The term "stakeholder" troubles me -- if we are treating every person or group with an interest in the impact of our theological schools as having the detached self-interest of a "shareholder." Self-interest is rarely avoidable or all bad, but in the case of theological education it can be myopic -- "produce immediate results for me or I'll pack up my marbles and go elsewhere." For me, the problem lies in the term's implication that only the schools and not we ourselves are at risk.
Yet I also understand the good intentions behind the term. Stakeholders are those with religious and social interests that go deeper than the monetary. Moreover, in our circles, we need the term to designate new sectors of interest and support beyond the founding denominations, religious movements, or previous generations that once sustained and benefited from our schools.
Board members, presidents and faculty are certainly more than stakeholders, but not less. Stakeholding is how we got into this game. Our positions, defined in charters and bylaws, give us authority in our theological schools -- we are the "governing constituents." But like other stakeholders -- parishioners, students, alumni, religious nonprofits, religious orders, communions, and denominations -- we ourselves depend on our schools. We understand stakeholding from the inside and may have trouble letting go of myopic self-interest.
After all, graduate theological education is a pain: time -- consuming, expensive, encrusted with church and academic traditions and under constant fire for failing to meet practical needs. Here's where we need the long view of a governing constituent. Where else can mature, intelligent men or women go to immerse themselves fully in the wellsprings of our faith? Where else are there such concentrations of educational resources? When else, except as students, do men and women have time to study the Bible, theology, and religious tradition thoroughly enough to anchor a lifetime of practicing the arts of preaching, presiding at worship, teaching, and pastoral care and leadership?
Surely other briefer and more versatile forms of theological education have been and always will be essential to meet immediate needs, especially in outreach. But others are called to the more intensive preparation that graduate-level theological schools provide. North American Christians of this age are restless people, always moving to where they find sustenance, and many, once satisfied by the milk of the Word, now hunger for the Word in solid food. Graduate theological schools have the resources to meet that need, and to feed other forms of theological education.
Here's where the origins of the term "stakeholder" matter. In the 19th century, people claiming land on the North American frontier were encouraged by law to mark off their claims with recognizable wooden or iron stakes. To earn ownership, they had to improve that land, their "stake" -- farm it, build on it, and live on it -- for several years. Theirs was not speculative effort, but the real effort of gaining ownership by enduring whatever hazards and graces came with tilling their piece of land.
The risks of a stakeholder in theological education are not unlike those of the stakeholder on the frontier. A true stakeholder is not simply taking a risk. A stakeholder is at risk. We need our graduate theological schools. We are at risk of not knowing God, of not caring, of being uninterested in his intervention in history, of confusing our self-interest with God's identity, and the list goes on.
Our graduate theological schools provide concentrated time for students and faculties to study and be formed in God, and to learn to speak of God for our times and in our global Christian communities. Our self-interest is for the sake of the world -- our witness to God's saving presence in us and in it. And so we till that land, enduring hazards and celebrating graces. May God sustain our stakeholding, grow our numbers, persistence, and generosity, and make us better governing constituents for the sake of this mission.