The Oxford dictionary defines embedded as “fixed firmly and deeply in a surrounding mass.” Thirty-six percent of members of the Association of Theological Schools are currently embedded in a college or university, with the percentage rising steadily for the past couple of decades. 

All across North America, seminaries are embedded into the life, mission, and campus of universities that — to alternating degrees — support, sustain, surround, and partner with them.  

There is no one-size-fits-all way of living the embedded life.  

“That’s one of the challenges of trying to deal with a board in an embedded seminary,” says Mark Markuly, dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. “You’re kind of off the grid in the ways people traditionally look at governance boards.” 

Jay Phelan agrees. The former dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Phelan has researched and written on the complex, challenging life of embedded seminaries. “It’s like trying to grasp smoke,” he says. “Every situation is so different.”

A brief tour of some embedded seminaries

Fred Finks was president of Ashland Theological Seminary when he was named president of the seminary’s “parent,” Ashland University. Now he serves as chancellor of the university, located in Ashland, Ohio.

At Ashland, the seminary has a separate standing committee on the university’s board of trustees. The standing committee, assigned by the board, and considered to be “a board within a board,” is then allowed to add seven advisory members who have full voting rights, bringing the committee to 15. In his 32 years of experience, “I’ve never seen conflict” between the seminary committee and the full board. “I have not seen one instance of animosity and disagreement,” he says.

Drive a straight line 570 miles long and directly down to Georgia, and you will arrive at Emory University, a major research university that includes the Methodist Candler School of Theology, another conflict-free zone. Emory’s trustees are approved by the United Methodist Church — a requirement that is “incredibly helpful” to Candler, says Jan Love, the dean. 

“That means that a substantial number of the 40-plus members of Emory’s board have a connection with the church,” she says. “People on the board are deeply knowledgeable and grateful for Candler’s relationship with Emory.” Love and her senior staff are not shy to recommend members to the university’s board of trustees. “Since we know there is a commitment to have Methodists on the board, we are constantly on the lookout for those we can recommend,” she says. “Some of our suggestions are accepted, some are not, but they’re always welcomed.”   

Across the continent, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary has a seminary advisory board, the chair of which automatically becomes an ex officio member of the board of regents of California Lutheran University. Pacific Lutheran and Cal Lu just completed a consolidation, so the complexities of the seminary–university relationship are fresh in the mind of university president Chris Kimball.    

The seminary will always have representation on the university board, Kimball says — a privilege not afforded to other professional schools within the university. “It is a recognition of a special history,” he says, adding that a strategy is being worked out to add other former seminary board members to the university board in the coming years.    

Almost 3000 miles away, at Duke Divinity School, a board of visitors was established in 1983 when it became clear that the individual graduate and professional schools at Duke University needed their own advisory boards. To associate dean Wes Brown, the divinity school’s board of visitors is a dream team for addressing critical issues facing the school, but it also serves as a proving ground for future trustees of the university. A number of the divinity school’s board members have been appointed to the university-wide governing board, says Brown. “From our standpoint, it’s important to have people on the board of trustees who know us, who are trusted.” 

Duke Divinity’s board of visitors does not exercise fiduciary responsibility for the school. That’s also the case at Seattle University. “I report to the provost,” says Dean Mark Markuly of the School of Theology and Ministry. He explains the formal governance structure: “The provost reports to the president; the president reports to the board of trustees.” Markuly says that advisory board members understand their limited role. “They pick up on the complex dynamic of being an embedded seminary.”

Tyndale University College and Seminary, in a quiet Toronto neighborhood, experiences yet another way of being embedded. There, the graduate-level seminary predates the undergraduate programs. “The seminary is the strong brand and the large brand,” says President Gary Nelson. “In many places in the States, the seminary is the small one.” But at Tyndale, there’s a single board for both seminary and university. “We just made a conscious decision to not make it more complex than it already is.”

Living well in an embedded world

Embedded seminaries are very sensitive to their place in their respective worlds. They have to be. They are in careful relationship with their larger, surrounding campus; their boards; their constituents; the church. These schools, that can have so little in common when it comes to board structure and definition, do share common ways to thrive. Here are some of them:

Recognize the seminary’s uniqueness

Embedded seminaries, with their mission of preparing students for ministry and service, often have a historic connection with the university’s founding religious tradition. That places them in an unusual relationship with the larger institution.

Jay Phelan of North Park Seminary thinks that it’s essential for seminary leaders to communicate what makes theological education unique and why it is different than the education that takes place in a school of music, or even a school of religion.

“If the board looks at the seminary like it does the philosophy department or the history department, that’s a mistake,” he says. “Seminaries can get lost among all these different schools. You can get caught in an academic competitive environment.” 

Wes Brown of Duke Divinity says never to under-estimate what the theological school contributes to the university. “I think a theological school affirms for the university that a lot of the larger questions in life have to do with our faith and our sense of being creatures of a loving God and of having a calling and purpose for our life,” he says.  

What is it like to be a theological school on a secular university campus? “Absolutely weird,” says Jan Love, the dean at Candler. Nevertheless, “Emory is not allergic or hostile to the expression of religion, so it’s a pretty special place,” says Love. Candler actively looks for ways to contribute to campus life, including participating actively in campus-wide events.

Be an advocate for theological education 

There’s a wonderful phrase in the book of Exodus, says Wes Brown: “Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.” The theological school is Joseph, he says, and sometimes a pharaoh can arrive who doesn’t understand or appreciate the seminary’s role within a university setting. “That can be a concern,” he says. Not at Duke, fortunately — university president Richard Brodhead came from Yale, which also hosts a divinity school. “He understood why having a theological school at a university makes an impact and a difference. Some of our sister schools don’t have that understanding.”

At Seattle University, Mark Markuly is an advocate of the elevator speech to address this very issue. He thinks it’s essential to explain succinctly why people of faith should have a place at the table in a university setting. “We’ve had hires from state universities where religion has not had a place at the table at all,” he says. “We haven’t run into anyone hostile, but helping people from other university divisions realize that there is one academic unit that will have a different matrix than the others — that becomes an ongoing challenge to address every year.”

Be a good communicator 

Leaders of embedded schools meet regularly with other deans, faculty, and board members — whoever their peers are — to foster and nourish good relationships. “Vagueness is the enemy,” says Jay Phelan. Being clear about the seminary’s mission and its operation is essential — especially with the university president, the chief academic officer, and the CFO. 

At universities where seminary representatives serve on the university-wide board of trustees, it’s crucial that the seminary members participate as fully as possible. For example, at California Luther-an, the seminary board representative is expected to be a voice for the seminary, but not just the seminary. “We also expect full participation in everything else,” says Chris Kimball, the university president. 

“If there is a question about athletics, we expect them to weigh in.”

Be a good citizen

Generously give. Happily receive. Embedded theological schools enjoy some perks — they have access to the resources of the university, normally far greater than their own. At Seattle University, says Markuly, “In our marketing communication department, our VP is a former White House press secretary. We have some really high-level resources we can tap into.” But to those to whom much has been given, much is expected. Embedded schools work hard to give back.   

“There is a sense that we are part of something great and strong, and we always need to be contributing in positive ways to that,” says Wes Brown at Duke, where the divinity school is a major fund-raiser. “It surprises people how much financial clout we have. That’s not the case in many other schools.”    

At some embedded schools, what the seminary can offer is a high-performing faculty available to the university, and who are also prolific in their publishing — something applauded on all campuses. “One way we get good attention is that the Candler faculty is one of the most productive faculties in the university,” says Jan Love, the dean. “If you’re at a research university where they value peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, and here’s a unit cranking them out left and right and still having a wonderful time teaching, it’s hard to deny there’s something good happening.”   

At many embedded schools, seminary faculty members teach in other disciplines, adding an ethical, moral, and spiritual dimension to departments like business and medicine. And vice versa. Why not have a business professor teach in the seminary? That potential for intermingling and expansion was actually one of the positives that appealed to California Lutheran University in its merger talks with Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary.

Take the leash off the board 

Don Manning is on the executive advisory board at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. He says it’s the one board he’s really wants to stay on— partly because he loves his alma mater, but also because the board is a creative and highly valued entity, and he enjoys it.

“It’s truly an advisory board,” says Manning. “Being embedded in the university, there is a lot of oversight already.” He says that the university’s fiduciary oversight frees the advisory board to be a sounding board for the dean.   

Because the dean is accountable to the president, who is accountable to the university’s board of trustees, the executive advisory board is not evaluating the dean’s performance — they are trying to enhance it. “I think it allows us to play a more dynamic role in helping to shape and articulate the message Mark is trying to get out,” says Manning about Dean Mark Markuly.   

It’s the dialogue and conversation in the board-room that matters, says Manning. “This board has the ability to push the envelope because you’re not caught up in the politics of an academic setting. Your advice and candor are appreciated. You are not expected to make something happen, unless you are specifically asked to be on a committee.”   

Advisory board members know that having big dreams means that not all ideas will take flight, but Markuly has learned to give his advisory board feedback and make sure they know their insights and ideas are highly valued. “I spend time sharing with them how what they say impacts my thinking,” says Markuly. “I think there’s a more relaxed feeling within our structure. They are a voice of reason — and caution at times.”

Enter into the complexity

Helping board members to understand the multiple layers of university governance is an essential challenge. “We look for people actually wiling to enter into the complexity of what we are doing and engage themselves enough to offer advice,” says Markuly. “It takes a certain kind of person to understand what we are doing.”  

Laura Nichol, chair of the board of visitors at Duke Divinity, also works with boards as a professional consultant. “I see all shapes and sizes of boards. I actually think the core work they would like us to do is fundamentally the same,” she says.

Nichol views her role on the board of visitors as being a voice for the school in a larger world. “That can mean advocating for the work, sharing books, inviting faculty to my city, bringing people to Duke. We don’t have the governance role that the board of a university has,” says Nichol. What they do have, she says, is more time to focus on building relationships.

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