Monsignor William Baumgaertner

Monsignor William Baumgaertner has the longest and best track record of reading the signs of the times in theological education, in the view of many experts in the field. He has certainly viewed that world from a remarkable variety of perspectives—as a student, as a faculty member, president-rector (of St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota, which became St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas during his tenure), head of the National Catholic Educational Association’s seminary department, associate director of the Association of Theological Schools, and now, in his retirement, consultant to numerous schools and elected board member of St. Paul’s. 

Leon Pacala, who was Baumgaertner’s boss at ATS, and who is proud of himself for “stealing him away” from the NCEA, said, “One of the more significant developments of theological education during the last quarter of the twentieth century was the manner in which educators from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions joined in advancing their respective enterprises. Bill Baumgaertner is one of a handful of educators who influenced this development. He did so by virtue of his vast knowledge of the nature and purpose of theological education.”

Over the years, Baumgaertner has seen good ideas sink because their time hadn’t come. Some recent program developments at St. Paul’s look a lot like ideas that were floated and didn’t work out in the 1970s—and Baumgaertner is the only one on the board who knew that. He takes such things in stride; his early experience predisposed him to understand that people don’t see what they don’t want to see, don’t hear what they aren’t ready to hear. When as a student Baumgaertner was sick at home for a week, his father, manager of St. Paul’s German-language Catholic newspaper The Wanderer, handed him a copy of Mein Kampf and told him, “Read this. All this will happen.” 

“That will mark you,” said Baumgaertner softly, recalling that his father tried to warn the U.S. government, which was having none of it. 

In Trust asked Baumgaertner what’s on his mind these days. Two issues he addressed are very pertinent to the discussions taking place in many schools where boards seek to “read” the changes taking place internally and externally: first, the need to hire leaders rather than managers as heads of seminaries; second, the importance of getting the relationship right between seminary and sponsoring denomination. 

Some challenges faced by boards are obvious, according to Baumgaertner, but still don’t receive adequate attention. It is a truism that the board’s most important job is selecting a president, but too often the search process is passive and the committee waits for the right person to come unbidden. The result is too often a caretaker president who runs the school according to plans developed a generation ago for the challenges then facing the school. Here, in Baumgaertner words, are his insights on leadership and relationship and three considered responses to them.

Baumgaertner: Managers or Leaders?

What kind of presidential leadership do we want for a given theological school at a given period in its development? 

We all know the desiderata commonly listed—close to those of a universal savior. But choices are made in relation to a given situation and given needs in the history of an institution.

What care do we give to assessing them properly?

An example: when we hire an institutional development officer we discover that they come in several kinds. Some are first-class managers, well organized. They will keep things going at a given level and will guarantee no surprises, and they will sustain systems that are in place. Others will start by analyzing carefully the school’s mission and strategic goals and will question the implementation of these for the future. What are the challenges for the school this year, for five and ten years from now?

Committee work will be intense and demanding for the CEO and for the board if they go for the second type of person. Discussions and decisions will be made in the process of hiring on the basis of the school’s current needs and, perhaps as well, its energy level and the availability of the “right candidate.” What do we need? What do we want? What can we live with?

My question is simple. Does the same apply to the selection of a new CEO? They also come with different skills, different instincts, and quite different orientations in terms of the questions they will or will not raise. My question, based on years of experience, is whether we as boards are settling too readily for hiring managers rather than leaders—namely those who will raise and force issues for a given school. Perhaps this applies to a lesser degree for some of the larger university-related schools, but certainly for the free-standing schools with some level of denominational affiliation, we need leaders in the best sense of the word—people with vision, the ability to analyze a situation and needs, and the commitment and energy to respond. Most of us are no longer in a steady-state system where good management was the bottom line. That time ended decisively over a generation ago.

We have to face the fact that for a board of trustees to work with a CEO-leader will require more time and energy and active attention. I suspect that all too often we talk about this type of leader, but we settle for the safety of a manager type. The risk is that in the long run we leave the school woefully unprepared for major challenges on the immediate horizon. Educational programs today are aiming at a moving target—and that includes graduate level theological education with all the reluctance of graduate facilities to face change.

Luder Whitlock: In Response

Luder Whitlock is the senior member of the very senior group of presidents whose comments we solicited. This is his twenty-third year as president of Reformed Theological Seminary, based in Jackson, Mississippi, which now has three other campuses, including one in Orlando, Florida, where Whitlock keeps his office. His take on denominational issues differs from Fisher’s and Mulder’s on the following pages, because Reformed is a multidenominational school that relates to sixty different denominations, parachurch groups, and megachurches. How do they do it? 

“First, we have a theological coherence: we are reformed and evangelical. Then, we have attempted to be in a position to help groups that fit that description with ministerial training. We have consciously chosen to make that our emphasis, instead of a graduate education model. Even our faculty—although they are highly educated, we also consciously select them for their ministerial experience. And our accountability is a matter of the graduates we produce. ‘Can you deliver? Can you perform?’ And when churches see effective pastors coming from our program, they’re ready to send students. So we’re forced to be more accountable and ultimately more sensitive to the needs of our denominations.”

Whitlock was appreciative of Baumgaertner’s understanding that schools go through various life stages and that the board is responsible for knowing where its school is and what kind of leadership it needs just then. His own board, he noted, is entirely self-perpetuating and has “great stability and continuity.” The things he expects his board to do are: 1. Keep the school faithful to its purpose; 2. Make sure the residential leadership is efficient and effective; and 3. Be instrumental in developing a network of churches and other ministry groups.

“There has probably been more change in church life in the last fifty years,” according to Whitlock, “then there had been in the previous 150. The loss of loyalty to denominations is just a part of that. One thing I’ve realized over my time as president is how much continual flux there is in every direction.”  

Baumgaertner: Dancing with Denominations

Once the visionary leader is in place, one of the ongoing tasks he or she shares with the board is watching the sponsoring denomination and maintaining healthy ties. The denominational scene is constantly changing, and leaders need to read subtle signals. Here’s Baumgaertner’s take:  

Do we give adequate attention as a board to the relationship to the sponsoring denomination or denominations in the case of denomination-related schools?

It has been my experience that this relationship requires regular and coordinated attention both by the board of trustees and the CEO. The period during and for a decade and a half after World War II was one of relative stability. This changed rapidly and somewhat abruptly in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council for Roman Catholic schools, and the Vietnam War and the social changes for almost all others.

In my experience I have seen schools closed abruptly by denominations as a result of these changing situations. I have seen others that were placed on probation by the respective accrediting associations because, with the conflicts, they experienced almost sudden and complete turnovers of faculty and administrative officers in a ten-month period. The accrediting association, after analyzing one school’s reports, said quite simply, “This is no longer the school as we accredited it. It is new and will have to undergo the process again. Meanwhile, the probationary status will continue.”

All too often the board of trustees was caught in the middle between the denominational agencies and the school’s administration. Several schools were literally torn apart by the conflict.

The key again is that we cannot take these relationships for granted. I have seen the boards of several schools take stock of difficult situations and even of awkward structures of representation and again come up with admirable and successful approaches. A knockdown fight is anything but the best solution.

A board will have to examine its membership. Does it have people who have appropriate access and who can help in these situations? Are they representative and will they work for the good of the school without undermining its efforts?

So often we pray that the cloud or storm will pass. Do we recognize that long-term relationships of mutual trust require regular attention by both parties? We expect this in familial relations. Does it apply proportionately to our institutions? The board will be asking itself what are the appropriate channels for raising these issues. It will try to analyze exactly what the issues are, often behind a thick screen of vituperative statements. It will ask itself what issues have to be addressed now and cannot be deferred much longer. It is not easy, but it is the condition for the future function of an institution, which so often serves in function of the sponsoring denomination.  

Neil Fisher: In Response

Neal Fisher is retiring as president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at the end of the year. In his twenty years at the school, he has seen the percentage of the school’s operating costs covered by the United Methodist Church’s ministerial education fund slip from 30 percent to 12 percent (although the dollar amount has remained about the same). Under those circumstances, he says, you realize that you can’t think of denominational relationships strictly in terms of boards, commissions, and structures—relationships with local congregations are a crucial part of the mix. “Not that we’ve disowned judicatories!” said Fisher, but the connection with parishes that are used for field education are now being courted and listened to more attentively than they once were. Student recruitment is also a challenge that is less directly addressed by the national church than it once was—but the seminaries have to keep in mind that almost all of their United Methodist graduates will be appointed first to a small congregation in a small town. Responsiveness to student needs as they prepare for such ministry is responsiveness to the denomination. “We have lots of students choosing particular seminaries because of pragmatic issues, family needs and the like,” said Fisher, “and that’s understandable. But there’s a certain cultural timidity—we had one potential student who didn’t come to our school because she was afraid of living in the city. (Note: Garrett-Evangelical is in Evanston, Illinois, an entirely tame suburb of Chicago.) How pioneering are people who resist any change whatever?” The school’s cross-cultural studies requirement is one means of addressing this resistance.

The increased role of the seminary in spiritual formation is another change Fisher has noted over the course of his presidency. “We no longer have history of philosophy as an admissions prerequisite,” said Fisher, “and although all our students come to us somehow through the church, some have come into the church rather recently.” The school has added deans of formation and of the chapel, a bishop-in-residence program, prayer groups, and an increased worship schedule.

“A resurgence of interest in things Methodist” has been a part of these changes, according to Fisher. “For a while we didn’t pay much attention to faculty’s denominational affiliation. Then we were hit with a wave of retirements—half of our faculty is new in the last four years. When we were doing those searches, we realized that we had to have some intentionality there.” The faculty is now about 65 percent United Methodist.

John Mulder: In Response

John Mulder, twenty-year president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, also notes an upsurge in denominational identity at his school. All students are required to take two courses in their own tradition. “The vast majority of our faculty—somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters—are Presbyterian. And of course our board is entirely drawn from the Presbyterian Church. Maybe that’s why we haven’t had any situations as dramatic as those Baumgaertner describes.”

For all of that, Mulder has seen the funding from the denomination drop from half of the budget in the 1960s to 3 percent now. “That means income from our endowment has become a much bigger piece of the picture—and that comes from lay people and individual churches.”

As to student recruitment, “On the one hand,” he said, “the old recruitment structures no longer function as they did. On the other hand, every student comes from church networking.

With these new patterns, of course, you have to work harder. We don’t know what denominational structures will look like down the road—but the trend seems to be toward networks of relationships."

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