"There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of services, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all people."

-I Corinthians 12:4-6 (NIV)

Picture this. A charismatic president, a visionary dean, committed faculty members, and a boardroom full of high energy, passionate trustees. Throw in an ecclesial partner that brings more control than cash, and we have the makings of a difficult governance situation unless the various parties understand and are committed to shared governance. As any kindergarten teacher can attest, sharing does not come naturally for us humans. Nor does it become easier with age. When the stakes are high, as they are whenever important decisions are being made, it is especially difficult to include others.

Be it toys, prerogatives, or power, learning to share takes commitment and patience, and all the more so when highly educated, highly motivated, highly opinionated individuals are involved. As veteran presidents David Tiede and Robert Cooley observed in a 1994 article in Theological Education, "Newcomers to the governance and administration of theological schools are likely to be surprised by the intense interest within these relatively small schools in the exercise of authority and power."

Shared governance is a mainstay of higher education, yet it remains one of the great mysteries of academic life. Fully a quarter of board members and the same number of presidents responding to In Trust's recent constituent survey listed "defining the board's role in shared governance" among the top five issues about which boards and presidents need to educate themselves.

To All Their Own

That said, there is no ready-made curriculum for teaching shared governance, nor a single, agreed upon, one-size-fits-all best model for pursuing it. As stated in the Association of Theological Schools' General Institutional Standards, "The governance of a theological school involves more than the legal relationships and bylaws that define patterns of responsibility and accountability. It is the structure by which participants in the governance process exercise faithful leadership on behalf of the purpose of the theological school."

Yes, there are different kinds of gifts, different kinds of service, and different kinds of working, and yes, all are necessary to achieve the God-inspired mission of the institution. This is the definition of shared governance within the context of a theological school. Beyond this, however, it is up to the individual leadership team to shape the system of shared governance most appropriate to the particular theological, ecclesiastical, and/or philosophical identity of the school -- a responsibility that is both freeing and frustrating to many board members.

The good news is this: the hard work of hammering out a preferred governance model is the best possible preparation for shared leadership. As Philip Amerson, president of Claremont (California) School of Theology, observes: "When you see board members and faculty becoming good friends and it is rooted in our common interest in the school, that is a powerfully animating moment for the institution."

Trusting Enough to Share

Effective governance is built on cooperation, shared mission, and trust, with the greatest emphasis on trust. Unfortunately, there is a longstanding tradition of suspicion between faculty and governing boards on many campuses, in part because of the differing cultures of the two groups and also because there is limited contact between board members and the teaching staff. It takes time and intentionality to build strong and collegial work patterns, but board members and faculty don't have much contact with each other. However, at those theological schools where opportunities are provided for cross-conversation and inter-group socializing, good things almost always happen.

At the American Baptist Seminary of the West (Berkeley, California), the board's twice-yearly visits to the campus include an event to which all faculty and administrators are invited. "We get everyone together for worship, a meal, and a program where we can all talk about the specifics of our vision for the future," President Keith Russell explains. "For us, good communication is part of making shared governance work."

Similarly, John Boyle, chair of the board of overseers at St. John's University School of Theology-Seminary (Collegeville, Minnesota), refers to orientation activities that put newcomers to the board in contact with students, faculty, and other constituents. "We include the usual orientation material -- a look at the bylaws, an overview of the history of the school, board policies, that sort of thing. But we also engage students, faculty, and others in the orientation process. As a result, board members begin their service with a sense that this is a shared responsibility."

The boards at these schools understand that, over time, small-scale efforts at relationship building -- activities where the main purpose is simply to foster trust and shared purpose -- add up.

The role of the president: Lodged in between the board and the campus community, the head of the school carries significant responsibility for creating an environment in which shared governance can flourish -- and this is not always a comfortable place to be. According to Claremont's Philip Amerson, "presidents can feel trapped between the two worlds, trying to appease both sides." On a more hopeful note, he describes the "fun in those occasions when the president can step back, watch people line up on an issue and see that they are not lined up along the lines of board versus faculty. I confess those occasions don't happen enough, but when they do, it's a wonderful confirmation of the power of shared governance."

Drawing on the metaphor of Plato's chariot driver and his horses, Dean William Cahoy describes his role as the presiding officer at St. John's as "coordinating the 'horses' so they don't diverge. The different governance groups all have opinions and goals for how things should be done. My job is to coordinate their efforts for the good of the seminary." Keith Russell also refers to the president as a coordinator, while adding lead communicator and chief cheerleader for the institution to the list of responsibilities assigned to the president.

Peter Wyatt, principal at Emmanuel College of Victoria University (Toronto, Ontario), while identifying himself as the key player in bringing initiatives and vision to the board, refers to "an incremental attempt on the part of the board chair and the president to provide opportunities for the various governance partners to sink their teeth into the issues." For his part, Robert Cueni, president of Lexington (Kentucky) Theological Seminary, describes himself as the "tender of the vision," noting that here, too, communication is important as the president "teases out the vision from the community, weaving the various strands together so that everyone can see, recognize, and say, 'Yes. That is what God wants us to do.'"

The role of the board chair: It is crucial for the board chair, as the primary partner with the president in the governance process, to seek to model a commitment to shared governance in front of his or her peers. Emmanuel College's David Clark describes his role as chair, in conjunction with the president and the principals, as "ensuring that the various boards, councils, and committees do their respective jobs." In a similar vein, John Boyle, chair of the board at St. John's, speaks of "making the discussion as inclusive as possible" as a responsibility he links to the theological underpinnings of the school. "We are a Benedictine school with a tradition rooted in hospitality. That sense of community life carries over into governance. There is a strong sense that everyone's opinion is welcome," Boyle states.

Steps in the Process

For the majority of seminary communities, shared governance is simply the way things are done, and it isn't much talked about. Most of the time, governance is invisible -- out of sight and out of mind. But as Philip Amerson reminds seminary leaders, "Schools go through cycles or seasons and there are occasions when it is more critical than at other times to place shared governance in front of the campus community." Wise boards recognize the importance of capitalizing on periods of organizational calm to focus on the following four critical governance issues.

1 First, the board must lead the way in identifying key governance stakeholders and then make certain each group is aware and respectful of the legitimate participation of all the others in the governance process. This is easiest for boards of independent seminaries, where full authority for institutional decisions is confined to members of the immediate community and where governance responsibilities are shared by the usual players -- board, administration, and faculty.

In the case of schools related to colleges, universities, or clusters of theological schools, naming the governance partners (and including them in the governance process) can be more of a challenge. For example, at Emmanuel College of Victoria University, two college councils, a faculty senate, and the board of regents are described in the Victoria University Act, which also calls for representation by alumni of both colleges, United Church appointees, faculty, students, and some staff.

At other theological schools, board and campus personnel share authority for institutional planning and decision making with an ecclesiastical body. Such is the situation of St. John's University School of Theology-Seminary, which, although embedded in a liberal arts university, is wholly owned by the Order of St. Benedict. Dean Cahoy refers to "an interesting web of relationships" that includes board members, the president and the Abbott, monks, the local bishop, ordained priests, women religious, Roman Catholic lay people, and community leaders.

2 After naming the "whos" in the governance process, the institutional partners must work together in identifying key governance decisions facing the institution. The board, distanced as it is from the day to day function of a school, is not able to name all the issues needing attention. Conversely, persons whose noses are daily pressed to the institutional grindstone can have difficulty identifying governance issues originating from beyond the campus. It takes collaboration among and between the governance partners to develop a full list of the key governance decisions needing attention. And the list can look very different from one institution to another.

At the American Baptist Seminary of the West, for example, "the bigger challenge is to work out shared governance that takes into account the diversity we have," President Russell states. "Seventy percent of our students are African American, Asian American, or Pacific American. When we are charting the future or doing new things, we want to make sure all voices are at the table."

Midway across the continent at St. John's University School of Theology-Seminary, board chair John Boyle explains, "Over the last couple of years we've done a lot in terms of refining the mission of the school -- our role in the community, in the church, how we can attract students and provide quality education so they can go out and minister. The board recognizes the importance of feedback from students, the dean, and campus committees. It all has to come together when we're talking about mission and where we're going to concentrate the school's financial resources."

3 The third step involves identifying the role(s) of the various governance stakeholders in each of the key governance decisions. All governance decisions are not the same, just as the primary function of each stakeholder is not identical. For example, on decisions involving the annual plan and budget formation, the administration should take the lead and, after receiving input from the faculty, make a recommendation to the board. In the case of decisions involving the curriculum, the locus of the decision making appropriately shifts to the faculty, who approve changes with review by the administration and a reporting to the board. And as Paul Gooch, president of Victoria University, explains, "Board members have a mandate for the general welfare of the entire institution and not simply for the interests of their own estate or group."

In short, a sound and effective governance system helps match the institutional roles played by the various stakeholders with the nature of the decisions to be made. As Lexington Seminary's Robert Cueni puts it, "When governance parameters are well defined, the board gains traction in its work."

4 The fourth step entails putting in place the governance bodies (councils, committees, teams, task forces) needed to facilitate shared decision making. Being clear about who will actually do what goes a long way toward assuring that the governance waters remain smooth and the work needing to get done will in fact be accomplished. Hence, governance bodies should be assigned specific governance tasks, and the roles of each group should be delineated in handbooks and policy guidelines. This includes making clear the relationship between the work of campus and board committees focusing on similar issues (e.g., the finance committee of the board and a campus-based budget committee). Philip Amerson reminds us that "there are natural turf battles that always are in play -- natural struggles -- but we should avoid saying that the way to handle it is for the board to take over or the faculty to take over."

A host of factors -- including but not limited to the size of the institution, the nature of its programming, mission, relationship to a church body, and ownership of the school -- must be considered when carrying out these four steps. But unless they are understood and owned by all the stakeholders, it is difficult to establish a smooth and efficient governance process. As Keith Russell, president of American Baptist Seminary of the West, states, running the seminary "would be impossible without shared governance. For the sake of the institution, we need to do this together."

As co-captains of the governance team, the president and board chair share responsibility for: 

  • maintaining the team's focus and vision
  • facilitating positive and productive relationships among team members
  • identifying opportunities for educating governance groups to their role
  • modeling collaborative leadership
  • rewarding good governance behavior
Confronting Myths

Many of the commonly held objections to shared governance are based more on myth or misunderstanding than on truth. So it is crucial for administrators, faculty, and board members to educate themselves to the differences, beginning with some straight talk about what shared governance does and doesn't mean.

For example, some trustees may be suspicious of shared governance because they see it as an abdication of their responsibilities. However, sharing does not impinge on the legal authority of the board of directors. Nothing in the concept implies relinquishing responsibility. On the other hand, in correcting this myth, it is important not to swing to the other extreme and believe that, since the board always has the "final say," shared governance is at its best an unachievable if not illusory ideal. To have the final say is not to have the only say.

At the other extreme of the participation spectrum, problems arise when partners in the governance process wrongly assume that the pursuit of shared governance means everyone must be involved every time and in precisely the same way in every decision. While the goal of shared governance is to give stakeholders appropriate say, everyone speaking at once creates chaos. As was noted previously, it is crucial that participants in the governance process know from the outset the role(s) of each stakeholder group.

Another myth proclaims that shared governance is simply too unwieldy to be practical in today's fast-paced environment. For board leaders accustomed to the purported speed of the corporate world, slowing down long enough to make room for others in the governance process can seem an annoyance, or worse, a waste of precious time. However, there are very few real life examples of institutional inertia due to shared governance. On the other hand, there are many, many examples of institutional mishaps resulting from rushed or insufficiently processed decisions. Reflecting on his board experience, St. John's chair, John Boyle, observes that "the most meaningful decisions come out of a cooperative effort. The more informed the decision is, the wiser it usually is."


Effective governance requires that the work load is shared, the decision making is carried out in cooperation with other skilled and insightful partners, and the gifts that each group brings to the process are recognized and maximized. When institutional partners work, plan, and pray together on behalf of the theological school, their actions combine to form a robust social and spiritual network. Shared governance runs smoothest where there is clarity about the respective roles to be played and the ultimate end toward which all are directed.

Observations on Shared Governance  

Over the sixteen-year history of In Trust magazine and now through our Practicing Good Faith Governance Seminars, In Trust's staff and governance mentors have had a front-row seat to the ups and downs of shared governance in theological schools. The following statements highlight some of our observations from along the way, as compiled by Robert Cooley, chair of In Trust's board of directors and president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Seminary.

➤ The composition of decision-making groups must include key leaders and needed expertise.
➤ The governance group must have a clear understanding of its roles and purposes and be sustained through effective institutional support systems.
➤ Informal interaction outside the formal governance structure is essential and results in greater ownership and understanding.
➤ The joint framing of institutional issues (board, president, administration, and faculty) leads to synergistic governance.
➤ Trust and leadership style are prerequisites to effective governance, along with levels of participation that allow for ownership and satisfaction.
➤ The timing factor often communicates responsiveness to issues and the governance environment, and especially to market forces.
➤ Governance is a means to capture the intelligence of the institutional community through the creation of a learning environment.
➤ Institutional culture and context shape the governance process as unique and particular to that institution.
➤ The purpose of institutional governance is to realize the educational mission and to achieve economic vitality.

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