Many seminary trustees spend significant time on the care and well-being of the institution they serve. We learn about asset allocation and guidelines for the ATS; we worry about the school’s portfolio and pay attention to faculty salaries. And we do it all to preserve and protect the theological school that trains the future ministers of our respective faiths. Because board members gather only two or three times each year, it’s often easy to forget the reason for our concentrated efforts—the theological students who have expressed trust in the programs of our schools, as well as our responsible leadership, by enrolling in our seminaries.
How well do we know those women and men whose education lies in our hands, however indirectly? How familiar are we with the stresses and joys of a seminary education? We know our decisions often affect theological students, but how close do we ever get to those on whom we have such an impact?
“Students are such fun to be with! They enliven the dustiest institutional subject that we have to deal with.”
In my nine years of trusteeship at Starr King School for the Ministry (Unitarian Universalist), our twice-a-year meetings were conducted in the school’s Fireside Room—the largest classroom and the only room large enough to hold comfortably the seventeen trustees and school staff who attended our two-and-a-half-day gatherings. In keeping with the school’s philosophy of progressive, student-centered theological education, two of our trustees were students elected each year by their peers, so we were constantly made aware of the students’ needs and perspectives. In addition, all board meetings were open to students, faculty and staff, except for those held in executive session for personnel reasons. As a result, both students and board members had ample opportunity to see each other at work. And almost always, board members and students ate at least one meal together during our meeting, often prepared by students for the board as an act of hospitality and welcome.
Board members serving seminaries across North America share a desire to know the students who are the lifeblood of their institutions. In hearing from some of these trustees, a pattern of contact and communication emerged that focused on some basic ways that trustees build connections with those who would be tomorrow’s religious leaders.
Board members often worship and break bread with students. A time for communal prayer, typically in chapel, and a time for food and fellowship (meals on campus seem particularly popular), is perhaps the simplest way for trustees to meet seminarians and their families. At Emmanuel School of Religion, a Churches of Christ seminary in Johnson City, Tennessee, board member Graham F. Johnstone reported that “the most direct way that we meet the students is at the breakfasts and dinners that we have with each of our board meetings twice a year.”
At Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, board chair Rick Stiffney reported that participation in chapel, followed by a seminary-wide luncheon that includes faculty, students and board members, is a tradition that the board works hard to maintain. “We gather around tables and interact informally as we eat,” Stiffney said. “Then a faculty member makes a brief presentation on some aspect of seminary activity.” Students add their own prepared comments as an adjunct to the presentation, and the interchanges that result are viewed “as one of the most helpful and enjoyable dimensions” of the gathering. (“Students,” added president J. Nelson Kraybill, “in good humor, sometimes refer to the student-board interaction as a ‘Whine and Cheese Party’!”)
Greta Gloven, at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado (United Methodist), noted two particular opportunities for trustees and students to gather. “Each fall, after opening convocation, we have a community meal ... the entire Iliff community comes together for lunch. The lunch is free; many trustees join us and conversation naturally springs forward!” The second event is a scholarship tea, where students, trustees, and donors meet one another—an especially gratifying experience for students who have an opportunity to meet those who are helping to sponsor their theological education.
Yet few events take the place of working with students for the good of the institution, and several boards of trustees find that a student or students on the board, or on school committees, keeps trustee awareness high. Anne MacDermaid, serving on the board at Queens Theological College, Kingston, Ontario, said that one voting member of its board of management is a student; students also serve with board members on school committees including those concerned with development and tenure. But MacDermaid also noted the opportunities that individual board members find in traveling with students on the school’s twice-yearly cross-cultural trips. The last three of these ten-day trips have been to Nicaragua.
Other seminary trustees have found that there’s nothing like walking a mile in the students’ moccasins for an afternoon—or even a semester—by attending class. That’s what trustees did this past year at the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, Minnesota. Ronald G. Vantine, chair of the seminary’s board, arranged for members of the board to attend a class either before or after the scheduled meeting. “The primary purpose was for the trustees to experience ... the teaching talents of our excellent faculty,” Vantine said. But the class visit also gave trustees and students a chance for conversation.
Dorothy S. Ridings, chair of the board of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky, has found throughout her decade of board service that “the most popular events for trustees in all that time have been those that involved students.” Her personal favorite: dividing the board into teams of two or three trustees to spend time with student families in seminary housing. “It was a real treat. I learned a lot, and not just about student housing,” Ridings remembered. “And students are such fun to be with! They enliven the dustiest institutional subject that we have to deal with.”
Board members at Louisville take trustee education seriously—the board devotes at least a half-day to such education during both of its yearly meetings. Spending time with students has long been part of that process. “All three of our board committees—academic affairs, seminary relations and finance—have one or more students on them,” Ridings said. She noted that students work with the trustees on faculty and administrative search committees.
Acts of fellowship and hospitality; the shared bond that working together brings; the lived experience of seminary life: these are the tools that any trustee or any board can use to enrich and enliven their connection with seminarians as they prepare for lives of service to the world.
This article was based on e-mail responses to an In Trust survey of board members and original reporting by the author.
Rosemary Bray McNatt, a Unitarian Universalist minister and former seminary trustee, currently serves as minister of The Fourth Universalist Society in New York City.