Kyle Flood

In First Things First , Stephen R. Covey relates a story about a seminar presenter who stands at the front of the room with a big, empty jar. The presenter places several fist-sized rocks in the jar and asks the audience, "Is the jar full?"

"Yes," they reply.

The presenter then shakes a handful of gravel into the jar, sliding the smaller stones between the larger ones. He asks again, "Is the jar full?"

"Probably not," the audience cautiously answers.

Next, the presenter adds sand to the jar. "Is the jar full?" he queries.

"No!" the audience shouts.

Finally, the presenter pours water into the jar, filling it to the brim. He tells the audience, "OK, now the jar really is full. What's the lesson here?"

One listener ventures, "You can always fit more into your life if you work hard at it." "Wrong," the presenter counters. "The lesson is, if you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never fit them in at all."

The orientation process for new members of theological school boards can be a little like filling that empty jar. New board members need a lot of information before they can begin to exercise effective leadership. Handing rookies an empty jar and expecting them to grab everything they need on the fly delays the beginning of effective service and could sour their entire board experience. Dumping massive amounts of information onto new board members all at once can have the same effect. What is needed is an approach that gets the "big rocks" in first while easing new members up to full capacity.

In Trust asked three first-year board members to reflect on their orientation experiences and identify the elements that were most crucial in preparing them for service. These "big rocks" represent newcomers' greatest needs:

Context. Joining a board means catching an institution mid-stride and, for some new members, entering the theological school world for the first time. To get their bearings, newcomers need a sense of history and a view of the landscape.

One of the best ways to offer a quick but vital history lesson is to share old minutes. The Rev. Ralph Blomenberg, who recently filled a vacancy on the board at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, started during the second year of his predecessor's six-year term. He requested a complete set of board agendas and minutes going back to the beginning of the term, "simply for perspective." George Nakonetschny, a new member of the board of St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, is interested in documents from the past five years. "I think that looking at what a board has done for five years would give a new member insight into where they're going and what to expect," Nakonetschny says. This "homework" also lets new members begin to see if changes need to occur.

To orient newcomers to the theological school landscape, it can be helpful to put them in contact with board members from other institutions. Mingling with peers was Nakonetschny's favorite part of the In Trust "Board Basics" seminar that he attended, and it was a key component of his orientation. "So much is learned from interaction," he says. Jan Weller, a first-year board member at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, also appreciated the opportunity at the seminar to learn about issues confronting similar boards.

Clear expectations. Surveys conducted by In Trust and the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education indicate that while most administrators expect board members to spearhead fundraising efforts, few board members think fundraising is one of their primary tasks. This is just one example of a mismatch between how board members perceive their role and how other constituencies within the institution perceive that role. New board members are sometimes unsure about things like the time commitment required for service, the difference between governance and management, and the level of feedback expected regarding often complicated reports.

A board handbook or similar document can be very useful for spelling out these expectations, but merely distributing the handbook to new members is not enough. At Trinity Lutheran Seminary, board members sign an Agreement of Commitment at the beginning of each meeting, but Weller admits that she did not pay much attention to it at her first session. It probably is not necessary to take time out of every meeting to go over such a document, but a special orientation meeting to walk new board members through the agreement could be very useful.

As board members cannot keep a close eye on everything pertaining to the institution all the time, they also need clear guidance on where to look and when to get involved. Blomenberg likes the "dashboard" approach to data, which highlights the most relevant information and helps board members assess trends quickly. Just a few months into his board service, Blomenberg considers his top priorities "learning to ask helpful questions and to digest complex financial (and other) reports." More data is not necessarily more information.

Perhaps the best way to communicate expectations to new board members is to encourage them to sit in on at least one meeting before their formal service begins. Nakonetschny observed a meeting of the St. Tikhon's board before his nomination, a step he says is not typical but can be done. Observation, he says, "gave me a chance to see how [the board] operated, to see if I could blend into it and support it." In addition to serving as a possible recruitment tool, a board meeting preview reduces the likelihood that new members will spend the first meeting -- or the first year -- with eyes open and mouth shut.

Calling. The purely spiritual aspects of the call to Christian service can hardly be codified on an orientation checklist, but there is much a theological school can do to embrace and empower its new board members. Weller appreciated the personal attention she got from the Trinity administration, which included assistance with travel arrangements and an informal dinner at the president's house the evening before her first meeting, where the president and board chair made sure she was introduced to all of the other guests. Additionally, a student gave Weller a tour of the campus and introduced her to faculty, staff, and other students. "Everyone was very friendly and welcoming," Weller says.

Another way to reach out to new board members is to put them on committees right away. Weller was preassigned by the board chair to a standing committee, which immediately gave her a way to contribute and enabled her to forge deeper connections with some faculty and board members. Weller feels that the No. 1 need of new board members is "to understand that this is a mission call," and being given a specific task helped to put her on-mission from the very beginning.

Comprehensive board orientation requires extra time and effort from everyone involved, but it is the best way to address the "big rocks" of board work and prepare new members for faithful and effective service. Board development programs can and should build on these key concepts, but there is no substitute for laying a solid foundation first.

People affiliated with one of In Trust's member schools may download In Trust's Guide to Developing Your Board Handbook.

A sample service of installation

Phillips Theological Seminary welcomes new and returning trustees each year at a service of public worship. William Tabbernee, president of the seminary, created the order of service and changes it slightly each year. Selections from the November 13, 2007, installation service are below. The complete order of service is online at Reprinted with the permission of William Tabbernee.


[led by a trustee emeritus]

The PTS community is made up not only of students, faculty, and staff, but also of trustees whose specific vocation is to be responsible stewards, holding in trust the human and physical resources of the seminary.

Today we honor the women and men who have been chosen to be the trustees of Phillips Theological Seminary, and we install and dedicate them to their important ministry.

 [led by the president]

I invite the chair, vice-chair, and secretary of the board to stand and remain standing.

You have been called by Phillips Theological Seminary to exercise your gifts of leadership and administration, to ensure that the board as a whole functions in the most effective manner possible, and to represent the board at public functions.

Your signatures on important documents convey the authority you carry on behalf of the church and the seminary.

As you chair meetings, keep records, and transact or delegate business on behalf of the seminary, you will need to rely on God's guidance and remain constantly in tune with God's Spirit, being conscious at all times of the educational, spiritual, and pastoral needs of this seminary.

Will you, with God's help, carry out your duties responsibly, with joy, diligence, imagination, and love?

RESPONSE: We will.

[led by the board chair]

All returning trustees and returning representatives to the board please stand and remain standing.

You are people with many and varied gifts. You have already utilized those gifts on behalf of Phillips Theological Seminary. The decisions you have made and the policies you have set will shape the future of PTS and ensure that women and men are well prepared to serve in varied ministries of church and society. As you continue to chair meetings, participate in discussions, help to provide the seminary's physical and financial resources, and exercise the important ministry of governance, you will need to rely on God's guidance.

Will you, with God's help, carry out your duties responsibly, with joy, diligence, imagination, and love?

RESPONSE: We will.

[led by the board vice chair]

All new trustees and new representatives to the board please stand and remain standing.

You have been called by Phillips Theological Seminary to take on a new role of responsibility, that of trustee. The future of the seminary, literally, lies in your hands. Your experience, expertise, wisdom, and skills will guide the seminary's destiny as it faces the challenges of the 21st century.

Know that you have God to guide you and colleagues to support you as we to provide the best possible environment for theological education and ministerial formation.

Will you, with God's help, carry out your duties responsibly, with joy, diligence, imagination, and love?

RESPONSE: We will.

[led by the board secretary]

All who are not yet standing, and able to do so, please stand.

All of us are interdependent.

Whether we are trustees, faculty, staff, students, spouses, or friends, we have a supportive role to play in the lives of all who make up the Phillips Theological Seminary community. Our complementary gifts are needed to make the seminary community the best it can be.

Knowing this, will you, with God's help, commit yourselves to support and encourage those with whom you now stand, and will you do so with joy, diligence, imagination, and love?

RESPONSE: We will.

Lexington Theological Seminary also welcomes its new and returning board members with a service of installation. Read an installation homily by the Rev. R. Robert Cueni, president of the seminary, at .


Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

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