“What’s new?” is a question that’s often put to us by a friend or colleague when we meet. And more often than not we (or at least I) reply, “Same old same old.” The reply is not only a cliche and the false currency of a lazy mind—it’s the product of an incurious eye that looks but doesn’t see.
For me, as I write this “Focal Point” column, everything is new. This is the last time I will speak to you from this space. With the completion of the preparation of this New Year 2004 issue of In Trust magazine, fifteen years after colleagues and I launched a still-unnamed publication for trustees and senior administrators of theological schools, I will retire. In Trust is in good hands, sailing under the captaincy of Christa R. Klein, who has been a part of the organization in one capacity or another since our earliest days. In the months ahead she will be putting her own imaginative stamp on the organization.
But me, I get an opportunity late in life to live more intensely into the kind of future that I believe is increasingly in store for most of us and the institutions we serve. It’s a future in which tomorrow is almost sure to be different from today. Colleagues grumbled occasionally that I have harped overmuch in these pages on the topic of a rapidly changing world. I plead guilty to the charge, and defend myself by the comment that many people, too many people, people I care about, are still charting their courses far more by inertia than by innovation.
People and organizations that fail to adapt to the rapid change around them, that neglect taking note of the unfamiliar expectations, hopes, and experiences of the rising generation, that do not learn the new language evolving in our midst are in danger. They risk greater disconnectedness, less impact on the larger community, and fewer credible answers to the question that should be frequently before each and all of us: What’s the point of what I am/we are doing?
Considerations like this should be of particular immediacy to educational institutions. The fewer eager, committed, gifted, imaginative students that seek to drink from our wells of wisdom, the less reason we will have to gather and preserve wisdom, and the harder we’ll find it to raise the money to pay for what we’re doing.
Much of this issue of In Trust is devoted to suggesting to boards that they prepare themselves for the unexpected, that they envisage a larger role for themselves not only “just in case” but also because the job of theological school leadership has become too complex and diverse for any one person to do it all.
Ultimately the question of what’s the point of what we’re doing is a question that the board has responsibility for answering. But the board can’t hope to answer it meaningfully without knowing the answers to two prior questions: What are we doing? and, Who’s doing it? And that requires a kind of continuing, thorough examination of and participation in the organization that few boards engage in. The board should be a major “sense-maker” of the organization, to borrow Karl E. Weick’s term (See pages 17 and 29). Ways that boards might, and probably should, pursue sense-making are described in this issue in “The Board Recaptures Governance,” a conversation with Barbara E. Taylor, and in “What’s the Governing Body For?,” which Taylor wrote in collaboration with William P. Ryan and Richard P. Chait. For many boards this will be a new way of thinking about what they might do.
Sense-making, I have come to realize, is a role I too have played in the building of In Trust. It is what I was doing as I found the voice in which I spoke directly in this column and indirectly in the selection and development of the articles that appeared in our pages and on our web site. But for me, this call to sense-making is broader than issues of nonprofit governance alone.
I am not abandoning my deep interest in governance, but the time has now come for me to explore some of those other areas of life’s pilgrimage about which I need greater understanding.
You will hear from me again in In Trust’s pages from time to time as I am invited by In Trust’s leaders to speak up. Until then, thank you for listening. I hope you have found it useful.
Farewell, and Godspeed.