Robert E. Cooley
Photo by Dean Forsyth

Earlier this year, In Trust editor Jay Blossom asked Robert E. Cooley to reflect on the changes facing today's theological school boards. Cooley is president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is an In Trust Governance Mentor. He believes that one of the gifts that boards bring to their schools is the capacity to be agents of the transformations essential for schools to thrive.

What is the role of the board in fostering innovation while maintaining tradition?

One of the most important subjects that boards grapple with is change and innovation. 

Change is at the root of our most pressing questions in theological education. For example, the character and nature of our student communities is rapidly changing — we're already facing a demographic shift from a primarily Anglo-European student body to a much more pluralistic, multiethnic student community. More multicultural diversity means different experiences and different learning capacities. And boards and presidents are the ones who are charged with leading in the midst of these and other changes.

How do boards and presidents lead together?

First of all, boards are party to joining the president and the faculty in identifying the nature of change.

Rapid technology changes are moving North American society from a culture defined by industry to one defined by information. This has a significant impact on pedagogy, where the emphasis is moving from teaching (what an instructor does) to learning (what a student does).

Educational methodologies are affected by this shift. Changes in information technology are affecting how we distribute education, and new capacities for distributing information create new social contexts for learning.

I wouldn't want to leave the impression that boards are the sole active change agents, because that removes from the president and the faculty their professional responsibilities. But boards do have a legitimizing voice for change. They should not simply respond to what the administration sends to them. 

Boards are guardians of a school's heritage, but they're also gate-keepers of the future.

So, how do you go from heritage to future? How do you go from tradition to innovation? In the light of the rapid shifts in technology, how do theological schools respond to that new capacity and yet retain the traditional values of face-to-face, personal formation?

In some places, it's already being done well. So instead of debating the reasons why we should not do it, we need to develop the reasons why we should do it. Because just as the typewriter has gone out of existence, and even the traditional computer is fast going out of existence with all of the hand-held devices, we just need to understand that information — including educational content — is now being distributed in a much faster, more effective, and more efficient manner.

How can new technologies strengthen the formational and developmental aspects of education that are important? 

New information technology alters how we learn and think, with a tendency to move towards more individualization and isolation. As educators, we need to continue exploring how to keep the learning community intact in this new environment. To be sure, it will take a different form as technology affects society. In that way, technological change is affecting the very heart of how we deliver our education.

Are there other ways in which new technologies affect theological education?

Collaboration. Ever-increasing connectivity is opening up a new frontier, in which our institutions are more willing to collaborate with other agencies. For example, theological schools can work with universities, community colleges, churches, parachurch organizations, and mission agencies, both in North American and in international settings. There is a whole new universe of networking possibilities that even the smallest of theological schools can engage in to their benefit.

New technology is also affecting how organizations are being structured and how authority is being handled. Pyramidal forms of organizational structure are eroding or collapsing, moving organizations in the direction of horizontal empowerment. This is bringing about a fuller understanding of the shift from functions to systems. 

Particularly in the operations of theological schools, we must think systemically — how can we blend a variety of operational functions into a single system that will create efficiencies and effectiveness? The result must be not only increased service, but also lower cost. 

Christians around the world are wrestling with new forms of understanding what it means to be a "church." There's not now, nor has there ever been, a single approach to religious thought and practice. But there are significant trends worth noting — changes in what constitutes "ministry" and the move towards more lay ministry, part-time ministers, and bivocational ministers.

How can theological schools sustain essential traditions when everything is shifting under their feet?

All of these items contribute to the tension between theological education's traditions and our efforts to innovate. They put pressure on how we view our continuity and on our core values. This is not just developmental change, evolution, or maturity, but a complete paradigm change with new cultural laws and new social principles that we need to pay attention to as we chart out a new future for our theological schools. 

One of the things I think a board can do is to narrate the urgency to change. Presidents and faculties, because of their assignments, their professional tasks, and their engagement in traditional work, tend to become resistant to change. After all, adapting requires a tremendous amount of increased work, and it demands new thought patterns. Therefore administrators and faculty are often resistant to, or less sensitive to, the urgency of change. 

As I work with theological schools, I find that that they tend to be slow in addressing change. Because of that slowness, they get into financial stress or they lose students because their educational programming becomes less relevant. So one of the first things a board can do is create a sense of urgency, establishing this as a high issue of redress by the administration and the faculty.

Boards have the power to put legitimate leadership into place, and they have the power to guide their school in the process of planning for the future. This is where the institutional strategic planning process becomes very important. Boards can drive that not only out of the sense of urgency, but also by putting into place a guiding coalition of leadership. When it's done right, the whole community understands that the board is leading. 

Nevertheless, the real work — the real thought, the real innovation — comes about as a product of the faculty, the administration, and other stakeholders. 

For more about how boards and administrators can collaborate in leading their institutions through the process of change, see "Is Strategic Planning a Waste of Time?" in the Summer 2011 issue of In Trust

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