Dr. Timothy Lull, the president of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, and his wife, Mary Carlton, were seminary classmates of mine. While we have done some moving around the country since then, we’ve managed to stay in touch.
Therefore I did not think it unusual when Tim called me up in June 1997, said that he was in the Twin Cities for a meeting, and asked if Pat and I would be available for brunch after worship on Sunday morning. We happily accepted that invitation.
After a little catching up and a fair share of commiserating about the life of the church, Tim laid a question on the table: Would I be willing to accept election to the Board of Directors of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary?
(The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s eight seminaries have boards made up primarily of representatives elected by the constituent synods, or regional judicatories, of those seminaries. Since PLTS is in Berkeley, California, most of its board hales from the West Coast. However, each seminary also has a few board members elected by the church at large through its Division for Ministry, and they can come from anywhere in the country. I would be filling one of those churchwide positions.)
I knew almost instantly that I was ready to take on a new challenge. I want the future pastors of the church to have the best possible theological education. With more than thirty years’ experience as a parish pastor, I thought I would have something to contribute.
Now one year has gone by, and it has been quite an education!
I was blessed from the very beginning by being assigned to a board committee (Long-Range Planning) chaired by a long-time board member who became a wonderful mentor and a good friend. He and I met in Berkeley the day before my first board meeting, and spent most of that day together. He gave me a great orientation to the school and an excellent briefing on the operation of the board. We sat next to each other at my first two board meetings, and he answered my questions. I never had the feeling that he was trying to win me over to his opinion, but rather that he was trying to help me, as a newcomer, comprehend some of the complexity of the matters before us. Other members of the board, the chairperson in particular, extended themselves to welcome me and to tell me about the life of the seminary.
Believe me, I did have questions. That first board meeting introduced me to languages and structures that were foreign to my understanding. What does the Academic Committee do? The Community Life Committee? The Resource Committee? The Advancement Committee? What does the “Seminary Steward” do? So we are searching for a new dean. What exactly is the function of the dean? Who are these “ATS people” who are coming in a few months, and why are we working so hard to prepare for their visit? What are all these different degrees the seminary offers? What is this creature called the “Common Fund”? I had been thrown into strange and deep waters, and without the life preservers that my mentor and other board members tossed me, I would have been sunk.
A seminary board, like any other organization, has its own specialized jargon and an encyclopedia of specialized knowledge known only to those on the inside. I was a newcomer. I didn’t know the language and I hadn’t read the encyclopedia. The frustration I felt was healthy—it reminded me of what newcomers to our congregation and our decision-making bodies in the congregation experience regularly.
Meeting the Community
At each of our meetings, one dinner is a casual buffet, and students, faculty, and administration are invited to join us. This gives board members a chance to see the seminary from several angles and bridges the gap between the different constituencies. In addition, at PLTS members of the faculty, administration, and students are included on each of the board committees. All voices are heard evenly. At the request of committee members, two students who were part of our Long Range Planning Committee for the past year and are now interning will come back for committee meetings this year at seminary expense.
My specific board portfolio is for the Western Mission Cluster, which provides theological education for the ELCA in almost the entire western half of the United States. It yokes PLTS with Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. My location, twenty minutes from Luther, makes it possible for me to relate to it on a regular basis. I am also an advisory member of the board of directors at Luther Seminary. Because Luther is the largest Lutheran seminary in North America, and PLTS is among the smallest, the whole style of the board meetings is very different. Still, at Luther Seminary board meetings I regularly see things that could be helpful at PLTS and ways that PLTS could be helpful to Luther. I understand that the cluster arrangement has not always been easy. However, now it appears that we are reaching new levels of trust, cooperation, and excitement about the future.
I’ve learned a few of the intricacies and subtleties of the life of a seminary. In just one year I’ve seen PLTS through an ATS reaccreditation visit and the attendant self-study, the appointment of a new academic dean, the departure of the development director, catastrophic damages from El Niño rainfalls, and one lawsuit. I am slowly comprehending the financial life of the seminary. I have marveled at both the richness and the complexity of the Graduate Theological Union, of which PLTS is a part. It has been a satisfying year, and I look forward to next year and the years beyond. While I had never set foot on the PLTS campus before being elected to its board, I now feel a great attachment to the school.
As I look back over the past year, at the extra hours in meetings, the correspondence, and reports to be read, the “expected” board member contribution to the annual fund, the jammed red-eye at one in the morning to get back for Sunday services, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Being a member of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary board of directors has become an important part of my identity and my mission.
Although I think of myself as relatively young, the end of my professional career as a pastor is not that far over the horizon. For all its faults, I love the church. I want it to have a great future extending long after my own retirement. That future depends, first, on the working of the Holy Spirit and, second, on the quality of the church’s leadership. For the church to have fine leaders tomorrow, it needs to have fine seminaries today. Those fine seminaries will need fine boards of directors. And for those boards to be fine, the present boards and administrators need to do an excellent job of welcoming new members into their midst.
Major Questions for Seminaries Today
At the end of my first year on the board of PLTS, I have one “macro worry” and one “macro question.” I apply them in particular to PLTS, but they apply to all seminaries.
Are Seminaries in Touch?
A few months ago, at a meeting of faculty members from PLTS and Luther Seminary, I quoted the statement: “Any pastor who completed his or her theological education before 1985 was trained for ministry in a church that no longer exists.”
While we seldom say it so bluntly, every alert parish pastor knows that statement is true. We have lived it. We feel it in our bones. We know that we are constantly being reeducated and reeducating ourselves to keep up with this new and ever-changing church.
I like and respect all the seminary faculty members present. But they seemed to take offense at this statement, to deny its validity. Their difficulty leaves me with my macro worry: Are our seminaries truly in touch with the rapidly changing nature of the church as we approach the new century? If not, if they are still educating people for the church as it used to be, we’ve got a problem.
I am the senior pastor of a large congregation. I’ve been fairly skilled at the traditional ways of “doing church,” but I recognize that those old ways no longer work as well as they used to. New occasions are teaching us new duties. Our seminaries need to know first of all that the old church is gone, and be encouraged to try new forms of education more suited to our times. Already the classic university/academy model is not working as it used to, and there is no reason to think that its performance will improve in the immediate future.
I do not believe that the church is going to go back to the way it was in the 50s, 60s, 70s, or even 80s, or that the seminary can continue to do business the way it always has. I consider it my responsibility, and that of all board members, to make certain that our seminaries are truly in touch with the world and the church of today.
Who Is the Primary Customer?
To put my macro question in business terms: Who is the seminary’s primary customer? On the one hand, the students are. They are the ones “buying” theological education. Their tuition dollars pay the bills. While we hate to think of ourselves as being in competition with other seminaries, we would be perfectly happy if more ELCA students chose PLTS. If students are the seminary’s primary customer, then the curriculum, etc., must be shaped by their desires.
On the other hand, the church is also the seminary’s primary customer. The church expects the seminary to produce pastors and leaders for tomorrow. If the seminary is successful in producing leaders with the kinds of skills the church deems necessary, the church will affirm its mission. But if the seminary is not successful in producing those leaders, it cannot expect that approbation. If the church is the primary customer, the curriculum must be shaped to develop those skills and characteristics that the church values.
In an ideal world, all this would fit together neatly. Students and church would see the world in the same way, and value the same things. In the real world, the values of the students might not be the same as those of the church. If the students want to dig deeply into spirituality and spiritual direction while the church is more interested in having them learn how to lead effective stewardship campaigns and market their congregations, what’s a board to do? While we will always do our best to avoid win-lose situations, sometimes somebody is going to win at the cost of somebody else’s losing. The board will probably be the arbiter of all this.
We need to know who the primary customer is. And I am not yet sure of the answer.