Are you looking for new ways to undermine your seminary's president? Of course not. But you and your board colleagues may be doing just that - without even knowing it.

In Trust recently talked to two seasoned presidents about underminers on the board — those board members who, through malice or oversight, self-centeredness or an abundance of zeal, are actually hindering the president’s work rather than helping.

Alice Hunt is president of Chicago Theological Seminary, and Richard Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary. Both say they’ve never worked with board members who have undermined their efforts — of course not! But when pressed, both offered a few suggestions about how, in an imperfect world, theological school boards might be undermining their presidents without even trying.

1. Underminers stray outside their role. 

Hunt and Mouw say that board members do the most damage when they act outside of their mandated role, either assuming too much authority over day-to-day matters or remaining too detached. “Board responsibility is to govern, to exercise fiduciary oversight, and make policy,” says Hunt. When a board goes beyond that role, she adds, it risks succumbing to the temptation to manage.

At most seminaries, the board’s duties do not include hiring faculty, establishing the curriculum, or assessing student learning — these are the faculty’s responsibilities. When board members cross the line by inserting themselves into faculty hiring decisions or curricular decisions, they put the president in an awful spot, says Mouw. “I believe the sacred duties of the faculty include determining the curriculum and choosing their colleagues,” he says. 

2. Underminers remain quiet when they should talk, and talk when they should stay mum. 

Another way that boards can undermine the president is by governing in stealth mode — under the radar, not informing the president of its actions. With the board-president relationship, it’s tight lips that sink ships.

Constant and appropriate communication is a best practice for boards, says Mouw. That doesn’t mean that the board blabs everything to everyone, but it does mean that the board works closely with the president, that the president participates in the board’s decision making process, and that the president keeps the board chair up to date on good and (especially) bad news. 

Turning outward, appropriate communication means that the board keeps faculty, students, church leaders, and other stakeholders informed when there’s a vacancy in the presidency or a crisis to be managed. It means that the board’s official spokesperson takes charge of communicating when the president cannot do so, and that board members refrain from sidebar conversations with church leaders, the press, or faculty. 

3. Underminers sit back and relax. 

Hunt believes that some of the worst sabotage comes from board members doing nothing. For example, if there is an expectation for each member to contribute financially, the holdout who neglects the annual fund is placing an awkward burden on the president and on fellow board members. 

Mouw sees yet another way that board member neglect can undermine the efforts of a president. Most come from professional arenas outside of theological education, he says. But these members, who bring essential outside knowledge to the board, also need to be intentional about learning the culture of the seminary — about accreditation and assessment, donors and development offices, bishops and boards of ministry. 

The board’s work doesn't end on the flight home from board meetings, of course. Board committees sometimes meet by conference call between meetings. And there are reports to read, updates from the president’s office, and more. Active board members are supporting the seminary all the time.

Have you ever been an underminer — even if unintentionally? Let us know at     

Matt Forster’s latest books are Backroads and Byways of Michigan and Backroads and Byways of Ohio. He lives in Clarkston, Michigan.

Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

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