We live in an old schoolhouse. It’s a simple wood frame building that sits on hand-hewn floor joists, which in turn rest on a solid stone foundation. We’re busy trying to maintain and improve the place, which was built in the 1880s, converted in the 1960s, and then remodeled in the 1980s. No matter how skilled the workman of the past, I often scratch my head, wondering why they made some of the decisions they made. I find myself asking, Can I change this? Do I need to work around this? Should I just sell and buy a condo? We live with continual reminders that this house has a 125-year-old history. It can’t be escaped.
When I was in seminary, a professor once said that when new pastors arrive at a church, they are directly affected by the last 30 years of that church’s history. If the pastor of 20 years ago ran off with the organist, the current pastor needs to know about it. The congregation certainly knows about it. If there was a church split at some point, the whole town probably knows about it. In light of this, our professor strongly recommended getting as complete a history as possible early in the interview process. Pastors need to know up front what can be changed, what can be worked around, and whether they have the skills to manage that ministry.
Institutions of theological learning are no different. In fact, while many churches lack a formal process for recording their institutional histories, seminaries and theological schools horde that information. It is the stuff from which reputations and legacies are built. Board meetings are preserved in the minutes; academic trends are measured in generations of faculty publications; administrators leave their distinctive mark in programs and processes; and board members and donors are memorialized in the naming of buildings and scholarships.
The In Trust Writer Workshop recently visited a handful of seminaries in the Chicago area and talked with the school presidents. In defining their schools, each president began with history — how the school began and how it got to where it is today. And there was more to this referencing the past than clarifying the school’s identity.
Talking with board members and presidents from across the United States and Canada, you see that decisions are made every day that are influenced by decades-old events: Mergers happen or don’t because of where someone in authority went to school. A board approves an overly conservative, low-risk investment portfolio because 20 years ago, a previous board lost big when they invested heavily in a high risk venture. A board hires presidents from the clergy because “all of our presidents have been pastors.”
Knowledge of this history is important for board members, and new board members eventually figure it out. Sit through a board meeting, and you find that most members have an understanding of how things lie. There might be value, however, in clarifying that history — even the ugly bits. To get down on paper the significant events in a school’s past that, for good or ill, still exert an influence. This could be a valuable part of new board member orientation, but it would also bring to the fore many assumptions that have been internalized by the institution. Maybe by laying them out, they can be examined, which might lead to better decision making.