It was about buying a friend a dish of ice cream -- and much more. One day in the summer of 1998, Bob Dugan left his Washington, D.C., office, flew cross-country to San Francisco, and, in the splendor of Ghirardelli Square, indulged Clyde McDowell's passion for the frosty treat.

Dugan's gesture sprang from personal ties and his role as a seminary caretaker. As chair of the board of directors of Denver Seminary, he was close to McDowell, then the seminary's president. That summer McDowell's life was threatened by a brain tumor and he had gone to San Francisco for radiation therapy. From the onset of symptoms in the spring, Dugan had kept in close touch. Aware that McDowell had left family and supporters behind to seek a remedy, Dugan decided to head west to offer cheer and prayer and to celebrate life at the ice cream parlor.

McDowell lived less than a year after that occasion. At every step of the way, Dugan and his board colleagues adjusted policies in keeping with their purpose of honoring the dying president's wishes while attending to the needs of the seminary. Like all such situations, the Denver Seminary experience had its distinct features and personalities that gave it a set of dynamics and practical problems special to it. What it has in common with most others, however, is that the central drama in response to crisis takes place between the governing board and the rest of the seminary.

Sitting on a board can perhaps be compared to occupying the emergency exit seat on an airplane. The chances that an emergency will take place may be small, but if one does occur, those in the strategic positions must spring into action or explain why if they don't.

Of the calamities that suddenly befall a seminary, none is usually more traumatic or far-reaching than the loss of a president. Presidents -- or CEOs by other names -- obviously matter a great deal to small, faith-based institutions like theological schools. In addition to keeping the financial and administrative wheels on the school, they often function as the embodiment of the pastor whose ties to the faculty and students are close and mutually supportive. To a degree not generally possible in larger institutions, the seminary president, by virtue of character and commitment, can profoundly shape the academic and spiritual climate of the school. Clyde McDowell fit that description. In the brief eighteen months between his assuming Denver's presidency and the first signs of the brain tumor, he had begun the process of revamping the entire seminary curriculum to what preparation for the parish ministry required, as envisioned by the previous president, Haddon Robinson. At the same time, he had deeply touched members of the seminary community.

The sudden departure of a president or other important seminary official is perhaps the clearest example of an unexpected crisis that demands the immediate attention of the governing board. Worries may arise from every corner, questioning whether the crisis may weaken already weak monetary resources; whether the seminary's sponsors will seize the moment to close the school on grounds that it is redundant; whether new leadership can pick up the standard and go on; whether faith can be sustained after such a wrenching blow as death or ethical transgression; and more. The board, in effect, may be asked to step into a highly distraught, nervous, fearful community with a broad mandate to bolster belief and confidence and at the same time steer the school through a strengthening of its organizational structure.

At such times, the board chair typically becomes the person at the center of the intervention, aided in most cases by the executive committee and in due course by the entire board. Responsibilities may be allotted in this or that direction, depending on the school and the board, but the board chair usually remains the overseer, following his or her best instincts through an unforeseen chapter of personal and seminary life.

This article examines how four boards, including Denver's, responded to crises thrust upon them. Each illustrates an effort to tailor resources and different styles of leadership to particular circumstances.

Three of the schools experienced the death of the president. For Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, the loss of its president, Timothy Lull, came like a lightning bolt. At Prairie Graduate School in Calgary, Alberta, Rick Down was, like McDowell, victim of a brain tumor and gone in less than a year. At Denver, the vigil around McDowell's welfare was kept for eighteen months.

The fourth study involves Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where the president, John Mulder, resigned abruptly in the fall of 2002 for reasons of health. Nearly a year later it was revealed that he had confessed to sexual misconduct.

When tragedy strikes, what does a board do? Each is distinct, yet, as these profiles show, all found basic answers in common. Among them: the ability to identify temporary, competent leadership; success in pulling together; keeping everyone informed; and, of course, the dedication of the board chair to ride out the crisis.

Pacific Lutheran had been on a financial knife-edge for several years, but Tim Lull, by dint of his sterling reputation among Lutheran scholars and in wider ecumenical circles, bolstered the seminary's standing as a quality, national institution. Pacific Lutheran's identity as a small component in the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California, was considerably linked to his.

When the 60-year-old Lull announced at the board meeting in the spring of 2003 that he would soon undergo prostate surgery, nothing seemed alarming. On May 8, the operation was performed successfully. Seminary graduation took place May 17 and Lull, true to his word, delivered the commencement address. Witnesses said it was vintage Lull, stirring and profound.

Three days later, he was dead of a blood clot to the heart.

The Reverend Steven McKinley, a Lutheran pastor and chair of Pacific Lutheran's board of directors, had been following events. Lull's secretary had called to report that a clot had been discovered and was being taken care of in the hospital emergency room. Then came the tragic news.

McKinley said he was "pretty shaken" but felt compelled to do what needed to be done. From his home in Minnesota, he made late evening phone calls to Lull's wife, Mary Carlton, and to several people on campus. He then e-mailed the whole board with the news. One member, a Lutheran bishop, offered to go at once to the campus to provide pastoral presence from the board to distraught members of the seminary community.

Next came the question of institutional survival. Without Lull, could Pacific Lutheran make it? Would the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the parent denomination, decide it was too small, too financially weak to go on? Would it shut down by the autumn semester?

McKinley, anticipating the surge of anxiety, moved quickly to assure the seminary that the parent denomination had no intention of closing it down. Three days after Lull's death, McKinley had enlisted two officials of the ELCA's Division of Ministry to join him in affirming Pacific Lutheran's continued existence.

The statement said the seminary board "is committed to an exciting and vibrant future for the seminary we love." The ELCA, for its part, declared that the seminary "is poised to continue strong and faithful and to grow in the service of Christ's mission."

McKinley had done all this from his base at House of Prayer Lutheran Church in the midst of the press of pastoral duties. Three funerals and a wedding were spaced through the week at the Richfield, Minnesota, parish. Meanwhile, another major item needed attention at the crisis center. Pacific Lutheran had no presidential contingency plan, but McKinley decided to name an acting president while the board searched for an interim. "I acted cavalierly," he said, "I asked [theology professor] Martha Stortz. She was trusted by Tim, has great common sense and passion for the mission of PLTS."

By week's end, McKinley was at Pacific Lutheran for Lull's funeral and to lead the hunt for an interim president. The board had already cast a wide net for candidates; one who stepped forward was Ted Peters, a veteran member of the faculty. On the day after Lull's funeral, McKinley and a colleague interviewed Peters for hours.

By June, the board's executive committee had chosen Peters, who soon secured the largest single donation in the history of the seminary. A search committee presses on to find a permanent president.

If the call in the fall of 2001 had to come to Abe Konrad, it had its fortunate side. He was attending a church study conference in Calgary, Alberta. The message was that Rick Down, the president of the seminary whose board he chaired, Prairie Graduate School of Religion, had been rushed to a hospital in the same city. "Fortuitous," Konrad recalled. He hastened to Down's bedside to assure him and his wife Naomi of his love and support.

Konrad phoned the doctor in charge and heard the bad news. Down, a rugged, hockey-playing team-builder, had a dangerous brain tumor. "The prognosis was not good from the beginning," Konrad said. "It was not contained." Another board member confirmed the grim outlook.

Moving quickly, Konrad notified key school officials and board members of the distressing developments. Acutely aware that students and faculty understood Prairie's shaky standing, Konrad, conference minister for the Alberta Mennonite Brethren, visited the campus to explain Down's fate and try to offer reassurance.

Read our four-part series on the life cycle of a successful presidency. 

In the Beginning: The Board's Role in Welcoming the New President (Spring 2004) 

Timely and Thoughtful Does It: The Board's Role in Evaluating the President (Summer 2004) 

Guardians of the Process: The Board's Role in a Presidential Search (Autumn 2004)

Managing the Sweet Sorrow of Parting: The Board's Role as the President Leaves (New Year 2005)

Prairie's future indeed was clouded. As part of a network of evangelical schools -- elementary and secondary plus a Bible college -- the graduate school had been unable to hold its own financially, requiring an $8,000 subsidy per student, compared to $1,000 in the other branches of Prairie schooling. An unaccredited institution, its enrollment was slipping badly. Down fought gamely to keep it open but at his death the board pressed ahead with a plan to switch the school's purpose and direction. Abolishing the graduate school, the board established a Maxwell Intercultural Center for Missions, still in the making; the center will attempt to supply specialized mission education for other seminaries. In the interim, the school has aided its students to enroll in other seminaries.

But through the period of Rick Down's affliction, Prairie operated with notable efficiency. Whereas many theological schools lacked clear lines of leadership succession in the event the president was incapacitated, Prairie had explicit, if somewhat unusual, guidelines. Procedures called for the appointment of a team of two administrators. Within a few days after Down's diagnosis, the team was in place. Though both appointments were given high marks, the board decided in the spring of 2002 that a single leader was preferable, and one was chosen to carry on. Meanwhile, Down continued to decline, having been placed on long-term disability, and died July 7. By January 1, 2003, the board had brought in a new president, Jon Ohlhauser, with a mandate to take the school along an entirely different path.

Clyde McDowell brought his own plan for sweeping reform of Denver Seminary when he left the pulpit of a nearby church to become the school's president at age 46. His concept, building on the vision of his predecessor, emphasized hands-on pastoral skills to prepare ministers for real-life pastorates. Less than two years into this major revision, brain cancer had taken his life. The board's mandate during his year-long illness became, therefore, both pastoral and strategic. The campus was deeply troubled by the rapid decline of its popular, vibrant president.

From the start of the ordeal, Bob Dugan, the retired public affairs director for the National Association of Evangelicals, took matters in hand. As senior member of the board (now thirty-three years in office) and its chair, he had intimate knowledge of the seminary's workings and an admiring bond with its president. As news of McDowell's illness broke, Dugan sprang into action. "I immediately pulled the board together," he said. "We understood and believed in the vision he had for Denver. I tried to constantly tell Clyde that his vision was being carried on so he'd have some joy in that."

By all accounts, the school had a strong administrative team to implement Dugan's and the board's goals of maintaining continuity and providing counsel. It included the two deans and three vice presidents. One of the first decisions was to keep the seminary aware of McDowell's condition on a weekly basis by means of a brief memorandum to the entire community.

"Dr. McDowell was discharged from the hospital on Friday afternoon," began the message sent November 13, 1998. "He is experiencing some pain and nausea and will be resting at home in the coming days. The pathology report has NOT indicated a more aggressive tumor type. A significant amount of the mass that was removed was dead tumor as a result of radiation treatment. In addition, some of the viable tumor was removed. Please pray for wisdom regarding future treatment decisions."

The same month the board bowed to the reality that the president could no longer be expected to fulfill his duties. To ensure steady functioning, they designated Dugan temporary CEO of the school. In addition to keeping in close touch with McDowell and the life on campus, Dugan spent one week a month taking care of business at the seminary. By late winter, however, Dugan felt that his lack of administrative experience was hampering his effort to do the job. Discussions with other key officials made it clear that they agreed; in response, the board in March appointed an interim president as Dugan's replacement. He was Leith Anderson, a much-respected evangelical pastor and leader. Anderson, a Minnesota pastor and graduate of the seminary, quickly established himself as a seasoned institutional leader who vigorously supported the McDowell plan for the school and summoned the school's strength for the long haul.

A little more than a year later, the board had found a new president, Craig Williford, and looked forward to a bold plan to create a bright new campus.

When the Louisville board's executive committee placed John Mulder on several weeks of administrative leave at the end of 2001 for a series of medical problems, there was among them little inkling what troubles lay ahead.

Mulder had distinguished himself among theological educators as one of the most effective and innovative seminary presidents in the country. He had presided at the school for twenty-three years. Recently he had contracted a nasty viral infection and, as it turned out, had experienced a series of slight strokes. But the expectation was that he would be back, and he indeed came back. By the following October, however, he suddenly resigned, citing poor health. The board publicly accepted his reasons and offered its gratitude for his presidency but added, somewhat puzzlingly, that it endorsed his resignation "in the best interest of the seminary."

Nearly a year later, on September 16, 2003, a fuller account of the cause of his leaving surfaced. The Presbytery of Transylvania in eastern Kentucky, to which Mulder belonged as a Presbyterian minister, formally suspended his clergy credentials, having found him guilty of sexual misconduct with several adult women. The women had made the charges of misconduct shortly before he had resigned a year before; the presbytery ordinarily required silence until its probe was finished. The Louisville Seminary board, therefore, had kept quiet about the charges and Mulder's self-confession, which chair Dorothy S. Ridings said the board knew about at the time Mulder resigned. "We could have defied the presbytery," Ridings said. "The whole board wrestled with what he did." Ridings said, referring to the final wording of the resignation announcement, "We said it was 'in the interests of the seminary' because we had to say something. It would have been easier if we could have said the whole truth." Ridings, the president of the Council on Foundations in Washington and former head of the League of Women Voters, had been in the Louisville Seminary chair only a few months when she said she received a call from her predecessor, Robert Reed, informing her of the explosive charges against Mulder. Though Mulder soon admitted committing adultery with the women, the presbytery held to a set of procedures, requiring the full investigation in secrecy. Ridings said the board was told the investigation would be finished by January. Several postponements then delayed it almost a year, much to the consternation of the board. Not only had one rather big shoe dropped when Mulder, a highly respected figure, suddenly left, but now another crisis loomed with the news that the whole story had not originally been told.

The board, meanwhile, wouldn't simply wait for the presbytery's verdict. It had a seminary to run and, to its good fortune, a superb administrative staff to make sure that happened. Mulder had a reputation for choosing gifted personnel and building collaboration. The seminary's ability to continue ahead with minimum disruption is seen as a tribute to him. A key step was naming Milton J. Coalter, a close associate of Mulder's, as acting president. Coalter, the vice president for library and information technology, Ridings said, "could run the institution without missing a beat."

One of the board's wider goals suffered a significant setback, however. Backing off from a $55 million multi-year fund-raising effort, the board put on hold the final piece -- raising $9 million for a new office and classroom building for which ground was to have been broken during the 150th anniversary of the seminary in 2003.

No ground was broken; Mulder's absence from the remaining anniversary celebration events inevitably raised questions among those taking part; and the knowledge of the presbytery inquiry dampened the spirit of the festivities for the members of the board.

Ridings strove to keep the board up to date on the state of the seminary as it labored through hard times. "We were lucky to have such a collegial board," she said. By the spring of 2003, the search for an interim president was pressing ahead, requiring, as Ridings recalls, no fewer than twenty-two executive committee meetings. Their top candidate, John Kuykendall, the emeritus president of Davidson College, had to be coaxed to come out of retirement, but accepted the position only until July 1, 2004, when the seminary expects to have chosen a permanent successor to Mulder.

Board members took an active part in selling Kuykendall on the job. Three of them volunteered to help find the Kuykendalls a home and to show them Louisville. Under Kuykendall, who began after his approval by the board at its spring 2003 meeting, the seminary has shown increasing confidence and vitality.

But Ridings echoes the heads of other boards which have faced difficult times when she describes the contrasting emotions she felt. "It was horrible in many ways," she said, "but also an uplifting and learning experience for me. Sometimes I had to remind myself that things were going to be all right."

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