Updating a handbook can strike fear into the most seasoned academic administrators. The reasons are clear: First, they know that handbooks — whether for the board, faculty, students, or employees — are basic documents in the life of a school, but they are usually neglected on dusty shelves. This is the case even though leaders know that the most intense strife among board, faculty, staff, and students can come from a lack of updated handbooks and bylaws!

Second, few leaders feel like experts in this arena of governance.

And third, handbooks bring up basic issues of policy, power, and process that can’t always be ironed out in one meeting. 

Handbook discussions generate both boredom and passion. Getting broad participation can pay huge dividends, but stakeholders don’t always want to invest time or energy in something as dull as a handbook. The irony is, when they are done well, handbooks aren’t bureaucratic documents written in turgid legalese, but rather they are mirrors held up to the community about how common life should be experienced. 

So what are some of the trends about handbooks within theological schools? I recently canvassed one small peer group of seminaries, and a few insights emerged:

Insight 1: Most schools update their handbooks episodically — perhaps when state laws change significantly, or when their own educational environment demands an update. Embedded schools invariably follow university policy concerning handbook updates, but aside from them, few theological schools have a regular rhythm for updating handbooks.

Insight 2: Most schools publish their handbooks electronically on the web, but a few still print paper copies.

Insight 3: Handbooks published by embedded schools are very different in character from those published by freestanding seminaries. For one thing, they are longer and more complex, because they apply to many departments, colleges, and schools. In addition, university handbooks usually downplay the faith-related or religious components that are often central to seminary handbooks.

Insight 4: Two of the most common reasons for leaving handbook projects undone are a lack of time and a lack of personnel. And the third most common reason won’t surprise anyone who is familiar with academic administration and governance: A few contentious topics like tenure or evaluation can hijack the process and grind the updates to a halt. 

A few best practices came to light during my survey of seminary leaders:

  • The best resources for updating your own handbooks are the handbooks from peer schools. Ask if they will let you borrow and adapt them.

  • Some schools update all handbooks at once, while others spread the work across a couple of years. There’s no consensus on which is a better practice. Determine what you want to do, based on your resources and other commitments.

  • Review the standards of your accrediting agencies before updating your handbooks.

  • Identify external resources that should inform your process and policy — especially, if applicable, your church’s or denomination’s policies, canons, and doctrines. 

  • Keep your legal counsel close — your attorney will provide essential advice.

A handbook is a theological document just as much as it’s a legal and practical document. Handbooks lay out the organizational structures of a community, to be sure, but they also shape the narratives that animate those structures. These narratives, in turn, create the social structures, habits, rituals, and practices that shape students into particular models of leadership. Thus, handbooks are ultimately formative documents — they create disciples. 

And that’s a good enough reason to blow the dust off old handbooks, roll up your sleeves, and start the rigorous task of bringing them up to date. Rejoice and be glad! This is worthwhile work.

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