With mainsail and jib ballooning on either side of the mast--wing on wing--a small sloop can make the most of wind and sea. By running before the wind, with the waves, and on an even keel, the boat achieves a speed that surprises because it comes without the usual fight of heading into the wind with sails aligned, boat angled, lines taut, muscles straining. The speed comes by grace, seemingly without cost.

Since childhood, I have loved the expansiveness of sailing close to the water, wing on wing, in my father's eighteen-foot boat "Jubilate." But I also remember taking the tiller and learning how responsive I had to be to the slightest shifts to sustain this equilibrium.

Advice about leadership and governance presumes that most sailing will be into, not before, the wind. It calls for strategic tacking, zigzagging back and forth to reach destination. The course is indirect, the hull's angle dangerously steep, while the captain strains at the tiller. There's exhilaration, to be sure, but it costs. Because conditions are in flux, equilibrium is rare, and fleeting when it comes.

Theological school governing boards know the strain of reaching destinations by indirection. At In Trust, we know from our previous seminars about the commitment of school heads and board officers to increasing the competence of boards for making strategic decisions about direction, the angle of risk, or the trimming of sails. And we have all, in varying degrees, accepted the conventional wisdom that with the big exception of fund-raising, the purview of the board is policy and strategy, not management and operations. The board is not the crew, but more like the navigator working with the captain to read the instruments and plot the course; or perhaps, like a mercantile holding company, at an even greater remove, measuring only results.

But is a single focus on improving board performance for strategic decision-making enough? I have long thought that the purpose of governing boards in theological schools could hardly be exhausted by their competence in strategic planning, however essential. Similarly, the board is more than its meetings. Like sails set wing on wing, boards have a capacious role that gathers and harnesses a bounty of resources for theological schools. Let me sketch a just few of these resources to demonstrate.

First, consider the formal structures of governance at a theological school. They are complex and include roles for the board--often in combination with church bodies, ecclesiastical leaders, religious orders, or other organizations of believers, the faculty, and the administration. The governance structure maps the density of the school's formal relationships at a particular point in history. Whether or not that structure works well, has become outdated, or falls somewhere between, it tells the story of how founders or their reforming successors imagined the connections that would sustain the school. It is a renewable resource.

Second, and closely related, is the board's own role as a bridge spanning the boundary between the school and its outside constituents. The bridge hangs on its corporate suspension. But its access roads are built on the formal and informal personal connections of its members. Board members can be asked to advocate for the school. They can gather information to help all who govern in reading the environment. They can assist the president in cultivating diverse publics across generations for support. They can learn about the ministries of graduates and encourage the vocations of potential applicants. They can be invited to share their own life experience as intimate friends of the school. These are priceless resources that cannot be reduced to strategies.

Third example: Boards swell the sails by their prayers for the seminary community and the churches it serves. It is not uncommon for board members to meet each other and members of the seminary community away from the seminary, worshiping together in congregations or on serving together on the boards of other church-related or community organizations. They are kin, joined together by the Spirit, in common work that includes and exceeds their theological school. Without this wing on wing constancy, all other sailing matters little.

Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

Back to Issue  Read Previous Article Read Next Article

Advertise With Us

Reach thousands of seminary administrators, trustees, and others in positions of leadership in North American theological schools — an audience that cares about good governance, effective leadership, and current religious issues — by advertising in In Trust!

Learn More