Sometimes the Christian church and its mission have seemed to be a force for social stability, a source of reassurance that today and tomorrow won’t differ much from yesterday. At other times it has seemed to be in the vanguard of change, proclaiming a God who promises, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Discerning the signs of the times has been a task laid on the church’s leaders, including the board members of theological schools, since the days of the apostles. And the signs of these days seem undeniably to be that tomorrow is not going to be like yesterday. What appears to be dawning is a dramatically different world.
In a time like this, institutions, including church institutions, that persist in conducting business as usual and avoid hard questions about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, risk missteps that might plunge them into the abyss.
The turnaround at Chicago Theological Seminary, which is recounted in this issue of In Trust ("Reversal of Fortune"), began precisely with two people exercising the attentiveness to circumstances and data to which we all are summoned.
Susan Thistlethwaite and Ted Jennings, two professors at the seminary, sat down in 1993 to analyze the school’s spending patterns and the patterns’ implications. There had been vague rumbles of financial woes, but what Thistlethwaite and Jennings found was far more specific and dire. If corrective action weren’t taken to halt deficit spending, CTS would run out of money by 1997.
Note that Thistlethwaite, who is now Chicago Theological’s president, and Jennings weren’t members of the seminary board. They were professors at the school, members of a group sometimes suspected by board members of maintaining a “minimum high regard” for their institutions.
Why it was professors rather than trustees who discerned the looming crisis at CTS and promoted the corrective action that squelched it is a question not pursued in the article. Nonetheless the sheer fact of who took action and who didn’t should lead any trustee reading the story to ask himself or herself, “Am I certain there are no ticking time bombs in our income and spending patterns?” Don’t be troubled if you don’t know how to read financial reports. Ask your chair or president to bring someone in to teach the board how.
One particularly painful sign of our time is the increasing interest of the news media in the sexual misbehavior of church leaders. There’s no telling whether there’s any more such misbehavior than in earlier times, but there’s certainly less hushing up. And of course just because allegations are made doesn’t necessarily make them true.
Kenneth A. Briggs describes in these pages the steps taken by the boards of South Florida Center for Theological Studies and San Francisco Theological Seminary when their respective presidents were charged with sexual offenses ("When Scandal Erupts"). We offer no comment on whether the actions taken by the respective schools were appropriate to the circumstances. We simply invite our trustee readers to reflect on how they would handle such a situation if their president ended up in the papers under that kind of uncomplimentary spotlight.
Indeed, these are difficult times for those in church leadership, especially clergy, as they seek to minister to people who receive them with far less respect and trust than heretofore. How is one to cope? Elsewhere in these pages Donald B. Cozzens prescribes study and prayer. Superficially that might seem simply a truism. But from where I sit, Cozzens’s advice seems profoundly true.