The title for this talk came from my listening to some of your predecessors—people like you who have been appointed as leaders of theological schools. Most of these people came to their presidency the same way that you have: A search committee and board had an idea about the needs of the school and the directions that should be pursued, and an idea about the candidates' gifts and abilities that would move the school in the needed directions—to do good. Like you, they felt chosen to do the job that they and the board had identified. Leadership is, after all, the work of leaders and followers to move an institution from one point to another. If the institution has no place to go, it doesn’t need leadership. Going from one place to another in an institution’s life, or from one pattern of educational programming to another, or from one kind of institutional procedure to another always involves change. Most presidents, through the interview process and their own discernment, come to the presidency with a charge—the school needs some things done, and if done, these things will introduce changes, both large and small.
After the inauguration, the other formal and informal “hellos,” and the first few changes that organizations grant new leaders, I have heard presidents make statements like, “It is so hard to get anything done in this school.” The least little change in direction, let alone the big changes they thought they were appointed to make, take so much time, require so much consultation, and absorb so much energy. Like changing the order of worship in a country church, the effort seems disproportionate to the change. The result is that, while they have a charge—a responsibility to see that some things happen for the well-being of the school— they are not in charge. They don't have the ability, by themselves or with their immediate staff, to make things happen, at least easily or in a time frame that seems proportionate to the amount of change the action represents.
The Cost of Change
1. The nature of governance in theological schools. At least one contributing factor is the kind of governance that the ATS standards describe as “shared governance” among board, faculty, and administration. Its intent is to use a range of expertise to guide the school and to cultivate a sense of ownership across the school’s internal constituencies. This pattern of decision-making is different from the corporate model; it’s unique to higher education institutions. When a school is healthy and all groups care for the mission of the school, it is the best of all possible systems. It requires time—lots of time—but in the end, the result is worth the effort. However, when a school is conflicted and different groups have different visions of the school’s mission or needs, it does not work very well. It can result in a governance structure that is shaped more by veto than by sharing, each group holding the process and the school hostage at critical points. Most ATS schools are not conflicted like that, and it is likely not the future you are facing. But shared governance involves not only working with the board, but also working with all the constituents that have a share in the school’s governance and exercising leadership that helps all of them move toward achieving the school’s goals.
Shared governance requires skills that other forms of governance do not. It requires a fundamental sense of patience. It takes more time than other patterns of institutional decision-making. It requires the ability to work in uniquely different ways with faculty, boards, and administrative staffs. The same pattern of work seldom works with all three groups. It requires the capacity to work with an integrity of purpose and care for all of these groups, even while working in different ways with each of them. Shared governance also places the burden primarily on the president to interpret the perspectives and expertise of each of the constituent groups to one another.
It is easy to become frustrated with shared governance because it is complex and, as authority structures go, clumsy. But it has many virtues that commend it, not the least of which is that any change agreed to by all parties has good chance for success.
2. The size of theological schools. As higher education institutions go, theological schools are pretty small. The average ATS school has about 300 students and fifteen of both faculty and professional administrators. This is not like most other kinds of higher education institutions, where an administration can maneuver its way around a faculty, if it desires to, in order to accomplish some institutional goal. Quite apart from patterns of governance, the smaller the school, the more power each individual has. Interestingly, an Auburn Center study in the early 1990s found that ATS faculty were generally more contented with their school’s administration than are faculty in other types of higher education institutions. Size is a likely factor. The administrators are known, and they are not remote from the faculty like they are in large universities. Smaller size does not necessarily make communication any easier, but it does make it mandatory that communication occurs as the president leads a seminary through change or advancement.
3. ATS schools tend to be centers of value and meaning for many of the people who work in them. Most of the people who work in theological schools attach a strong sense of value to their work and to the work of the school, and they take changes personally, which means that leaders need to be sensitive and proceed slowly and consultatively.
Many of the people who teach in seminaries are engaged in the scholarly work of interpretation. Sometimes the habits of interpretation, essential to their scholarly work, get extended to their institutional work environment, and an apparent meaning is ascribed to administrative actions or some encrypted meaning is presumed to be present in an action, as discerned through coffee-break conversations. Sometimes, I think that the “hermeneutic of suspicion” was invented by staff and faculty trying to interpret presidential actions, and then, subsequently, applied to scholarly interpretation of texts! Meaning-making in work environments has its problems, but it may also be the strongest asset that theological schools possess.
1. Calling is necessary when the work is hard. Leadership in theological education is a calling, I think, and callings are about tasks that are difficult, like leaving the Ur of the Chaldees or taking up a cross and following Jesus.
If the task were easy, there would be no need for a calling. Jim Dittes, in a book several decades old now, reminds pastors that in those troubling moments when the people in the congregation say no, or break their promises, or resist the gospel's claim on their lives—the things that cause pastors to doubt their work and their calling—these very moments can help pastors understand this calling. It is precisely because people in congregations do these kinds of things that they need pastors.
Seminaries need presidents because the work is hard, very hard at times.
2. Leadership is a function of a community. Leadership is not a private exercise of gifts for the enjoyment or benefit of others. Leadership is a function of a community, not of individuals. A soloist doesn’t need a director, a choir does. A conductor of the symphony or director of the choir is needed because the job to be done requires a community of persons to do it—mixing melodies and harmonies and rhythm and silence that create musical art and meaning. One person cannot make a theological school; it takes students, faculty, administrators, contributors, trustees, and congregational and denominational constituents. It takes all of these people to accomplish the vocation of the school, and only they can accomplish it.
3. Vocation of the community. Because leadership is a function of the community, the vocation of the leader is rooted in the “vocation of the community.” Leadership is a necessity that communities require in order to accomplish their vocation. Leaders help a community do its work by reminding the community of its vocation (why it exists), by giving organizational direction to the community (how the vocation is translated into tasks and work), and by helping the community find the resources for its vocation (what talents and treasure are required to fulfill the vocation). The literature I have seen on leadership focuses a great deal on the attributes, skills, and characteristics of leaders, but, while I am sure all leaders have attributes and skills, I think we need to give much more attention to the vocation of the community and the community’s responsibility for nurturing leaders, as well as its responsibility to function as a lead-able ensemble. The work of leadership is hard, but it takes so much time and effort because it’s the community that needs to do the work.
4. Understanding presidential effectiveness in terms of the community’s accomplishments. Understanding that leadership is rooted in the community’s calling requires a greater commitment to evaluating presidential efforts in terms of the community’s vocational purpose. This would be a very different way of understanding presidential success. Press releases about presidential accomplishments often read, in effect:
During President Krypton’s tenure, a distinguished faculty was appointed, the endowment grew from $3 million to $30 million, a new chapel was built, and student housing was renovated. It was a successful presidency.
These announcements don’t say much about whether the president helped the school accomplish its vocation. In my fantasies, I someday would like to read an announcement like this:
Because of President Nowhere’s leadership, the school greatly increased its ability to educate persons so that graduates are providing more pastorally skilled, theologically informed leadership for their congregations. During these years, the faculty engaged in the kind of scholarship that has helped the church, the community, and the academy think more wisely and well about critical issues in our time. It was agreed by many (even in a fantasy press release, I can’t imagine a theological school where agreement could be unanimous) that, during the president’s tenure, the work and learning of the faculty and students contributed significantly to the church’s capacity to interpret its vision effectively and meaningfully to this culture.
At the heart of the president’s calling is the hope that the theological school will accomplish its calling.
The Choice Is Yours
I don’t know if a conference for new presidents is the proper place to bring up epitaphs on cemetery grave stones. A historian acquaintance of mine in Louisville has been studying gravestone sayings in nineteenth-century cemeteries. He found one in which the epitaph meant to say, “He did everything for Christ’s sake.” Unfortunately, the stonecutter inserted a comma, and the epitaph, as punctuated, read, “He did everything, for Christ’s sake.” I suppose the challenge I want to raise with you early in your presidency is about punctuation for the seminaries’ final word about your efforts. Which of two choices excites your imagination more? Is it that you were good, or that you did well by leading the seminary to do the good it was called to do?