Is there a high-quality theological school whose director of development is not crucial to its success? Where the CFO does not have a competent eye on all aspects of the budget? Are there any effective theological school presidents who survive without a first-rate administrative assistant? Any seminarians who were recruited without a competent and enthusiastic admissions staff?
I’ve served theological institutions and observed the broader landscape of education for close to four decades, and with that perspective, I would like to propose that staff members are too often ignored at the schools that rely on them so heavily. Staff members deserve acknowledgment for their role in the education and formation of students, not just at an annual appreciation lunch. They deserve fair pay for their labor. And they deserve a place at the table when big decisions are being made. The staff members of our institutions ought to be recognized as full-fledged members of the community of theological educators.
With this in mind, here are eight things to consider:
1. Presence and flexibility. In most schools, staff members arrive and leave at specified times with little room for self-direction. With the exception of vacation time, they work throughout the calendar year, not on the academic calendar. Yet the relative inflexibility of their work schedule is seldom acknowledged, nor are they given many opportunities for flexible scheduling. Are there ways to acknowledge the year-round presence of staff members? Are flexible work schedules or working from home an option, at least for part of the year?
2. Decisions. Many policy decisions in educational institutions are made with little input from the staff — even when these staff members know first-hand how policies will affect students, faculty, and the system in general. Usually staff members carry out policy directives, and they’re the first to know when a new decision is not working well. In what ways can input from appropriate staff members be solicited and implemented both before and after policy decisions are made?
3. Inequity. In many theological schools, faculty members are more likely to be male, while staff members are more likely to be female. In some cases, there are differences in age, length of service, and pay (with faculty trending older, with longer service and higher pay). On the surface, these differences may seem purely demographic, but they perpetuate power dynamics that put staff members at a disadvantage. Are formal policies (for example, sexual harassment, whistle-blowing, and evaluation policies) in place to empower staff members to call out abuses and inequality when they occur? Are long-serving staff members rewarded in similar ways as long-serving faculty? Do informal practices acknowledge staff members as vital members of the educational enterprise?
4. Care. The personal, educational, and spiritual growth of students is a primary responsibility of the theological school faculty. However, in many schools, staff members also provide frontline care for students throughout the calendar year, including when most faculty members are away. Through their gifts, passions, or personality, these staff members mentor students and are instrumental in their formation. Is the formative role of staff members in the lives of students celebrated and encouraged, where appropriate? Do current salaries and job descriptions reflect these roles?
5. Creativity. Many staff members possess special creative or entrepreneurial skills — some of which are part of their day jobs, while others are honed after hours. Staff members may operate home-based businesses, lead committees or ministries at church or their children’s school, or write books or create videos on weekends. As theological education continues to change, institutions might benefit from cultivating the creative and entrepreneurial skills that staff members possess, but which they are not fully using in their current work. In what ways can such skills be identified, nurtured, and harnessed for the good of the institution?
6. The role of the board. Boards often pay careful attention to the president, faculty, and even major donors, but staff members are often in the periphery of their vision. Yet staff members have a unique perspective that provides a window into how the educational system is functioning. Their input could have a helpful impact on the board’s stewardship of the mission. How can boards find appropriate ways to invite staff members into substantive dialogue, particularly when there are institutional challenges?
7. Spirituality. Virtually everyone at a theological institution wants to bring an engaged spirituality to all that they do, especially during corporate prayer or worship. Whether by organizing chapel services, leading prayers, or attending Bible studies, staff members are a key component of the spiritual foundation of the school. In what ways can the importance of staff members on the spiritual life of the institution be acknowledged? Can staff members be better supported in their spiritual leadership?
8. Sacrifice. Many staff members have made personal, financial, and vocational sacrifices to be part of a theological school. Some have qualifications that surpass what is required in their particular role but choose to serve humbly because they love the mission of the institution. Others are generous financial givers or volunteer at special events outside their work hours. What are some appropriate ways to celebrate and acknowledge the financial and vocational sacrifices and gifts that staff members make on behalf of the institution?
Theological education can, at its worst, become cerebral and disembodied, residing in the head but absent from heart or hands. While faculty members may work hard to avoid such fragmentation, it’s often the staff—many of whom are graduates of the school itself — who are the living examples of this on-the-ground theology.
Part of the problem is language. We call our institutions “academies” — an ancient and venerable word for an organization with teaching and learning at its core. But as Christians, we know that Paul calls us the “body of Christ,” where different gifts and expertise are operative in a more holistic way, and all parts work together for a common purpose. Ultimately, that purpose is glorifying our Head, who is Christ.