Richard Bliese's Articles

For Reformation Sunday: The continued relevance of Luther's financial insights

With the approach of Reformation Sunday, celebrated by Lutherans and some other Protestants this weekend, I have been thinking again about Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, which he nailed to the doors of the Wittenberg castle church on October 31, 1517. Back in 2007, I wrote a brief post for Luther Seminary’s blog on the Theses and their relationship with finances. I think the ideas are still relevant today, so I’ve updated them below for today’s readers. 

Does anyone quote Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses today? The answer is, surprisingly, “yes.”  The real shock is discovering who is doing the quoting. Economists!

Selling the seminary -- statistics and all

As seminary leaders engage with donors, many find a reluctance about investing in theological education. North America’s changing religious landscape means that there are fewer people in the pews, at least in many churches. A growing number of seminaries is recruiting potential students, but the absolute number of seminarians has remained essentially flat over the last 20 years. Furthermore, the prohibitive cost of the traditional master of divinity degree can all lead potential donors to question whether their gift might be better given elsewhere.

Is a seminary a school or a church?

A seasoned faculty member once complained to me after completing a long counseling session with a student. He lamented about how he was spending more and more of his on-campus time: “Sometimes I feel like I’m spending more time counseling my students than teaching them. This was not the case 20 years ago when I began teaching. Something has changed.”


Who is your most strategic partner?

First, throw out the “M-word.” Mergers scare people, so most schools are approaching partnerships in terms of new models of collaboration. A merger gives people the perception that there are winners and losers, but collaborations open up space for creativity and exploration: “If we were to imagine a future together, what might that look like?” 



Facing the brutal facts – with faith

Jim Collins, best-selling author and renowned management educator, recently headlined a conference for leaders of nonprofit organizations in Delaware. Collins spoke on the ideas introduced in his books, including his bestseller Good to Great

One point in particular struck a chord for me in reference to theological schools and the challenges and uncertain futures they face.  

From the In Trust archives: A typology of partnerships

A president called our Resource Consultants this week with a question:

If my school wants to explore a partnership or collaboration with another school, what are the options?

In an In Trust article that appeared a few years ago, Robert Cooley mapped out several options for partnerships. His list suggests just how creative such options can be.

What is Resource Consulting?

Resource Consulting is a method of supporting theological schools based on developmental learning models. Its goal is to strengthen the capacity of schools by helping schools to clarify issues and use resources to meet their identified needs.

Don't you love me anymore?

In her recent article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Don’t you love me anymore? The critical care of past board members,” author Simone Joyaux writes a funny account of a committed board member who departs the board and suddenly feels abandoned.

Joyaux wonders: How can we ensure that beloved board members, who have given so much, including time, passion, and money -- still feel engaged with the institution after their official term of service is complete?


Seminary presidents are the new burned-over district

How might a board prevent their president from burning-out?

The "Burned-over district" refers to the religious scene in the western and central regions of New York in the early 19th century, where religious revivals and Pentecostal movements of the Second Great Awakening took place. The term was coined in 1876 by Charles Finney, who argued that the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no "fuel" left over to "burn."1

“Burned-over district” today might also describe the office of seminary president in North America.

Profit for the Lord: seminaries and economic margin


“I fear that whenever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore, I do not see how it is possible in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must of necessity produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches.”

This famous speech from John Wesley points to the fascinating relationship between money and faith. There is often discomfort in the church with addressing the dynamics of money and power. Too often, we overly simplify these complex issues: Church leaders (who have the truth but not power or money) speak truth to leaders (who have power and money, but no truth). Money is evil. God’s people should hate money and have nothing to do with it.

But as we know, these issues are more complex than that. Therefore, it’s no wonder that seminaries struggle to teach “finances” to their students as they wrestle themselves with their financial futures.

How to manage your consultants

During a recent conversation with a seminary president, we talked about consultants. How many consultants were presently being used in this president’s institution? “I simply don’t know,” he admitted. “Each department brings in and works with its own consultants. I just know we use lots of outside talent. We have to.”

What happens in Vegas is tweeted in minutes

Is confidentiality, as a part of good governance, a thing of the past?

This old faculty joke is funny because, like all good humor, it’s partially true:

Question: "On this faculty committee, what is meant by confidentiality?"
Answer: "Confidentiality means that you can share the information but only with your closest friends."

It’s not only faculty meetings that suffer leakage. Many boards and committees also have real trouble defining and practicing confidentiality.

Sustainability: Not just about the green

When I think about sustainability, what immediately comes to mind is green. Green — as a concept and not just a color — dominates every conversation.


As I specifically consider leadership of a theological school, Green raises so many questions.

Questions about ecology and the environment: Is my campus kind to the environment? Are our buildings green or at least getting greener? Are our behaviors on campus environmentally responsible? At the very least, do we recycle?

And always, questions about money: Are our budgets balanced and our financial forecasts realistic? Where does our current financial path lead? Is our cash flow sufficient? How sustainable are our finances?

As leaders, we need our institutions to be sustainable, both financially sustainable and environmentally sustainable.

What does it mean to govern?

Q: What does it mean to govern? [Careful – this is a trick question.]
        a.) to supervise
        b.) to manage
        c.) to donate
        d.) to advise

The correct answer, according to the 2004 governance classic, Governance as Leadership, is e.) none of the above. To govern is “to lead.” And yes, leading includes supervision, management, fundraising, and advising, but leading also supersedes them.  Let me explain.

Paying attention to the symbols of leadership

As leaders, we know that we must be clear about our guiding principles and also stand up for our beliefs.  Eloquent speeches, mission statements, and even articles about common values and vision are important, but aren't nearly enough. As leaders, we must embody our principles. Our deeds are far weightier than our words, yet they must be consistent. It is at this juncture of principles and behavior that the symbols of leadership become concrete and can take on a life of their own.

Who will lead the exiles? A seminary-for-exiles

We live in a time of exile,” writes Carl Trueman, a professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, in the latest edition of First Things.

“The Western public square is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong . . .

Is your board's culture entrepreneurial or risk averse?

What is your board’s relationship to risk? Does its work reflect a culture of risk taking or risk avoidance? 

The question surrounding board culture and its engagement with risk seems to arise more frequently these days as boards are increasingly encouraged to travel two seemingly conflicting roads of risk -- the entrepreneurial road of risk taking and the security-conscious road of risk management.

Which road do you prefer to travel? Given your institution’s situation, which road must you travel?

Paying attention to spiritual formation: What’s a board to do?

Spiritual formation is a topic gaining wide acceptance as a “growing edge” within many leadership programs in theological education. Students desire it. Professors recognize its role as glue for the whole curricular strategy. Surveys lift up the need for seminary leaders to pay more attention to it. Should seminary boards...

The paperless board: Yes, but with caution

Technology is changing everything, including how boards do their work. As a seminary president, for example, I advocated for a paperless board, which is a great tool for any group of trustees.

Over several meetings, our school transitioned to a thoughtfully designed...

What are the habits of highly effective boards?

Boards are striving more than ever toward a higher level of performance. The demands of the challenging environment surrounding most theological schools require it. So what might “board excellence” look like?

An elevator speech for board members

A friend finds out that you serve on the board of a theological school. He is surprised, pleased, and curious. Questions follow immediately, and in rapid fire. “So what are your responsibilities as a board member?” he inquires. “And how does your board work there differ — if at all — from the other boards on which you serve?” You need an ...