In spite of being in the works for a year and on the agenda since May, a trustee training session was tabled recently when board business ran long and meeting time ran out. "There's a constant tension between time and priorities," explained the committee chairman who had designed the learning opportunity for his colleagues. "The education component often gets the slip."

Sound familiar? When boards encounter jammed agendas, they sometimes reduce, bump or eliminate blocks of time set aside to upgrade or refresh their governance skills. Something has to go, and continuing education is often seen as an expendable luxury. But priorities are changing, and a push to align trustee training with a school's strategic plan is prompting many boards to assign training a more secure slot on the schedule. Discussion topics tied to goals and objectives are gaining favor as trustees see the link between the knowledge they acquire and the challenges they face.

Responding to a request from In Trust, three seminary leaders agreed to share ideas on how to blend learning opportunities and board business. They stopped short of labeling their continuing education efforts as "best practices," preferring to view them as works in progress, always subject to improvement.

Keep in touch

I know of a board whose members go to the campus cafeteria, fan out, and eat with the students. That can be part of continuing education 

-- Adolf Hansen Vice President Emeritus Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

Call it Demographics 101. A board charged with setting policy for any learning institution can benefit from knowing the end users -- the students. That's the thinking of Adolf Hansen, one of In Trust's Governance Mentors who is also vice president emeritus of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. Hansen acknowledges that today's students enter seminary from backgrounds vastly different from those in the past.

No longer can schools assume that members of an incoming class -- particularly second-career seminarians -- hold undergraduate degrees in religion and are prepared to build on that firm foundation. They also can't assume that their campus enrollment is composed mainly of members of the school's sponsoring denomination.

"Trustees need to understand the changing demographics," says Hansen. Specifically: Where are students coming from? What are their faith traditions? How do they access data? To boost awareness, some schools set aside time for trustees to visit classrooms and witness education as it unfolds in 2008. Others plan social events that bring boards and seminarians together. These events range from formal sit-down dinners to casual brown-bag lunches. "I know of a board whose members go to the campus cafeteria, fan out, and eat with the students," says Hansen. "That can be part of continuing education."

Take a field trip

Trustee retreats, although expensive, can provide a relaxed setting that promotes group learning. "It's like when you attended church camp as kids," says John Martin, president of Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York. "More can happen in a week at church camp than in a year at Sunday school. There's something about being in a 24-hour-a-day experience, away from the hubbub, that allows a lot of learning to take place. Bringing in a guest speaker from outside the education world can enhance the experience. Martin recalls attending a session led by a hospital foundation executive who talked about a board's role in fundraising. The response was enthusiastic, in part because the "message" -- familiar to some -- was delivered by an unfamiliar messenger.

There's something about being in a 24-hour-a-day experience, away from the hubbub, that allows a lot of learning to take place."

--John Martin, President
Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College 
(Northeastern Seminary)

Small details, such as the seating arrangement at a retreat, can affect the success of an educational session. Trustees who can interact face to face are more likely to engage in dialogue than if they sit in rows. Pairing new board members with veterans as "conversation partners" accomplishes two goals. First, the newcomer benefits from the veteran's knowledge and experience; second, the veteran is exposed to the newcomer's fresh perspective.

Not all retreats need to occur at offsite conference facilities. Hansen sees merit in taking trustees on field trips that connect with a school's strategic plan. For example, if a campus is going to step up its emphasis on urban ministry, why not take board members to the inner city? "Spend a half-day in a barrio of Chicago," says Hansen. This way, trustees will understand the program's goals and will make decisions based on that understanding.

Get on the same page

At Episcopal Divinity School, the board and the faculty take a consultative approach to continuing education. "There are always faculty leaders in the room during our training experiences," explains trustee Douglas Fitzsimmons. "We consider the faculty our principal advisors on learning; we try to get the board aligned with those learning experiences that the faculty and staff have taken upon themselves for their own growth." The number of faculty sitting in on a board training session depends on the topic. If the faculty is already well schooled on a subject, they need not participate. "Conversely, if everybody is getting 'washed' for the first time, then we all get washed," says Fitzsimmons.

In many areas, the board is playing catch-up to the faculty. As an example, antiracism is a part of Episcopal Divinity School's mission and the subject of much discussion among faculty and staff. Board members agreed last year that they needed to update themselves on how the campus was approaching the topic. "So we're working with the director of field education at the seminary to construct a learning syllabus for the board on that subject," says Fitzsimmons. A training session has been penciled onto the board's agenda for its February meeting.

The consultative relationship between trustees and faculty, which Fitzsimmons calls an "integration of voices on issues of common interest," slows decision-making but boosts acceptance of decisions. When it comes to implementing the long-term strategic plan of the campus, "you've got to have everyone moving in the same direction," advises Fitzsimmons.

Harness technology

Reaching consensus on how much to invest in educational technology is less of a challenge for trustees who access technology for their own education. Adolf Hansen knows of a board that uses the teleconferencing equipment of a neighboring university so that out-of-state members can participate in committee meetings. In this way, "someone in Florida can make a motion, someone in Arizona can second the motion, and someone in Minnesota can initiate discussion," he says. Sessions such as these illustrate that technology not only can create a virtual boardroom for trustees but also can create a virtual classroom for students located far from campus.

A more direct way of demonstrating technology's value in an education setting is by employing distance learning for trustee training. Rather than booking an outside resource person for a full day of instruction and paying for travel and lodging, a board can arrange for an electronic hookup that allows for two-way communication between the presenter and the board members. In addition to the material that the expert shares, "the delivery of the material becomes part of the continuing education," explains Hansen.

Make it intentional

To prevent trustee training from becoming predictable, experts endorse the idea of building variety into the curriculum. As an example, Northeastern Seminary's John Martin is planning a "personal growth" seminar to help board members in the second half of their careers decide how to use their time and resources to benefit nonprofit organizations. The lessons imparted will apply to members' volunteer activities beyond their seminary service. Other learning opportunities range from providing trustees with reading material -- often distilled to executive summaries -- to attending educational events sponsored by professional organizations. As different as the opportunities are, the best ones share a common characteristic: They are intentional.

"We keep a list of topics that we want to broaden ourselves on," explains Douglas Fitzsimmons from Episcopal Divinity School. "We're not fabulously rich, but we have a line item in the budget [for continuing education]. Our intent is that every year we will have learning experiences."

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