Good questions, helpful answers

As subsidies from denominations and other church bodies continue to dwindle, leaders in theological education are urged to turn their attention toward individual congregations. The reasons for doing so are obvious and compelling.

  • Seminaries (including nondenominational and interdenominational schools) are servants of the churches.
  • Congregations are the seminaries’ partners in encouraging individuals to consider Christian ministry.
  • Congregations are partners with theological schools in lay education.
  • Congregations are where people who care most about the future of theological education regularly gather.

For all their good intentions, however, staff in the majority of theological schools struggle to build relationships with constituent congregations. The challenge of maintaining personal contact with several hundred, often far-flung congregations can very quickly overwhelm institutional resources. So church relations remains near the bottom of the lengthy “to do” lists of overtaxed seminary personnel.

Members of the governing board (including advisory boards at university- and college-related divinity schools and seminaries) are key players in turning this situation around. In the questions boards ask and the actions individual members take, governance leaders can help nurture closer connections between theological schools and their congregational partners in mission.

Questions to Ask

A board cannot make informed decisions about a school’s relationship with its churchly constituency without access to solid longitudinal data. Trustees must ask and expect answers to very specific questions about the school’s interaction with congregations. For example, a board might request an annual accounting of

  • The top twenty-five* giving congregations.
  • The top sending congregations.
  • The top learning congregations (based on participation in seminary events and lay-education opportunities).
  • How well the school’s supporting denomination is represented in the top congregations.
  • Which of the top congregations the staff or president interacted with during the past year.
  • Which of the top congregations members of the board interacted with during the past year.

* The number of top churches will vary depending upon the size of the constituency the school serves and the ability of staff and volunteers to manage the relationships.

Actions to Take

The boundary-spanning work of boards connects schools with the faith commitments, wisdom, and fiscal resources of their publics, including local congregations and parishes. As individual board members commit themselves to specific actions on behalf of the school, they extend the reach of the institution far beyond what is possible through staff contacts alone. Board members’ influence begins with their home congregations and works its way outward with such activities as

  • Writing notes of appreciation to giving, sending, and learning congregations.
  • Meeting with pastors for coffee and conversation.
  • Distributing welcome packets from the seminary to pastors who are new to the region.
  • Dropping off recruitment literature at nearby churches.
  • At regional or national denominational gatherings, seeking out representatives from top congregations to thank them for their support of the seminary.
  • Representing the seminary to nearby congregations.

The list goes on, as seminary leaders involve boards in connecting theological schools with congregations. Good questions and helpful actions give shape to the board’s role in church relations.

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Article from: Summer 2004

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