his seminary program, he’d respond that his primary goal was “to be the best youth pastor I can be to these kids at Living Word.” He continued in his role as youth pastor for twelve years. During the last two years, he mentored the next youth pastor and transitioned into the assistant pastor role at the church. He served as assistant pastor during the years he completed a PhD at Dallas Baptist University.

For his doctoral research, Pierre chose a topic close to the heart of many leaders from Houston: leadership in diversity. He examined the leadership of Paul and Peter in the book of Acts through the lens of James MacGregor Burns’s transformational leadership theory. “What we learn from Paul and Peter,” Pierre says, “is that it takes a revolutionary leader to make a change. There will be some personal sacrifice and no compromise when standing for the truth gets difficult. This is what we learn from great leaders throughout history, including Jesus’s disciples.” Paul and Peter sacrificed a lot in order to unify Jews and Gentiles; they were the kind of revolutionary leaders Pierre respects. “In addition to the vital need for courageous, sacrificial leaders,” he says, “what’s missing now is conversations. When you can talk openly with others, you can recognize your history. You look at the mistakes you’ve made, the progress you’ve achieved so far, and the healing that still needs to happen as everyone moves forward together.” Pierre’s insights truly apply to each of us, and also to our churches, workplaces, and organizations.

In 2021, with several months remaining to complete his doctoral dissertation, Pierre received a phone call he never expected: an invitation to consider interviewing to become the dean of DTS-Houston. “When they called,” Pierre laughs, “I assumed they were looking for my dad! I said, ‘I think you have the wrong P. Cannings!’” At that point, he had been at Living Word Fellowship Church for all twenty-nine years of its existence and had served in leadership roles for sixteen years. He knew the community and its nuances. Thriving in the assistant pastor role at Living Word, Pierre was comfortable with a vision to someday transition to become the lead pastor.

A hint of a future place in academia had occurred years previously in a DTS class with Dr. George Hillman. The students in the class took a career assessment, and one of Pierre’s top results was “dean of students.” That was the one academic role that appealed most to Pierre; it brought together two of his loves: discipleship and working with students. “I love helping anybody,” he says. And the prospect of applying his experience and passion to DTS-Houston was instantly attractive. “This is an institution that I appreciate and love,” he says, “an institution that was part of making me the man I am today. It increased my ability and equipped me for what I thought I would do in church for the rest of my life.” Trusting God’s guidance, Pierre began the interviews with DTS. “I left it all in God’s hands, and honestly, with each round of interviews, I assumed it would be the end of the process for me.” During this time, a DTS colleague asked Pierre, “Why? Why would you leave a church where you’re already serving well?” Pierre’s only answer was that he was humbly following God’s leading, remaining obedient to wherever God calls him. 

After Pierre accepted the position, he understood the answer to his colleague’s question more. He sees that God called him from a place where he had grown very comfortable to a place where God could work on his areas of weakness—specifically, anxiousness and an expectation of control. “I’ve often fallen victim to the dream of a very controlled future, something that I can see and manage,” Pierre admits. “But in becoming dean at DTS-Houston, I don’t know exactly what God is doing—and I’m okay with that. I’m committed to where he’s called me, and I say in response, ‘What new growth do you want me to experience today, Lord?’” In accepting the role of dean, Pierre knew he couldn’t control everything, and he couldn’t be anxious about what God was going to do. “It’s not supposed to be me—it’s supposed to be the Holy Spirit moving while I fully submit to God’s will for my life.”

As Pierre finishes his first year as dean of DTS-Houston, he reflects on what he’s learned so far and the kind of leader he will always strive to be. His vision for leadership as dean is to “lead from the bottom”—that is, model the attitude of a servant and strengthen the team of people who work with him on campus in Houston. “I lead from compassion,” he says. “I want everyone who works at DTS to be better people just through their experience here. If an employee moves on to another workplace, I want to make sure he or she leaves whole and healthy.” 

Pierre gives the people around him the freedom to contribute their strengths to the vision for the school—and also permission to fail and learn from their mistakes. He arrives on campus at 6:00 a.m. every morning and spends those first quiet moments walking the hallways, praying at each office door for the people who work there, for their families, and for each person they will have the opportunity to love that day. “When people are loved,” he affirms, “then they’ll lead others in love.” He holds on to the heart of who God made him to be by seeking out ways to connect with students. He makes coffee for DTS students and prioritizes conversations full of laughter and care. He sees strength in this kind of compassionate, community-centered leadership and in helping guide people through uncertain, chaotic situations.

Located in the most diverse city in the U.S., (i) DTS-Houston is uniquely placed to build relationships among many different communities. As dean, Pierre wants DTS-Houston to be a leader in bringing unity and harmony. “A lot of my role as dean is to mend relationships that may have broken down,” he says, “and build new bridges in this vibrant city. I’m always asking, ‘How can I get out of the office and be present in Houston?’” He recognizes that being dean requires  “a different kind of leadership, a different mentality.” The leadership development that began by observing his parents continues through his life of education, service, and ministry. In bringing all of his experience and passion to this role, Pierre prioritizes transformational relationships rather than transactional ones. He loves building community among the student population of DTS-Houston, trusting that they will then continue ministering in the city and beyond. In all of his roles and responsibilities, Dean Pierre Cannings firmly believes that “the call to obedience to God is also a call to building community for the kingdom.”

i Adam McCann, “Most Diverse Cities in the U.S.,” WalletHub, April 19, 2021, https://wallethub.com/edu/most-diverse-cities/12690.

About the Contributors

Neil R. Coulter

Neil R. Coulter

Neil R. Coulter completed degrees in music performance and ethnomusicology from Wheaton College and Kent State University. He and his family lived in Papua New Guinea for twelve years, where Neil served as an ethnomusicology and arts consultant for Wycliffe Bible Translators. In 2015, he helped design and launch the PhD in World Arts at Dallas International University. He teaches doctoral courses in theory and ethnography at DIU’s Center for Excellence in World Arts. At DTS, he teaches about art, literature, film, and theology, and he is senior writer and editor of DTS Magazine. Neil is married to Joyce, and they have three sons.