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 similar that most people recognize them as peers. For a president or board member to suggest, therefore, that their school has little in common with the rest of higher education ignores that we may be comparing green apples with red apples, but they are still apples.
So what is the value of this document for the governing boards of theological schools? As with any good sermon, there are three lessons:
- Theological education's environment is undergoing tremendous change, just like the environment of colleges and universities. Recent decreases in students, donors, and financial support for our theological schools are only symptoms to larger issues that are beginning to shake the foundations of theological education. How is your board, president, and/or faculty interpreting and responding to these realities?
- Boards should understand how they relate to other ecclesial agencies. The report makes suggestions for public community college and university systems, with multiple layers of authority and governance, to have a firm grasp on the details of these affiliations and systems. The same is true of theological schools which are connected -- either firmly or loosely -- with religious bodies or denominations that can exert pressure on an institution -- legal, financial, or theological. As competition for church funding escalates, schools should know just where they stand with their church body, religious order, or supporting congregations.
- Make connections between your school and the communities it serves. For colleges and universities, this often takes the form of town-and-gown relations. But for theological schools, this can mean taking extra steps in making relational connections with new religious communities, parachurch organizations, academic institutions, and social service agencies that hire the school's graduates. Close connections with related organizations cannot be taken for granted.
While theological schools are certainly unique in their purpose, they are not so different from the rest of higher education that they do not have something to learn from it. The recent report from AGB reminds us to nurture our relationships.