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Jon Hooten's Articles

Checking the weather is a board responsibility

It's true: Many of us who live in Southern California (not so) secretly gloat about our weather.  This morning when I woke up, it was a frigid, bone-chilling 43 degrees, but it will soon warm up to the "sunny and 72" I've come to know and love. I grew up in rural Oklahoma -- a far cry in almost every way from suburban Los Angeles -- and I've spent significant periods of my life in other parts of the country and world. So every morning when I look at the local forecast, I also check the temperature in other places I've lived, to see what the weather's like beyond my little bubble. And if you are a seminary trustee, you should do the same. A basic duty of trusteeship is "checking the weather." Good governance is first concerned with the fiduciary details of what's happening within your institution -- keeping an eye on investments, cash flow, fund-raising, enrollments, board recruitment and development -- but a board's duties do not stop there. Does your board check the weather beyond your school's bubble? ...

Preserve the core -- all else can change

The Alban Institute recently posted a must-read essay about congregational leadership titled "When the Mission Changes." In it, author Dan Hotchkiss reflects on the critical times in a congregation's history where the mission of the community needs radical reconsideration. This involves more than reworking the verbiage in the mission statement, he says. "[W]hat if times change so much that the original mission starts to look like a mistake?" Can a theological school find itself in a similar position? Of course. And more than a few schools are already taking the radical steps of rethinking and redefining their missions for the 21st century. For example: The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology changed its name this fall from Mars Hill Graduate School, partly to distinguish itself from a church with a similar name but dissimilar theological positions. But in the major rebranding process, the school has focused its identity on progressive evangelicalism and zeroed in on what it does best: ...

Governing for this century

Scots Mission Hospital, Tiberias, in the 1940s

Imagine coming across this headline today:

MEDICAL SCHOOLS UPDATE DOCTORS' SKILL SET
Students must prove competency in key skills for 21st-century hospitals

Most of us would be shocked to read that med schools had not kept up with the times. But the Christian Century ran a similar headline this fall -- only it was about seminaries that are just now updating their curricula to meet the demands of the 21st century. Just imagine if other professional schools -- in medicine, engineering, or business -- were similarly slow in adapting.

Joe Paterno and the Penn State board of trustees

Update on Monday, November 14, 2011: Be sure to read Rebekah Burch Basinger's blog post on the Penn State crisis. Rebekah makes many excellent points about what the university board should have been doing all along. Crisis management is important, but avoiding crises is even better. ********** Original post on Friday, November 11, 2011: It's not often that a governing board in higher education makes the national news. Even as the horrific story out of Penn State is still developing, nearly every news report is referring to the decisions of the university's board of trustees. As of yesterday, the board had fired president Graham Spanier, two other executives, and coach Joe Paterno, the embodiment of the school's ethos, brand, and spirit. According to the grand jury report, all had known about the sexual abuse that had been occurring on campus over the course of several years. The board's swift decision led to a complex mix of outpouring and outrage -- even a small student riot broke out after the announc ...

The future of seminary governance

If you could look into a crystal ball at the future of theological education, what would you see? The editors at Patheos.com have been wondering the same thing, and so they've assembled essays from an impressive list of seminary presidents, deans, professors, and other interested parties on the topic "The Future of Seminary Education" (or, more specifically, "Does the Seminary Have a Future?"). The responses include a substantive and wide-ranging interview with Daniel Aleshire as well as a "just the facts" reply from Barbara Wheeler, director of the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Seminary. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge reflects on the role of seminaries in post-Christian and more diverse environments. Philip Clayton and Tony Jones write more explicitly about seminary education for the post-institutional emergent church. Gary Peluso-Verdend and Mark D. Roberts both suggest that laity should be the ultimate focus of theological education. All together, the series is l ...

Maybe it's time to redefine the problem

Imagine this familiar scene: The old guard is sitting around a table, long-faced and bemoaning the bleak outlook for the next year. They have a meager budget, the competition has just cherry-picked their top talent away and cash is getting tight. So they start doing what they do every year: resort to their tried and true solutions to what have become perennial problems in order to survive. No, this isn't your last seminary board meeting. This is a scene from Moneyball, the new Brad Pitt film based on the true story of a struggling, demoralized Oakland A's baseball team. It takes place in 2001 when the team loses its top three players to better-paying teams. The A's face a choice: Do the same thing or do something different. And we all know the proverbial definition of insanity -- it was even mentioned in the Autumn 2011 issue of In Trust -- "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." So the team's general manager redefines the problem with the help of an u ...

Beyond Borders (part 2): Box store vs. Bookseller

Read Part 1 of this post. The bankrupt Borders stores tried to be a one-stop shop for books, magazines, music, movies, and related paraphernalia -- remember the "Itty-Bitty Book Light"? But in an increasingly digital age, consumers can compare prices instantly on their smart phones and select the brightness of their books' pages on their Kindle or iPad. Unfortunately, many theological schools assume that they're falling short of their mission if they don't try to provide a Borders-like experience: a comprehensive approach to theological and ministerial education that provides everything to everyone. But North American theological education diverges from the Borders example in at least one significant way: its mission is to serve -- not profit from -- church and society. Theological schools exist not for their own sake but rather in service to a larger mission. Our schools are all playing on the same team, striving toward a broad and common goal of educating effective ministers, lay leaders, counselo ...

Beyond Borders (part 1): Lessons from a megachain's demise

The closing of Borders bookstores has drawn responses from a variety of sectors. One seminary professor even wrote a theological reflection on the news. Without a doubt, Borders was an American fixture for nearly two decades, and its downfall has important lessons for organizations in the midst of large-scale shifts in their markets. A few observations are noteworthy: One news report suggests that the fall of Borders is an opportunity for small independent stores, which can focus on special niches or cater to particular communities. The lesson is simple: a one-size-fits-all approach may, in fact, serve no organization very well. One college dean suggests Borders failed because it was not distinctive enough and did not align its core competencies to a changing marketplace. He fears many middle-of-the-road private colleges are headed down this same path. Another observer offers three concise lessons: (1) The middle is a bad place to be. (2) Technology is not always the answer. (3) Disruptio ...

The price of procrastination

Example of deferred maintenance

Deferred maintenance dogs many theological schools -- especially those freestanding institutions with beloved old campuses that were built for a bygone era. Surely every administrator knows that when you're creating an annual budget, it's very easy to put off a big capital expenditure for one more year or to balance the accounts by shaving a little off the facilities line.

A recent piece over at the Chronicle of Higher Education is a must-read for presidents, CFOs, and board members who serve on the finance or buildings and grounds committees.

Worth noting: The emerging church

There's a big difference between a fad and a movement: Christian heavy metal was a fad. Emergent Christianity is a movement. Emergent Christianity and the emerging church movement gained considerable traction in the first decade of this century. Wikipedia has a pretty good introduction to the characteristics of a concept that's still gaining shape and definition. But the general idea of the emergent movement is a realignment of Christian communities for a world of "posts": postmodern, postliberal, postevangelical, even post-Christian.  Based on a typical description like this one, confessional Christians may see emergent Christianity as too liberal and too dismissive of ecclesiology. And liberal, mainline, and "cultural Christians" may think it's just conservative neo-evangelicalism in disguise. Many seminary trustees and administrators, who likely fall somewhere on this continuum, may also have one of these reactions when they hear murmurs of emergence among their professors o ...

Diversity is inefficient but necessary

We've written about diversity several times on this blog and in In Trust magazine. Setting aside the thorny ideological and religious perspectives that are inherent in the topic, we believe that a diversity of opinions and experiences on a governing board makes practical sense: It brings new ideas and wisdom to the table from a growing world beyond the majority culture. But diversification isn't easy. And it certainly isn't efficient. Those who think and write about diversity know well that a diverse group of people can make for messy meetings and feelings of insecurity and uncertainty -- among those in the "majority" as well as those in the "minority." While wrestling with diversity, a board can get bogged down by inaction and ineffectiveness.  That's one reason why simply diversifying a group is not enough. There must also be meaningful engagement. A recent blog entry at the New Organizing Institute makes this case clearly. "[I]t turns out that diversity is not just ...

Is it too early to write the eulogy for theological education?

"Our seminaries are dying and the Master of Divinity degree has been discredited." This is the opening line from an essay over at Patheos that has received a lot of recent attention. The essay is called "Is It Time to Write the Eulogy?: The Future of Seminary Education," and at first glance it may appear to be just another woeful dirge on the decline and ultimate demise of theological education. But in the end, it's a hopeful message that the author tries to convey. The columnist, a professor at a mainline seminary, offers a concise interpretation of the history and current state of theological education and highlights its various foci -- social justice, pastoral care, leadership -- over the decades. He describes the declining financial support from denominations, which leads to the backbreaking weight of student debt. "So, should we throw the system out, disband our seminaries, and launch even more deeply into the brave new world of clergy preparation?" he asks. "Or should we rely on regional choices and ...

How to stop a wildfire

When we're in the middle of a bad situation -- whether a short episode or a prolonged, multiyear, downward trend -- we can default to tried-and-true methods of thinking and reacting. But often it's just these methods that allow a small problem to grow. Earlier this year, MIT's Sloan Management Review published a case study on how firefighters in New Mexico responded to a small grass fire that exploded into a major billion-dollar wildfire. The authors suggest that the first responders did not adequately analyze the early dangers or properly intervene in slowing the early momentum of the fire. From this case, the authors extrapolate important organizational lessons on what they call "dysfunctional momentum." They start with three basic observations about dysfunctional momentum: People intimately involved in a situation may not focus on issues that seem minor (like smoldering embers). After dysfunctional momentum is recognized, the situation must be interrupted if the momentum is to be stopped e ...

Global view lends insight at home

Those of us in theological education keep a close eye on what other schools in North America are up to. And in seeking solutions to new challenges, we often look among our peer groups for best practices and sparks of innovation. A new publication from the World Council of Churches, however, reminds us that theological education is a global enterprise with many different forms and functions.  The length and density of most academic reference works usually keep them off our recreational reading lists. And the new Handbook of Theological Education in World Christianity -- almost 800 pages long and weighing nearly five pounds! -- is no exception. But the massive tome draws on the perspectives of more than 90 leaders from around the world to detail the varieties of theological education.  There is much for us to learn from this snapshot. For example: In Latin America, where theological education was once a missionary endeavor from the North, seminaries are now turning to their own communities ...

Plug-and-play theological education

It's been a year since we first wrote about the "edupunk" phenomenon. Edupunks are part of the up-and-coming generation of students. They think outside the educational boxes that institutions provide for them, finding sources of knowledge and authentic experience wherever they may. While edupunks might still matriculate at an institution of higher learning, they are on the lookout for what they really want and need, wherever they can find it. (One university is experimenting with students like this and hosting "flash seminars," where a time and location for discussion on a hot topic is posted in online social networks, and only the first 25 students are allowed to participate.) In the past year, we've also seen the rise of another term in higher education: "plug-and-play." This refers to an increasingly a la carte market approach to completing a degree. While a graduate student may be officially enrolled at one institution, that student can shop around -- usually online -- for classes at other schools -- c ...

Accrediting changes reflect stricter accountability

Ralph A. Wolff, president of the Senior College Commission at the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), has written an overview of how accrediting agencies are changing their focus, and what this means for members of governing boards. Do read his article in its entirety, but here are some highlights: Accountability and mission fulfillment. Accrediting bodies have traditionally monitored compliance (Does your school meet certain standards?) and, more recently, improvement (Is your school getting better at what it does?). Today, a third emphasis is emerging -- accountability. That means determining how well a school does what it says it does -- whether the school actually fulfills its promise -- and providing meaningful information to the public about institutional performance. Accrediting agencies are the go-between. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 reminded many of us of how directly our institutions are beholden to the federal government. But th ...

Should boards oversee grant-writing?

The Autumn 2010 edition of In Trust featured a story titled "Seminary Kids." It reports the success of several seminary-based youth programs funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. Lilly originally funded more than two dozen of these programs, but only a handful were able to find successful pathways to institutional sustainability. The In Trust article suggests that the youth programs that were integral to the core missions of their schools were able to survive. In the early years of the youth theology initiative, many seminaries saw the low-hanging fruit from a friendly foundation and acted quickly to apply for grants to set up youth programs. Some of these may have neglected to give deep consideration to how a major grant would affect their mission and whether the grant-funded program would integrate into longstanding institutional goals and values. Board members are right to resist the urge to micromanage administrative decisions such as those related to funding decisions and foundation cultivation. But ...

Keeping your school in alignment

Over at the Call and Response Blog, a young mainline pastor is getting honest about the professional world into which she recently graduated. In a post called "Younger Clergy and the New Economic Normal," Amy Thompson Sevimli outlines the economic and demographic realities facing the mainline church, telling of a generation of older ministers who are hanging on to fewer and fewer full-time pastorates, while seminaries produce ever more young people expecting to enter the pulpit with the pay and pension of their predecessors. "[W]hat should younger clergy do, since most of us have already paid for at least eight years of schooling and don't have a second set of skills to fall back on?" she asks. "The model for ministry which we have long assumed is no longer the model of the future." Or, as a headline for another article says, "Too Many Pastors, Not Enough Work." The changing nature of the pastorate is evident everywhere we look, and not only in mainline denominations. For many small congregations (wheth ...

Is the bubble about to burst? (Part 2)

Read Part 1 of this post.

Is theological education in the bubble, too?

Few doubt that higher education is on the verge -- or in the midst -- of a sector-wide shift. Some are likening the current situation to the housing and lending bubbles that recently "burst" (as we discussed in Part 1). But does the threat extend to theological education, with its unique purposes, constituencies, and outcomes?

Is the bubble about to burst? (Part 1)

We've heard a lot in recent years about bursting bubbles in the financial and housing sectors. Now the analogy is creeping into higher education. In a stark opinion piece published earlier this month in the Washington Examiner, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds declares that the higher education bubble is about to burst. "The product grows more and more elaborate, and more and more expensive," he explains, "but the expense is offset by cheap credit provided by sellers eager to encourage buyers to buy." Remember, he's talking about college degrees, not houses. So if there's an educational bubble, what's inflating it? The primary cause: skyrocketing costs. Inside Higher Ed reports that private colleges are increasing tuition this fall by an average 4.5 percent, which is extremely modest compared to a 10-year prerecession average of 6 percent per year. (To be fair, student aid is also increasing in these institutions, which isn't always the case in other sectors of higher ...

Is your seminary stressed?

On airport bookshelves across North America, the "turnaround" is quickly becoming the next hot topic in popular business and management reading. A turnaround is what happens when, thanks to insightful leadership and organizational acumen, an organization's downward trajectory is reversed -- in spite of all countervailing odds.  A recent addition to the genre is titled Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence, and it's written for educational leaders by educational leaders. Overall, the book is a collection of essays that provide helpful guidance for those in the midst of organizational turmoil and/or turnaround. The first chapter is particularly insightful. In "Defining Stressed Institutions and Leading Them Effectively," the authors briefly describe the major contributing factors in the current climate of institutional stability (such as "churning presidents," the changing demands of students, and the commodification of higher education in general). The chapter then offer ...

Saving students money with technology

In theological education, it seems that educational technology has reached a tipping point. Small seminaries that never thought they could offer online education or other web-based services now have access to relatively inexpensive, scalable, and road-tested technologies to help them reach modest goals. Going online -- with classes, student services, and even board committee meetings -- isn't as daunting as it used to be. For many schools, however, the motivation to embrace certain educational technologies has been to decrease the institution's costs and increase billable tuition hours. But a recent blog post over at Inside Higher Ed offers a startling new perspective on the technology question. The author reminds us that the cost of higher education continues to outpace the cost of living, getting more and more expensive every year. How can seminaries expect to thrive when both student costs and institutional costs continue to climb? And what role can technology play in making theological education mo ...

Changing theological education in a changing world

Presidents, rectors, deans, and other leaders in North American theological education gathered in Montreal earlier this summer for the Biennial Meeting of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the association, gave the opening address that set the stage for the two days of conversation and decisions to follow. His speech addressed the changing landscapes of North American religion, including shifting patterns of religious adherence and practice, increased religious diversityand pluralism, and the globalization of Christianity. It's fitting, he explained, that the meeting was being held in Montreal, which only 50 years ago was a firmly Catholic city. Today, rates of religious participation in the city are among the lowest on the continent, a fact which some interpret as the canary in the coal mine for American and Canadian churches. The most complete scholarly account of secularism also has a connection to Montreal. Charles Taylo ...

Getting at the board's DNA through bylaws

At a recent In Trust meeting, the retired president of a theological school confided that for the first decade of his tenure as head of his former school, his employment status was "less than lawful." The bylaws required that the president be rehired each year by the board, a small detail that had been overlooked for 10 years. Once discovered, it was brought to the board's attention. They amended the bylaws. Bylaws are probably not at the top of your bedtime reading list. But they are critical to a board's health -- for reasons both legal and organizational. Legally, of course, they spell out the nuts and bolts of how the board operates and perpetuates itself. The example of the "scofflaw president" is a good reminder of why the basics of the bylaws should be known to everyone on the board. In any institution, you want the board and the organization to be in compliance at all times. The folks over at Blue Avocado recently posted a helpful "Bylaws Checklist." Designed just for nonprofit boards, it  makes ...

Dropping diversity's baggage

The word "diversity" carries a lot of baggage these days. It is both cliche and code, sometimes bordering on meaningless, other times carrying deep emotional meaning for folks on all sides of an issue.  Scott Page, an economist at University of Michigan, tries to drop diversity's baggage at the curb with a more practical approach to the topic. Perhaps you already know about his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. In it, he uses mathematics to explain why diverse working groups produce better results than homogeneous groups. "[D]iverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it," he says. This not only refers to professional or academic training, but also that "people's identity groups -- ethnic, racial, sexual, age -- matter when it comes to diversity in thinking." So what does this have to do with theological education? In 2002, Auburn S ...

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