The chapel at the Charlotte, North Carolina, campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary is named in honor of Robert E. and Eileen H. Cooley, pictured here at its dedication in 2004. Cooley was president of the Massachusetts-based school from 1981 to 1997 and led its expansion to North Carolina. He also served as chair of the board of directors of In Trust Inc. for nine years before retiring this year. (PHOTO BY MERLIN QUIGGLE)

Abridged from Robert E. Cooley's co-written chapter, "The President's Role in Governance," in the forthcoming Handbook for Seminary Presidents, edited by G. Douglass Lewis (Eerdmans, 2006). Christa R. Klein and Louis B. Weeks also contributed to the chapter. Used with the permission of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada.

The president's central role in a shared governance system is to serve as the "gatekeeper" of the decision-making processes and the formation of institutional policies. Such a shared system must be viewed as a single governance community bonded together by several elements. These elements may include denominational identity, theological views, jurisdictional expectations, or requirements of a constituency, but the strongest element will be the mission of the institution.

Others will also have an influence on the governance community as the school's publics; they include civil regulatory agencies, some employees, professional associations, and accrediting bodies, among others. But the president stands at the center of this institutional life, guiding the work of the board and faculty, and at the same time, giving attention to all of the vital relationships required by the institution's publics.

President/board partnership

There is no more important constituent relationship for the president than the partnership that exists with the governing board. This partnership depends on mutual reciprocity. It is for this reason that an effective president will spend considerable time with the board and its members and devote great energy to the work of the board.

This relationship of mutual exchange requires the president to define his or her responsibilities in ways that address the context of the relationship. Bear in mind:

  • The board is a group with final authority and the president is an individual with delegated authority. 
  • The board consists of part-time volunteers and the president is full-time. 
  • The board has a continuous endurance and the president is usually limited by a term appointment or by her or his own sense of calling. 
  • The board membership is made up of laypersons and the president is a competent professional.

These contrasting characteristics call for the president to give priority to four ways in particular for relating to the board: gatekeeping, leadership style, board education, and reliable information.

The role of the gatekeeper

The effective president will value the influence of the presidential position. The president has the authority to advance the institution and to see to it that the institutional goals are achieved, and must be willing to exercise influence in support of the institution's mission. Such a role requires the best possible self-understanding and a leadership style that acts on informed intuition.

Presidents who value their influence and make strategic decisions also have little difficulty in empowering others in shared governance. In fact, such presidents expect participants to ask difficult questions and draw upon their own insights and creativity. This display of empowerment enhances the confidence level of those with whom the work of governance is entrusted. Board or faculty discussion is encouraged and the power of ideas and dreams is realized. Above all else, the president's control over her or his emotions, words, and actions is absolutely necessary in the role of gatekeeper. Respect is more important than popularity.

Attention to leadership style

The effective president has a clear vision of a future in which others participate. Shared vision fuels the intellectual and practical needs of governance. It is in this context of shared vision that a president can take risks with the courage to act upon ideas, dreams, and intuition. Without this quality of visionary leadership, a president may exhibit courage but is doomed to adversarial encounters and a breakdown in shared governance.

A great president has the capacity to inspire the school community with courage and passion. It will require courage to establish the institutional direction and the passion to influence the minds and hearts of those who share in governance responsibilities. In the end, the style of leadership must win hearts and minds. No member of a board or of a faculty will follow a presidential leader who does not lead with vision, courage, and passion.

Board education a priority

An ongoing program of education for trustees is an effective way for the president to ensure that board members develop their capacity to govern and to hold the institution in trust. In this fashion, the president becomes the educator of the board.

Every board meeting should have a formal learning opportunity that will increase the trustees' role in fulfilling the institutional mission. Other special times and events should be designed to provide extended learning opportunities. All-day seminars designed around the expertise of the faculty are an excellent means to bring the trustee into the world of theology and the church. Two- or three-day retreats provide the luxury of ample time for exploring and discussing issues of trusteeship and institutional governance. Governance mentors and consultants can be secured who will provide current best practices and insights on particular institutional needs and trends.

Defining institutional reality through reliable information

It is the responsibility of the president to see that the governance partners, the board and the faculty, have reliable information that will enable them to do their work. This can be done through ensuring the availability of information, providing channels for communication, creating an environment for openness, and scheduling forums for interaction. The quality and integrity of the information must be the responsibility of the president.

Wise presidents avoid information overload and inappropriate detail that creates confusion or frustration, and that misleads others. Above all else, attention must be paid to the accuracy and reliability of the information presented. The president's integrity in the governance process is at stake. The most useful information is that which brings focus and understanding to the issues that are strategic to the governance process and to the realization of the institutional mission. Boards and faculties need reliable data in several areas to do their own work responsibly:

  • Analysis of student enrollment will shape academic plans, tuition pricing, and financial aid leverage.
  • Reviewing trends in ministry and tracking graduate placements inform curricular planning and student services and are necessary for building bridges with the school's publics. 
  • Exploring performance in resource development and fundraising helps determine the course of institutional advancement. 
  • Facilities audits create opportunities for scheduled maintenance, and renewal and replacement projects. 
  • Reports on financial performance of all seminary funds enable financial planning and decision-making.

The governance process is energized when a president can add meaning and an interpretive context to the information presented. It is the president's responsibility to see that all available channels are open for information flow between governance partners and those in management who produce the data. Breakdowns in the flow of information undermine the quality of the governance process. Good governance depends upon good information and it requires an environment conducive to openness. Secrecy should be the exception — limited to sensitive issues and matters of privacy. Presidential leadership requires public settings or forums for the purpose of shared information and feedback. Such interactions can inform the president on current concerns and viewpoints. Reliable information can go a long way toward creating a healthy climate for good governance.

The president that practices governance as leadership is the president that knows the joy of being a "gatekeeper" and has the satisfaction of a full professional life and the building of a successful institution that has realized its mission with economic vitality.


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