This is the third in a four-part series on the life cycle of a successful presidency. The first article looked at the importance of a strong beginning for a new resident. The second explored the board’s role in evaluating the president. The series will conclude in the New Year 2005 issue with an article on the board’s role in smoothing the transition for the outgoing and incoming presidents.

Every year, twenty or so seminary communities are involved in a presidential search. And with the average tenure of theological school presidents hovering around seven years, searching for that ideal new leader will continue as a priority issue for boards. While it is the norm for board members to hand off the work of conducting the search to a specially appointed committee, this doesn't excuse the full board from its responsibility for creating an environment conducive to a successful search.

So if a presidential search is in your school's future, relax, take a corporate deep breath, and commit the board to making the most of the opportunity/challenge ahead for the school. This includes attention to the following details.

Choose the search committee carefully.

The search for a new president is one of the most significant instances of shared governance in the life of a theological school. While the search committee must include a majority of trustees, it should also include a good mix of other institutional stakeholders — faculty, alumni, staff, students, civic leaders, and denominational representatives — but without becoming completely unwieldy. Remember, it probably will not be possible to include every possible constituent group on the committee.

The size of search committees varies according to institutional complexity and culture, but most are between nine to twenty members. Larger committees are not necessarily less effective than smaller committees, although obviously it is easier to match the calendars of fewer people than more.

The more critical issue is the seriousness with which committee members approach their assignment. On-again, off-again participation by even one or two members of the committee impedes momentum and erodes morale within the group.

Be thoughtful in selecting a chair for the committee.

All the above goes double for the chair of the search committee. Almost always a board member, but preferably not the chair of the board, the leader of the search committee should possess the organizational skills necessary to manage a complex process and the people skills needed to relate well to committee members and the eventual candidates for the president position.

Also, within the context of a seminary search, the chair should be known for his or her spiritual maturity and be able and eager to remind the committee of the sacredness of their work. He or she sets the tone for the committee's work, cheers the group on when spirits lag and the search grows hard, and reminds the members of God's presence with them in the search.

Provide the committee with a well-stated job description.

Along with calling the search committee into being, the board should provide a clear statement of the committee's work. This is called the charge to the committee.

The usual contents of a charge document include:

  • parameters of the pool from which the committee can fish; 
  • expectations regarding use of a search consultant; 
  • number of candidates to be recommended to the board for the final decision; 
  • date by which the board expects recommendations of the nominee.

No detail that is really important to the search should be left to the committee's imagination.

Fund the search adequately.

Reasonable board members should understand that it will cost money — in some cases significant money — to recruit a president, yet this is a frequently overlooked issue. But as one consultant notes, "It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the selection of the new president is so vital to the life of the institution — and the selection of the wrong one potentially so disastrous — that this is no place to risk failure through false economy." 

 A Suggestion:

A temporarily restricted account into which the school makes an annual deposit in anticipation of the next transition in leadership is one way to avoid the budget shock of a presidential search. A few thousand dollars a year over the average tenure of a presidency adds up to some real money.

Conversely, it is just as reckless for a board to approve a search budget without first discussing the amount with the chief financial officer. Putting a number down on paper won't make it magically appear in the school's bank account. Care must be taken to identify the possible source of funds needed to support the search process.

Encourage the committee to solicit input from constituents.

Feeling pressured to "get this thing over," committee members may not fully appreciate the importance of seeking early input from a wide range of constituencies as a critical step toward building ownership in the search process and subsequent support for the new president. However, a presidential search is a significant public relations event in the life of a theological school, and to fail to capitalize on the opportunity to connect with the wider community robs the institution of a significant advancement moment.

Asking questions and writing up the responses can provide board members with the occasion for thinking through issues that might have been overlooked, for making a frank appraisal of the competitive advantages and disadvantages the school faces in recruiting a president, and for resolving differences of opinion among committee members and others. Constituency feedback also alerts the board to issues to which they and the new president may need to give attention within the immediate future.

Be realistic about the time required to conduct a quality search.

Expectations about the timetable of the search also need to be examined carefully. In denominationally related schools where the universe from which applicants must come is not large and when the likely "suspects" for the presidency are known before the search begins, the committee may be able to successfully execute the search in a matter of just a few months. But in most instances, a thorough hiring process will take from six to twelve months. If the institution is in crisis at the time of the search, the process can extend into a second year.

The literature is generally agreed about the steps required in a successful presidential search. To skip over or scrimp on any one activity is to risk a failure.

Set the committee free to do its work, but with the expectation of regular progress reports to the board.

Nothing is more likely to undermine the confidence of the search committee than feeling the board is looking over its shoulder, second-guessing every decision along the way. Board members need to trust the process and also the people who they, and others, have selected as their representatives in this important task. At the same time, committee members should not be miffed if the board asks for regular progress reports along the way.

This does not suggest, however, that board members can ignore the need for complete confidentiality as the committee works with applicants. A presidential search brings out the interested, the curious, and the gossips from all across the school's constituency. Board members should be prepared to run interference for the committee by helping constituents understand that loose lips sink searches as surely as ships.

Support the committee with prayer and words of encouragement.

Whether the search process is short or long, and regardless of the quality of applicants attracted by the committee's efforts, members of the search committee are likely to experience moments of fatigue, stress, and discouragement along the way. Theirs is an awesome, sacred assignment, and it is an encouragement to those doing the searching to know their work is supported by the prayers and best wishes of the larger community, including board members.

As guardians of the search process, the full board shares with the board-appointed search committee the responsibility and the joy of recruiting the school's next leader. And, while board members can hope this responsibility doesn't come around often, when it does, presidential search should (must) be the board's finest moment.

Read the entire "Life Cycle of a Successful Presidency" series

See also:

Beginning well: After selecting a new president, the board's next job is rolling out the welcome mat by Heather Grennan Gary When a new president signs on the dotted line, the board still has work to do — the president needs support in the transition.

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