For leaders of theological schools, it’s old news that the sector is experiencing a historic sea change. Long-held assumptions about the who, what, where, and how of theological education are being upended at breakneck speed. As with most everything pressed to become new, seminary leaders are racing to repurpose, renew, or replace “what is” for “what must be.”
Or rather, they are changing everything except what is occurring in their own boardrooms. Meeting agendas, committee structures, and conversations around theological school board tables can sometimes feel stuck in time. Even fundamental priorities — for example, the health and well-being of the board itself — appear not to have changed much. A recent review of theological school board self-assessments that the In Trust Center facilitated in the 1990s and 2000s shows that board members gave themselves high marks for being committed to institutional missions, care of the president, and finances, but much lower marks for attention to self-development and education.
Many boards are in the same situation today. Even when they try to adhere to a plan for self-improvement, there are always urgent matters that divert them from focusing on themselves. Sticking to a plan for self-improvement is as difficult for a governing board as it is for an individual.
At least that’s what institutional leaders reported in their applications to participate in the first year of the In Trust Center’s Wise Stewards Initiative, which began in the fall of 2018. And that is what made this project so valuable for the boards of the 10 theological schools that were accepted for the first cohort. “Change takes time and intentionality,” said one board chair who took part. “Participation in the Wise Stewards Initiative required our board to make room for both.”
Participants were challenged to move board development from the periphery of their work to the center — to put it first on their agenda instead of last. They also made a commitment to focus on their own readiness and capacity for leadership as a board rather than on the latest crisis. It has become clear to many participants that focusing on self-development for only one year is hardly long enough to solidify, for the long haul, any meaningful changes or improvements in board functioning.
In March 2019, participants in the first cohort of the Wise Stewards Initiative gathered in Vancouver, Washington, for two days of learning. Board members and presidents focused on using governance to make the changes necessary for their schools to thrive in a challenging academic and religious environment.
CREDIT: JAY BLOSSOM
As members of the schools in the first cohort wrap up their year in the Wise Stewards Initiative, we asked them about specific goals or next steps they had identified during their participation in the program. The president of one school described his board’s “renewed attention to its own functioning and the role that it can play in the present and future of the school.” From rethinking committee structures (adding a committee devoted to the board’s continuing well-being, greater intentionality in recruitment, and orientation of new board members) to reviewing and revising the school’s governance documents with efficiency and flexibility, participating school boards expressed a determination to maintain the momentum they gained during the past year.
In short, these boards and presidents used their participation in the Wise Stewards Initiative to develop structures, practices, and policies to support sticky change.
At the March 2019 gathering, Wise Stewards Initiative participants strategized with their own teams, learned from other participating teams, and heard from provocative and informative speakers like Rod Wilson, one of the faculty coaches for the Wise Stewards Initiative.
CREDIT: JAY BLOSSOM
Increased focus on shared governance
Participation in the Wise Stewards Initiative also encouraged participants to be more mindful of the people with whom they share institutional governance — to see faculty, in particular, as partners rather than problems. Most of the participating board members reported that they talk with faculty members during board meetings — usually over a meal — but when asked if they ever discussed matters of real importance, like the future of the school, most board members struggled to remember even one such conversation. It’s no surprise then that many schools included the goal of enhancing shared governance practices in their plans. As board members from schools in the first cohort wrap up their year in the Wise Stewards Initiative, they say they look forward to maximizing the potential of shared governance, especially in managing change. “We have a way to go in building trust and respect, and we know the ball’s in our court to make the first move,” said one board chair.
Increased focus on fundraising
From the self-assessments completed by the first-year cohort, we discovered that most board members are not particularly involved in fundraising activities. And, when we asked presidents what they do to support and equip board members for fundraising, most were honest in admitting that they thought they didn’t do enough. There’s commitment to do better on both sides — board and administration — beginning with providing more thorough information about fundraising during board member recruitment and orientation.
There is a risk in assessing results after just one year of the Wise Steward’s Initiative. But if determination, a plan, and a sense of urgency are harbingers of things to come, there’s a very good chance change is on the way — and this time,
it may stick.
What is the Wise Stewards Initiative?
The Wise Stewards Initiative was developed by the In Trust Center to help theological schools build board and staff capacity for better institutional governance. With support from the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust, it will run for three years with a total of 30 participating theological schools, 10 in each year. The first Wise Stewards cohort went through the program in 2018–19, the next in 2019–20, and the final cohort will participate in 2020–21. Each participating school is paired with a faculty coach for individual work, and each cohort also meets at a spring conference. The curriculum, resources, and format have been designed by experienced educators, administrators, and consultants, all of whom have firsthand knowledge of graduate theological education.
Participating schools receive practical insights, tools, and strategies for inspiring and educating current and future board members. The content of the program is organized around four areas: creating space for innovation, leading change, and maximizing potential; reimagining governance as a force for change; the president/board partnership in institutional renewal; and the roles and responsibilities of the boards of theological schools.
Some spaces are still available for the 2020–21 cohort. For more information: www.intrust.org/Programs/Wise-Stewards-Initiative.