Diversity is the "new normal" in theological education. Over the last 30 years, theological schools have been undergoing demographic changes that have enlivened and strengthened them: Women have joined the student body and the faculty in great numbers. And people of many different ethnic heritages have enriched virtually every theological institution, reflecting a greater ethnic diversity in the United States and Canada.

In response, schools have made changes. They've sought faculty members that reflect the diversity of their student bodies. And they've adjusted the curriculum and initiated wide-ranging conversations about preparing students for ministry in a changing world.

But what about boards?

While boards and administrators address the questions of diversity on campus, anecdotal evidence suggests that boards remain mostly white and male. (The exceptions, of course, are the boards of schools that serve primarily black, Asian, and other ethnic minority populations.)

In 2002, the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary published its research on seminary trustees in a report called In Whose Hands? Author Barbara G. Wheeler noted that trustees at accredited theological schools were more than 70 percent male and nearly 90 percent white; more than half were older than 50. In a 2010 reader survey conducted by In Trust, more than 70 percent of board members who responded (and nearly 85 percent of board chairs who responded) were male, and more than 54 percent of board members (and 36 percent of chairs) were older than 65. The In Trust survey did not inquire about race or ethnicity.

Shifting the conversation

For many in theological education, conversations about diversity are rooted in movements for civil and women's rights and the various liberation theologies of the 1960s and '70s. But Janice Edwards-Armstrong, director of leadership education at the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, suggests a new paradigm for talking about diversity beyond the traditional categories of race, ethnicity, gender, and age.

As a resource for fresh thinking, Edwards-Armstrong recommends a book by economist Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies(Princeton University Press, 2007). The author argues that for all the ideology that surrounds these difficult issues, the presence of diversity has practical implications for good governance.

Page makes the case that a diversity of perspectives and interpretations produces better models of prediction and analysis because there is more experience from which to draw. This pragmatic approach to diversity can be an important resource for theological boards and presidents, Edwards-Armstrong says. "You create stronger, better theological boards when you have people coming to problem-solving from a variety of perspectives," she says.

But she warns that adding new voices to a board brings a responsibility to hear those voices. "There are challenges with bringing in people who are going to think differently," she says. "You need to attend to those suggestions they are bringing forward."

Mixing up the board

Discussions about board diversity can be weighed down by political, practical, and even theological baggage. So it's easy to leave this baggage on the curb at the end of a board meeting. But for one board chair, diversity is top priority and integral to the strategy of her school's future.

Diane Ashley is chair of the board at New York Theological Seminary and a member of In Trust's board of directors. As the chief diversity officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, her professional life is devoted to strengthening American organizations — both corporate and nonprofit.

"I strongly believe that every board needs a diversity of people, thought, and perspective," she says. "The New York Theological Seminary board is intentionally diverse . . . even in dimensions of denominations, for example. In fact, we just brought on our first rabbi."

The 23-member seminary board is composed of 10 black members, eight white members, three Asians, and two Hispanics, with slightly more men than women. Thirteen different denominations — plus one Reform rabbi — are represented.

Ashley joined the board in the late 1990s and was named chair in 2002. She has long been interested in strengthening the body through diversity in race, gender, and sexual orientation. But she has also pushed to add members with financial affluence and influence — an important demographic that was largely missing when she arrived. And she believes the strategy has paid off as New York Theological Seminary reached its five-year comprehensive campaign goal while also increasing enrollment in key areas, including a program especially for Korean students.

Ashley's interest is less about ideology than it is about the practical implications. "Who are going to be your constituencies, your stakeholders, your students going forward?" she asks. "The clear business value of taking diversity and inclusion seriously is coupled with the requirement of the Great Commission to reach all people."

Ashley offers some practical advice to other board chairs looking to diversify their boards. First, use existing networks around the institution — faculty, students, graduates, and ecclesiastical connections— for targeted tips about board recruits. A strong development officer can also be influential in seeking out and recruiting new members. 

But board chairs should be prepared for what diversity can mean for how a body operates. "When you have people coming from different points of view, sometimes it makes things messier. Sometimes it makes things slower, in terms of decisions being made," Ashley warns. "You have to plan ahead for those realities."

On the ground

Diversifying a board can be fraught with uncomfortable situations and conversations, especially for those invited for the purpose of adding "diversity" to a homogeneous board. So how do minority members experience their boards? The following case studies help answer that question.


Three case studies in diversity

Conflict resolution at a mainline seminary

Several years ago, Gilbert was invited to join the board of a mainline Protestant seminary that was embroiled in controversy about ethnic diversity. Several minority members of the board had resigned due to intramural conflicts. Gilbert knew that part of the reason for his invitation to the board was to replace some of the members who had resigned — to make a public show of diversity. But as a prominent and outspoken Hispanic pastor with experience in conflict resolution, he also saw it as an opportunity to make a contribution to the healing of this institution.

After the initial controversy subsided, the board began recruiting new members with the expected pedigrees, especially what Gilbert calls the "financial movers and shakers."

"That's one of the things that you want to have on a board," he says. "And that's one of the things that often works against diversity, because you do not have that many people in the ethnic community who can leverage the kind of dollars that institutions need."

Gilbert believes that institutions need board member with resources, but they need the perspectives of ethnic representatives too. "As a board looks at issues of diversity, it needs to ask itself, What areas do new people bring to the board that will enrich the whole experience of the board, even if they don't bring cash or connections to people of wealth?"Gilbert says that it's important that new board members aren't wall flowers. "You need someone who is willing to interact in the give-and-take." Personality and social skills are keys to effective board membership.

A head for business on an evangelical board

When William joined the board of an evangelical seminary, he had little doubt he was recruited in part because of his race. At the first meeting of this relatively large board, he quickly noticed he was the only African-American in the room, but he gladly accepted his new role. "One thing about being different — whether it is ethnically, racially, cultural background, or gender — is you can see what others don't see," he says.

As a result, he is the board champion for an oft-overlooked segment of the seminary community — African-American student groups, faculty, and staff. He also serves as a bridge to external constituencies in the black church and the business world, using his convening power" to bring the seminary together with those leaders to talk about the future of theological education.

William is also one of the few business people on the board. After five years of membership, he now serves on the executive committee and feels his experience in the corporate world has been his biggest contribution so far.

A professional woman and mom on a Catholic board

In the late 1990s, a Catholic seminary invited Teresa, a laywoman with a graduate degree in moral philosophy, to join its board. At the time, the board was made up mostly of priests, nuns, and laymen - she was one of only three laywomen on the board. But ten years later, when she rotated off, about half the members were women.

"There's research indicating women communicate differently," Teresa says. "And frankly, because of the decision-making structure of the [Catholic] tradition, it is relatively new to have women speaking about policy matters with an opportunity to create change."

When the seminary was facing a tight budget, Teresa's experience as a professional woman, as a volunteer who had served on other nonprofit boards, and as a mom accustomed to balancing a household budget helped her stress the urgency of the school's financial situation.

Interviewees were granted anonymity and their names were changed to encourage them to speak freely about a sensitive topic.

Suggestions for board diversity

  • Choose newcomers carefully. Personality, experience, and social skills are vital.
  • Plan your initial encounter. How a new member is introduced to the board (as a lawyer, a Baptist, "our first Latina member," etc.) can pigeonhole and limit that person's role.
  • Encourage initial dissenters. Invite newcomers, who may sit silently, to contribute to the discussion, even if it means a divergent view comes to light.
  • Assist newcomers. It takes effort to acclimate new members to the board's unspoken habits.
  • Provide relationship-building opportunities. Give time and space for members to get to know — and like — each other.
  • Don't "give in to get along." Members can develop a fear of conflict as the board becomes more diverse. Be mindful of how underlying tensions can discourage a forthright exchange of ideas. Neither new nor old answers are always right.

Suggestions adapted from Jean-François Manzoni, Paul Strebel and Jean-Louis Barsoux, "Why Diversity Can Backfire on Company Boards," Wall Street Journal Online / MIT Sloan Management Review, Jan. 25, 2010. 

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