What's the best way to prepare promising scholars to assume leadership in North American theological schools? Teaching the history, theory, and practice of higher education? Discussing the nuts and bolts of administration? How about watching a film about architect Frank Gehry? All three, says Malcolm Warford, the former president of both Eden Theological Seminary and Bangor Theological Seminary. For the past three years, Warford has been coaching four professors with the hopes that some will rise to positions of leadership. And his methods are unconventional.

The mentoring was guided by Warford's notion that good leadership is not merely the product of management skills or technical expertise. Rather, he says, academic leadership is a creative task not separate from a scholar's true interests (and thus not, in effect, less important than scholarship), but a natural outgrowth of them. At its best, academic leadership draws on the leader's core values and captures the imagination. For example, it empowers a dean to see curriculum reform not as a bureaucratic necessity, but as a chance for the faculty to reflect together on what kind of students they are forming.

Above, the Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor, Maine site of the Lexington Seminar for 10 years. Below, 2008 seminar participants on an outing to Little Cranberry Island. Theological Seminary

Warford selected the four participants from the ranks of faculty who had attended the Lexington Seminar, a summer conference held every June for the last 10 years. (The final seminar was held in 2008). Warford was director of the seminar, which gathered administrators and faculty from five different seminaries each year to discuss critical issues in teaching. He was assisted by a leadership team that included Victor Klimoski of St. John's University School of Theology, Garth Rosell of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Gretchen Ziegenhals now of Duke Divinity School, Mary Ann Winkelmes of the University of Chicago, and Diamond Cephus, a Boston public school teacher.

Several years in, Warford and the leadership team began to think of ways in which its creative energy, and the lessons learned by the participant schools, might be shared in a new way. So, with the encouragement of Craig Dykstra and John Wimmer of Lilly Endowment Inc., he began to envision the leadership mentor program as an extension to the regular activities of the Lexington Seminar.

Warford and the other Lexington leaders selected the four tenured faculty members pictured in the photo at the top (from left to right) Peter Cha (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Timothy Tennent (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), Mary Hess (Luther Seminary), and Joe Bessler (Phillips Theological Seminary) and created the mentoring program around them. This group became a part of the planning process for the whole seminar. And for three years, they gathered each January for deeper study. 

Warford drew out the participants' creativity by bringing Jane Gentry Vance, poet laureate of Kentucky, to the January meetings. Together, they read and discussed Thomas Green on the philosophy of education and Edgar Schein on organizational leadership. They saw a film about Frank Gehry's architecture and another about a French schoolteacher. And they read Robert Greenleaf's classic work on servant leadership. A different senior figure in theological education worked with the foursome each year -- one year it was John Peter Kenney of St. Michael's College, the next year Leland Eliason of Bethel Seminary, and the third year Martha Horne of the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia. And at the end of the third year, each wrote a major scholarly paper focusing on an innovative educational model for faculties. The four papers are being published soon as a book, Revitalizing Practice: Collaborative Models for Theological Faculties.

Peter Cha says that one lesson he's taking away from the three-year mentor program is that presidents and deans cannot force faculty members to teach well or force students to learn. But they can create a space indeed, they have the joy and the responsibility to nurture an institutional culture in which real teaching and learning take place.

The Lexington Seminar

For 10 years, Malcolm Warford had a mission: rethinking education at Protestant theological schools in the United States. And he had a method: carving out ample time for seminary faculty members to gather, learn from one another, and share ideas. Or, in his own words, "Commit yourself to a conversation that allows you to engage questions of teaching and learning over time." Warford directed the Lexington Seminar, a project of Lilly Endowment Inc., from 1998 until the seminar ended this year. During the seminar's 10-year run, faculty and administrators from 44 American theological schools attended. In focused conversations, during recreational activities, and over informal meals, they shared with one another the challenges of teaching in the theological disciplines. Afterwards, each participating school was invited to submit a small grant request in support of a program of renewal for its own faculty.

Warford says that his chief lesson learned in 10 years of directing the seminar was how hard it is for theological faculties to dedicate the time necessary to address issues crucial to their lives as teachers -- issues like curriculum reform and developing a healthy faculty culture. As a result, unresolved questions and problems accumulate over time -- always tabled, continually deferred, because of the press of other, more urgent matters. The Lexington Seminar allowed faculty members to address those unresolved questions -- finally! -- by providing ample time, a setting conducive to creative thinking, and a program designed to draw out the creativity of participants, enabling them to look at challenges with fresh eyes.

Malcolm Warford

Each participating school wrote a report on its grant-funded project, and these individual reports, as well as a summary report. Another result of the seminars: two books edited by Warford, including Revitalizing Practice, which is being published this autumn, and Practical Wisdom: On Theological Teaching and Learning, which was reviewed in the Spring 2005 issue of In Trust.

Ample time in a serene setting

Throughout its 10 years, the Lexington Seminar was held at a 19th-century inn near Acadia National Park in Maine. "Most of us think that settings are neutral," says Malcolm Warford. "But there's a lot of work and thought required to create a setting that brings out creativity, liveliness, and a capacity for people to work together." Warford's unyielding commitment to nurturing creativity is what brought seminar participants to one of the more remote corners of the North American continent.

For the duration of the seminar each summer, a tent was erected on the inn's expansive lawn (below), and participants worshiped there each morning. A small group of musicians accompanied hymns, created a setting for meditation and prayer, and sometimes provided entertainment in the evenings. Late mornings were given to meetings in a conference room lit by picture windows overlooking a scenic harbor. Each afternoon, participants took part in organized activities like whale-watching, kayaking, and shopping in nearby Bar Harbor.

The location and the deliberate pace of the seminar allowed participants to interact with one another in different ways -- not around a generic conference table, but walking in the garden, mountain-biking, and even singing. "I don't think you can underestimate what it means for a group of academics to gather the first thing in the morning around music and silence and prayer," says Warford. "That's a different experience than showing up in a seminar room."

Warford and Lilly Endowment's shared commitment to gathering leaders in theological education trustees, presidents, and faculty members for reflective thinking in hospitable settings stretches back 20 years and has been deeply influential. When Warford was president of Bangor Theological Seminary, the seminary and Lilly Endowment cosponsored "Advanced Trusteeship Seminars" from 1988 to 1991. They were held at a yet another waterfront hotel in Maine.

Participant Vincent Cushing, president of the Washington Theological Union, was inspired to adapt the model to the needs of leaders in Roman Catholic theological schools. With the support of Lilly Endowment and the Franciscan Holy Name Province, Cushing and the Washington Theological Union hosted the Keystone Conferences on Trusteeship from 1989 to 1994 and the Keystone Conferences on Theological Teaching for the Church's Ministries from 1996 to 2002 in Keystone, Colorado.

Conferences hosted by In Trust and by the Wabash Center for the Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, along with the countless retreats for faculty and governing boards sponsored by individual theological schools, continue to benefit from the reflective thinking their leaders recall from the coast of Maine or the Colorado Rockies.

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