What do seminaries most often want in a new president? Some seek a prominent pastor or denominational leader, while others promote an insider who has moved up through the faculty ranks to the top administrative position.

Seventy-six seminaries named new chief executives in 2016 and 2017, according to an analysis of the “Changes at the Top” announcements that appear in every issue of In Trust. Forty-nine (about two-thirds) came from primarily academic backgrounds, having risen through the faculty ranks. Twenty-seven (about a third) were pastors or other leaders from their denominations, including a few with business backgrounds.

The Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education found similar results in 2010, during their study of successful seminary presidents. (See Leadership that Works at bit.ly/Leadership-That-Works.) The researchers surveyed more than 100 presidents and visited six schools they identified as exceptionally well run. About two-thirds of the chief executives were faculty members or administrators in a seminary before they became president. About a third came from church backgrounds as a pastor, bishop, or executive within the denomination that the school serves.

Stephen Graham, senior director of programs and services at the Association of Theological Schools, thinks the demand for well-qualified seminary presidents is greater than the supply. “Most of the seminary people I talk to lament that their pool seems to be pretty small,” he says. “Seminaries are often looking for candidates with executive experience, fundraising ability, and an academic background. Having all of those is rare.”

In Trust interviewed three current and former heads of theological schools to compare the experiences of those coming from church backgrounds with those coming from academic backgrounds. 

From pastor to president

William D. Shiell is starting his third year as president of Northern Seminary in Lisle, Illinois. He came to the seminary in fall 2016 after serving as pastor of First Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Florida, and three other churches in Texas and Tennessee over the previous 17 years. He has a doctorate in New Testament from Baylor University and had taught as an adjunct professor, but he had never worked as a full-time seminary professor or administrator.

Courtesy of Northern Seminary

William Shiell is president of Northern Seminary. 

Courtesy Northern Seminary 

Communication and fundraising are the two primary skills that the seminary’s search committee was looking for, he says. “They needed someone who could craft and clarify a message, and they needed someone who could raise money. I would love to say my fantastic book on Acts attracted them, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it. Certainly, having a Ph.D. didn’t hurt, but they were looking for an administrator.”

“Our primary customer is the church,” he says. “I was able to come in with a pretty good sense of what an average tall-steeple congregation expected of seminary education and why so many seminaries were struggling to connect with congregational ministry.” He says the search committee placed a high priority on finding someone who could relate to issues faced by local congregations. “They felt that, since the seminary was started and funded by the church, they needed someone who could speak to the church.”

Shiell recognized the importance of developing strong relationships and trust with faculty members. “I’ve spent a lot of time individually with faculty, going to their homes, listening in their offices, talking about their dreams and hopes for the institution. I’ve met with them in their space and their territory and invited them to help. I’ve been very open and honest with faculty about our financial condition and our enrollment challenges. So, we’re all friends, and that helps,” he says.

The hardest parts of the job, Shiell says, have been getting up to speed on federal and state regulatory issues and developing systems for increasing enrollment and donor support. He says new presidents must build a support system of associates willing to take on the challenges that the seminary faces. It’s not the job of a president to rescue a seminary. 

“Our job is to guide, to shepherd, to lead, but we are not lifeguards rescuing institutions out of the drowning waters of theological education. That’s not what we do,” he says. 

The academic route 

Jeremiah McCarthy has been moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona, since 2014 — an important position in every Catholic diocese, and one that he describes as “chief assistant” to the bishop and overseer of diocesan operations. But before that, McCarthy spent 20 years in theological education as a professor, dean, vice rector, and rector at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. He has a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union and was director of accreditation and institutional evaluation for the Association of Theological Schools from 2002 to 2009.

Msgr. Jeremiah McCarthy (right), moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Tucson, spent 20 years in theological education as a professor, dean, vice rector, and rector at St. John's Seminary in California. 

Courtesy Diocese of Tucson 

McCarthy thinks that when he was promoted to rector of St. John’s, his status as an insider, and his extensive experience as a member of the faculty, gave him several advantages. “I had knowledge of seminary operations, and I had well-established relationships with faculty and staff,” he says. “I also had familiarity with the history and challenges facing the seminary, which was an invaluable asset in being able to hit the ground running and to tackle these challenges.”

“In Roman Catholic seminaries, the role of rector and president is shifting from being exclusively an academic leader to a skillful administrator who oversees the resources and development of the institution,” says McCarthy. But he adds that if a new rector or president lacks an advanced academic degree, he may be unfamiliar with the faculty’s role in academic governance. “He will have to earn their trust,” he says. “It is crucial for the new president to commit to a process of active listening and cultivation of relationships. The temptation to make immediate changes, without a solid knowledge of the institution and its key stakeholders, can be damaging and unproductive.”


A blend of academic and church leadership

J. Neil Alexander was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta from 2001 to 2012, when he was named dean of the School of Theology of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Before his election to the episcopate, he was a tenured professor of liturgics and homiletics at both the General Theological Seminary in New York and at the School of Theology at Sewanee. 

Courtesy of Courtney Smith

Bishop J. Neil Alexander led the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta before he was named dean of the School of Theology of the University of the South. Here he congratulates Gina Jenkins, a 2018 graduate of the School of Theology at the 2018 convocation. 

Credit: Cortney Smith 

Although his experience as a bishop offers some advantages, Alexander says that his background as a faculty member has been especially important. “Being a bishop gives you experience with budgets, administrative tasks, human resources, and personnel issues,” he notes. “However, I do believe my many years of service as a faculty member and involvement in higher education brings me the greater set of gifts and skills than anything I learned as a bishop. Having spent the greater part of my life in theological education, it is helpful to have a sense of the lay of the land.”

Alexander says that in his experience, the most important task for the president is to have a vibrant working relationship with the faculty. “In so many ways, the faculty is the core of the institution. Administration and senior staff really have to understand and respect the faculty’s work. Mutual support and teamwork between faculty and senior administrators is essential,” he says.

If a seminary dean or president comes into the position from a church background, Alexander says it’s essential that he or she really understand the academic system. “I have certainly known of those who came in from the pastoral side to direct the seminary without academic experience. Sometimes they made dramatic mistakes or led the institution in unhealthy directions. They really did not understand what it meant to lead an academic faculty and board of trustees.”

Alexander adds that it’s typical for faculty members to complain or push back from time to time. “That’s just the faculty being the faculty. A president must deal with that all the time. We pay faculty members to have strong opinions.”

The key ingredients: temperament and character

“The lack of correlation between resume and success” was the most intriguing conclusion of the Auburn Center’s study on “leadership that works.” Some of the presidents had doctorates, while others didn’t. Some had prior teaching experience; others didn’t. Some took their jobs after serving as bishops or pastors of large churches, while some were faculty members or administrators at seminaries. A few had backgrounds in business. What the Auburn researchers found is that successful seminary presidents had four essential character traits: personal strength, humility, interpersonal skills, and discipline. 

The chief executives interviewed for this article agree with this general assessment, although some emphasized particular traits. Shiell believes the primary skill needed by presidents is self-motivation, which is part of discipline. “You have to be a self-starter. There’s no one to plan your day,” he says. “If you don’t have the capacity to say, ‘I am going to make 10 phone calls or have five fundraising dinners,’ there’s no one else to tell you to do it.” 

Shiell says that being a president can be isolating and solitary. “While there’s a lot of freedom to the job, new presidents must have a resourceful, persistent, almost courageous kind of mindset to take it on.”

Alexander describes the key ingredient as temperament. “Somebody may know how to make the trains run on time, keep the accreditors happy, and be good at managing the machinery,” he says. “But they can make a terrible dean or president because they don’t have the temperament for it.”

“If I were advising a search committee, I would tell them to check off ability, experience, and the whole list of attributes that are important to their institution, but at the end of the day, pay most attention to temperament.”

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