William J. Carl III

When I think of a seminary president, I think of a messy desk because there’s always too much to do: this faculty appointment, that gift to the endowment, this leaky roof, that student who just has to see you now, and accreditation self-studies that come around faster than Christmas. Then there’s that never-ending capital campaign that just recycles itself every eight to ten years. I think of a ministry of interruption, which is very much like the parish.

How easy it is to go down the secular road to get a glimpse of what we need: visionary, administrator, financier, budgeter, fund-raiser, academic, marketing expert, board builder, and the list goes on. But still, there’s something missing.

“When I think of a seminary president, I think of a ministry of interruption, which is very much like the parish.”

What I’d like to suggest is that today’s seminary president needs to have qualifications that approximate five different biblical and ecclesiastical roles: judge in the Hebrew Bible, rabbi in the New Testament, abbot in a medieval monastery or mother superior in a convent, servant-leader in the twentieth century and global ecumenist in the twenty-first century. Clearly, these roles overlap and complement each other.

In reality, a seminary president functions as an Old Testament judge, much more than as a prophet, priest, or king. Members of the faculty are the prophets, teaching the church (through their lectures, sermons, and books) to be a prophetic community. Pastors and laity are priests, mediating on behalf of a broken and hurting world. God is the only one we can call king, and that term has too much of a male-oriented designation to be inclusive any more. Certainly, the seminary president on occasion “models” prophetic utterance and activity, mediates and offers directives. But more than anything, the seminary president is like one of those judges in the Old Testament.

The period of the judges in the Hebrew Bible was a little like the Wild West in the pioneer days of American history. Like an Old Testament judge, the president has to referee the thoroughbreds, the best and the brightest theological teachers in the church. The president should keep a loose rein on the faculty, giving them room to maneuver. The president gives the faculty, staff, and student body the latitude to range far and wide in theological exploration. And when judgments have to be made, the president judges collegially, fairly, and equally.

The rabbi of the New Testament is the second model for presidential leadership in a theological school. In Fiddler on the Roof, when the main character, Tevye, dances and sings, “If I were a rich man,” he says he’d sit around all day and study Torah, and people would come and ask him questions as if he were Solomon the Wise. So, studying Scripture would be the pinnacle for the person who had everything money could buy. We know that the word rabbi comes from rav or rab, which can mean “Oh great one!” and that would be the proper way to address all faculty members.

The president-as-rabbi points to the academic side of the job. The president is not only the chief teacher, but also the chief student, who is always learning and growing and modeling that for future pastors. The other thing is that a good rabbi is a great disciple-gatherer. Disciples come in two categories: faculty and student body. A seminary president, through a dean and an admissions staff, gathers both. In Jesus’s day, disciples were not just students in a classroom; they were also Jesus’s faculty, although Peter had a hard time accepting tenure and Paul spent too much time on the road delivering endowed lectureships. Paul, like some scholars today, never had an unpublished thought.

What the good rabbi does is to gather people who are “disciplined” in the study of scripture, theology, history, etc., who are enthusiastic about opening others to the “mysteries of God.” The good seminary president does the same, again as in the case of the judge, leaving plenty of room for academic freedom.

The third image for the contemporary seminary president is that of abbot or mother superior. An abbot or mother superior in the middle ages wore several hats: fund-raiser, administrator, spiritual leader and pastor to the whole community. A seminary president, above all else, is worldly-wise, street-smart and spiritually sensitive.

Here, the term administrator carries with it an emphasis on “ministry.” A good mother superior or abbot is as “wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove,” and understands good business practices while at the same time demonstrating a proper theological balance in performing them. A good seminary president not only knows how to do things right, but how to do “the right things.” The abbot and the mother superior listen to “the least of these” on campus as well as the full-tenured professors and the biggest givers.

The seminary president is a combination of conductor, coach, and cheerleader, who teaches and practices the four S’s—no secrets, no surprises, no subversion, and lots of support—and models proper behavior by developing a community of trust where people don’t attack each other behind the back, but have the right to disagree in person knowing that mutual respect and affection are not at stake. The seminary president models a spiritual life and encourages the spiritual growth of all, including faculty and staff.

The fourth image is that of servant-leader. Just read Robert Greenleaf, who cornered the market on the idea, or at least perfected what Moses and Jesus lived. The seminary president as servant-leader means being tough-skinned when the arrows start flying. It means understanding the idea of sacrificial, agape love and kenotic humility. It means not being hampered by the ego thing and caring more about the educational and spiritual formation going on than about one’s own reputation in the church.

The true servant-leader is selfless and forgiving, not absolutist and demanding. Good seminary presidents admit when they are wrong and don’t blame others for their mistakes. They know their own weaknesses and are not intimidated by people who are stronger than they are, in fact, try to gather around themselves teachers and leaders who complement them. Servant-leader presidents love to take the focus off themselves and let others shine, giving credit where credit is due.

The final image of the modern seminary president is that of global ecumenist, who sees the panoply of religious traditions present in our world today and recognizes gifts in all of them. This kind of president understands and nurtures the ecumenical nature of the modern theological seminary while at the same time upholding the faith and order of its own theological heritage. The global ecumenist envisions and develops interfaith possibilities for theological education in an increasingly diverse and multicultural world. Finally, the ecumenical president models mission service by making sure the seminary community is truly international and by traveling with students and or faculty to mission sites around the world.

Trustees who understand their responsibility to attract agile minds with pastors’ hearts to lead and teach in their seminaries will serve the church well and fulfill their mission of being good stewards.


For more information on servant-leadership please visit the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Leadership, a nonprofit organization, located in Indianapolis, Indiana, devoted to promoting the understanding of the principles and practices of servant-leadership.

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