Among the many maritime metaphors used to describe economic crisis, my favorite is the one that Warren Buffett penned to the shareholders of his company, Berkshire Hathaway, more than six years ago: "After all, you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out."
Buffett's analogy trumps the hand-wringing laments about tsunamis, perfect storms, and rough waters that have flooded our consciousness during these unusually hard times. He reminds us that when the tide was high, some swimmers chose to take risks they thought were hidden, while others did not. Whatever the tide, it was the swimmers themselves who chose.
Do boards of theological schools understand the risks they have been taking? While this ebb tide may cause pain and embarrassment for the school, it can also be time of learning. At ebb tide, the board can see what's below the surface and take stock.
Even if they didn't before, board members now understand the value of regular and thorough reviews of the institution's spiritual, academic, and economic condition. Now they recognize how passivity in the face of spiritual malaise, mission drift, declining enrollment, and overspending endanger the school and - even more - the life of the church. Now they can increase their resolve to practice the virtues of courage and prudence. They can recover the board's calling.
The passive board may have become too cynical to recognize the hope inherent in its calling. Yet Christians are, above all, keepers of hope. We draw from a biblical tradition full of hard truths about human failings, commands to be faithful, and admonitions not to be afraid.
With this issue, In Trust embarks on a close study of failed and renewed governance at one school. It is unusual for us to devote four articles in consecutive issues to one institution, but we're convinced that Oral Roberts University's recent history is worth telling - especially because the ORU School of Theology, as an embedded school, shares the organizational structure of more than a third of all North American theological schools. Here faith and governance meet dramatically, and the university's key players have been unusually forthright about both their failings and their renewed effort.
Imagine yourself on a board steeped in a culture of passive risk-taking. When aggrieved former employees file suit and an investigation team arrives from their accreditation agency, it's like the tide rolling out. Almost immediately, the school's massive debt, enrollment slump, and governance failures (all noted in previous accreditation reports) are exposed to broad public scrutiny.
The catalyst for renewal at ORU was a powerful benefactor who offered the board the opportunity to address its underlying governance issues and rebuild its governance structures. This notable intervention was possible, in part, because the scale of ORU's troubles did not negate its solid record of academic achievement and favorable regard for its graduates.
We recognize that ORU, like all schools seeking to raise up leaders in mission for the Gospel, deserves continuing prayer, because the governance drama never ends. As you read this story beginning on page 6, ORU's new president begins his first academic year, and its new board of trustees moves forward in its second year.
It is not by chance that the word governance derives from the Latin word "guvernare" and the Greek word "kubernao" - both originally denoting steering a ship. May your steering in tidal waters be blessed in this new season with the courage and prudence needed for the journey.