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

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

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 ...

Organizational change means personal change

"The Future Has Arrived: Changing Theological Education in a Changed World" The theme of the 2010 Biennial Meeting of the ATS (which will be held later this month in Montreal) makes no bones about the need to firm up the foundations of theological education in the shifting socio-religious sands of our contemporary culture. Leading up to the meeting, ATS Executive Director Daniel Aleshire called on seminary presidents to exert wise leadership in this uncertain climate. Turbulent times, he says, often call for deep, fundamental, "adaptive" change (to use Ronald Heiftz's term).  To face this reality, theological schools must learn how to learn about the new normal of American and Canadian religiosity. It's been 20 years now since Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline popularized the notion of a "learning organization." Yet many theological schools that are rooted in decades -- even centuries -- of theological, ecclesiastical, and educational tradition and are still not focused on how they learn and advance as ...

The president's spouse

No figure in higher education is surrounded with more ambiguity than the president's spouse. This person is implicitly regarded as an important player for the school but is rarely on the school's payroll (in some states, like Idaho, it's actually illegal for public institutions to employ the president's spouse). Especially if the spouse is a woman, she often takes a role related to the development and stewardship -- as hostess and organizer of special events. In almost all cases, the role of the president's partner is undefined, unspoken, and all-too-often unappreciated. I suspect that within the seminary community, many see the president's spouse as a "pastor's wife." In the cash-strapped world of theological education, development officers take all the help they can get, and most are grateful when the spouse is on hand to help with, preside over, or coordinate receptions or dinners. In academic institutions, the president's partner is almost always involved with develop ...

Doubting Thomas, doubting Peter

The roots of doubt run deep in the Christian story. Thomas is the most renowned doubter in Christian history, touching the wounds of Christ to prove (to himself) the truth of the resurrection. But Peter nearly drowned from his own doubt when walking on water with Jesus.   Doubt is rooted in reason, emotion, and our deepest spiritual yearnings. It can cause confusion, embarrassment, shame, pride, and resistance. Doubt emerges across all aspects of our lives, whether we admit it or not.   In our theological schools, we experience doubt on many levels. We question the strategic  directions of our organizations; our interpretations of the marketplaces in which our schools operate; and the abilities of our staff, faculty, administration, and board. And when we second-guess certain aspects of our corporate life, we often act like either Thomas or Peter.   Doubting like Thomas. In many cases, we try to alleviate our doubt by ...

New guidelines for governing boards (part 2)

The new Statement on Board Responsibility for Institutional Governance begins with the obvious: that higher education is a broad, diverse social sector with multiple forms of organization and governance structures. (See Part 1 of this post for an initial overview of this document.) Theological schools are included under this big educational tent, but at first glance there's a lot in the statement that does not seem to directly apply to our unique institutions. Unfortunately, theological schools often isolate themselves from the rest of higher education with claims of uniqueness. Yes, theological schools offer distinct forms of education and training, but they often are often inhibited by what is sometimes called the "uniqueness paradox." This refers to a commonly held belief that one institution is so different, so unique, that it cannot be compared to peers, and that common wisdom cannot apply to it. The paradox is that such claims need only be made when the institutions are so si ...

New guidelines for governing boards (part 1)

Last month the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) published a revised Statement on Board Responsibility for Institutional Governance. First produced in 1998, the statement was updated in 2007 following an intensive investigation of the role of the president in higher education. As a major voice in the often-turbulent and highly political matrix of faculty, administrators, and accrediting bodies, AGB does not publish such statements without careful deliberation. A quick overview of this announcement reveals that much of the report represents mainstream, contemporary perspectives on educational governance. A closer -- and highly recommended -- reading confirms that it intermingles critical perspectives on contemporary colleges and universities with what is today accepted as organizational common-sense that both governing boards and executive administration will find useful. Among the more important recommendations: Maintain a vigilant awareness of changing conditi ...

Ideas vs. visions

A recent piece on the Harvard Business Review blog suggests that the previous 10 years was a decade of ideas. The author reminds us of 2002's The Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida, which was embraced by leaders in business and local government as a new model for community development and economic growth, based on attracting creative people with new ideas. And of course the rise of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social networking media has been happening all around us -- they too grew out of great ideas. But are great ideas enough? "What is in short supply," the blog post asserts, "are visionary thinkers who will be capable of making sense of this abundance of stimuli -- visionaries who will build the arenas to unleash the power of ideas and transform them into actions."  He goes on to predict that the next 10 years will be a decade of visionary thinking.  Theological eduction has likewise experienced a decade of ideas -- dozens of theological ...

Organizational ecology

Close your eyes for a moment and visualize the organizational structure of your theological school. Faculty ... staff ... executive team ... governing board. How are they connected to one another? Who reports to whom? Now, open your eyes (and keep reading).More than likely, you envisioned a traditional organizational chart, with the various constituencies cascading upward, one over the other, probably ending with the board or a church official on top. Of course, North American theological schools have a remarkable array of organizational structures that spring from unique histories, affiliations, and religious traditions. But in most of theological schools, the governing board is the last stop, the final authority. At least, that's the conventional wisdom. But does this perception match our realities?Some new understandings of organizations focus less on traditional avenues of authority (i.e., who reports to whom on the organizational chart) and more on our interconnected ecologies of effectiveness. For exam ...

Downsides of diversity

Wise and aware governing boards -- from the corporate suite to the fellowship hall -- are always looking to diversify their membership. However, an insightful piece in the Wall Street Journal titled "Why Diversity Can Backfire on Company Boards" shows that diversifying the board in ways that benefit the institution is not always easy. The authors explain: Blame it on human nature: As much as diversity is something we prize, the truth is that people often feel baffled, threatened, or even annoyed by persons with views and backgrounds very different from their own.  The result is that when [board members] are appointed because their views or backgrounds are different, they often are isolated and ignored.    When inviting those of different racial, ethnic, national, religious, and professional backgrounds to a board, it's possible for the majority to sabotage the effectiveness of the newcomers without even meaning to. Board leadership can unwittingly set them up as outlie ...

Got any young board members?

How young is the youngest member of your board? Student representatives aside, do you have a board member who is under 30? Under 40? We live in a hyper-technological world where terms like "crowd-sourcing," "cloud computing" and "Moodle" are mainstream terms in the cultural lexicon. And the rising generation of seminary students is predictably different (demographically, ideologically, and theologically) from previous generations. It seems reasonable to think that leaders in their 30s and early 40s more intuitively understand some of these new opportunities -- and challenges -- and can help keep a board abreast of the changing realities of educational innovation. Recent research shows that almost two-thirds of nonprofit board members are over 50.  To be sure, many theological school boards have some (or all) seats chosen by bishops, conferences, or other church bodies, but many others are self-perpetuating and free-standing. When boards choose their own members, a myriad of factors deter ...

What's your school's story?

No topic in pastoral studies is hotter right now that the literature in narrative leadership.  The Alban Institute has an interesting collection of new resources on narrative leadership in congregations by Larry Goleman. (Steve Denning is doing the most high-profile work on narrative leadership in the for-profit sector.)  A narrative or story is most simply described as having a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Like a congregation, a theological school has a unique and distinctive history, a saga that is passed down through the generations. Each school has stories of its founding years, charismatic leaders, the golden era, and the dark times. These narratives spark the imagination and help us make meaning of our present times. They provide plausibility structures for future possibilities. Goleman's recent findings on this are particularly compelling. A good president or dean knows how to frame and re-frame a seminary's activities in the context of the larger institutional saga in order to find new ways for ...

Top 10 smart moves

Ellis Carter, a nonprofit attorney who authors the popular Charity Lawyer blog, offers another "Top 10" list for nonprofit leaders (read about her last list here). Late last year, Carter posted Top 10 Smart Moves Great Nonprofit CEOs Make (From a Lawyer's Perspective), which an interesting blend of legal advice and leadership wisdom that may benefit leaders in theological education. Some of her suggestions to the CEOs are plain old common sense. For example, a good CEO: 1. Asks forgiveness, not permission. In this case, that means that the president and board maintain a proper division of duties. 2. Assembles a trusted team of professional advisers. That is, the wise executive develops long-term relationships with bankers, lawyers, insurance brokers, and accountants, among others. 7.  Trusts, but verifies. The leader ensures that resources are used wisely, strategically, and legally. While this list is addressed to CEOs, it also provides implicit advice to board members. Take this example: 10. Doesn ...

Conflict on purpose

It's natural to avoid conflict. Negative feelings and attitudes come out of it, and conflict can easily spiral out of control once it rises to the surface. It is uncomfortable, uncivilized, perhaps even un-Christian to allow emotions to get the best of us. Why, then, would anyone want to incite conflict intentionally, especially in a Christian setting? Like many churches, some theological schools are characterized by a "culture of niceness." Like governance and leadership in any organization, life in a theological school can deliver bumps and bruises during day-to-day life. So why is it that the public discourse that surrounds decision-making, strategizing, and leadership sometimes sometimes sounds more like afternoon tea with the Queen? Sometimes it's helpful to ask what such a "culture of niceness" conceals. What work does it do within the organization? Jeffrey Jones suggests that cultures of niceness in organizational (and especially Christian) settings allows for the avoidance of dealing with deep, con ...

What's your chief executive worth? And why?

Executive compensation in the social sector has come under increased scrutiny in recent years, and rightfully so. Though it's unlikely there will be a scandal about excessive compensation in seminaries any time soon, the market nevertheless applies pressure to nonprofit boards considering the compensation packages of their chief administrators (and what presidents, deans and rectors should expect). A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review examines concerns over executive compensation as a cultural phenomenon. The author asks: Why is it socially acceptable for the symphony director in a major city to make a million dollars while the head of the neighborhood charity is expected to make a pittance? The answer, the author concludes, is the "curse of proximity."   In the public eye, the closer a nonprofit is to the neediest among us -- the homeless, the infirm, the hungry -- the less those who lead those organizations should make. In judging an appropriate salary for such leaders, ...

Knowing your mission in a multireligious society

In December, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released results from a new poll that finds "large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions." You have probably heard the figures already: A third of all Americans worship in more than one place. A quarter of all Americans sometimes worship beyond their own tradition. These numbers increase among those who attend worship at least once a week.  See the poll results here. The Pew Forum reported in 2008 that the number of Americans who do not claim any religious affiliation rose above 15 percent. Combined with membership declines in many churches, some observers detect the dawn of an irreligious, unbelieving America.  But as the recent report shows, this is not the case. America is not less religious but rather religious in different ways than before. North Americans are certainly more multireligious than previous generations. While this raises countless questions ...

Hidden talents

Sometimes the resources you need are right under your nose. Consider this case:Doris Bailey recently retired as a senior administrator from Mega State University, where for more than 20 years she was responsible for institutional research and planning. A committed member of Calvary AME Church, she was seeking to be more devoted in her spiritual walk and involved in the church. She was delighted, therefore, when the local seminary called to discuss joining the board. The president knew she was a well-respected lay person in her denomination and could help make important connections for fundraising and recruiting.The seminary was preparing for a rigorous accreditation review, and it was woefully unprepared for new standards and expectations. Because of her professional background in higher education, Doris was assigned to the budget committee and the campus life committee, while the academic affairs committee muddled through discussions about accreditation -- a process she was quite familiar with. But her offer ...

Board diversity: who, what, why, and how?

During the next meeting of your board, take a long look around the table. Who's there? Who isn't? And why?Conversations about racial and ethnic diversity are fraught with uncertainty, disagreement, and even fear. This is especially true in religious organizations that place a high value on "cultures of niceness." In talking about race and ethnicity, we do not want to offend others, or embarrass ourselves, or risk muddying the organizational waters in any way.But these are precisely the challenges of diversity. Boards that are predominantly white in membership reproduce themselves by avoiding risky conversations about racial and ethnic diversity. Indeed, these are important and difficult conversations for boards of historically homogeneous institutions along any racial/ethnic lines. But it is particularly important for predominately white organizations to be aware of their racial/ethnic composition and the effects that the lack of diversity has on their community.  BoardSource, the national organization for ...

Top 10 board mistakes (plus 5 more)

Many good books have been written about effective board governance and what pitfalls to avoid. (The excellent Governance as Leadership, published by Boardsource, is one of In Trust's favorites.) But rarely is such good advice offered so clearly, concisely, and effectively as I found in this next piece. Ellis McGehee Carter, an Arizona nonprofit lawyer, made a small splash in the nonprofit world with a top-ten list of "Non-profit Board Governance Mistakes." On each of the points below, she offers a short paragraph of explanation. It's worth a few minutes of your time. On face value, they seem to be common sense. But when knee-deep in board work, sometimes the obvious can be obfuscated by the organizational fog. So what does she see as the top ten mistakes board regularly make? Failing to understand fiduciary duties. Failing to provide effective oversight.  Deference to the executive committee, board chair or the organization's founder.  Micro-managing staff.  A ...

The board's role in accreditation

Broach the topic of accreditation with any senior administrator and you'll be met with a groan, a grimace, and possibly a complaint of sudden heartburn. Raise the same issue with a member of the board, and you may receive a blank stare in return. Most anyone associated with higher education knows minimally that accreditation is an external validation of internal effectiveness. But the extent to which a board should be concerned about this process is variable and at times controversial. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation released a joint statement this week about the roles that boards should play in accreditation. Why is it notable that these two, relatively obscure organizations issued such a statement? Accreditation is certainly not without critics, even at the highest levels of government. In an opinion piece earlier this year, U.S. secretary of education Margaret Spellings suggested that accrediting agencies are oft ...

Libraries of the future

  In years like these when cash flow is tight, endowments are down, and enrollments are sagging, schools of all sorts look for ways to slice a few lines from the operating budget.  But when boards and administrators are investigating creative solutions, how often do they turn to the library, tried and true, as a possible source of innovative savings?  If knowledge is the lifeblood of the academy, then books are the veins through which knowledge flows.  Right? Colleges and universities are increasingly turning to innovative solutions and the fast-paced development of new information technologies to trim overhead, maintenance, and staff budgets, while at the same time improving services for a changing student demographic. It's becoming more common to outsource certain functions (e.g. cataloging). Because of aggressive archiving and digitizing, the prominence of actual paper books is decreasing in favor of new ways of delivering knowledge. Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academ ...