What will be expected of me? That is often the number one question new theological school board members ask. Not knowing the key responsibilities for a new role is a shaky way to embark on an important job.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

A carefully crafted orientation process introduces new board members to a school’s mission, vision, and strategic priorities, and to the roles and responsibilities of the board. It should be more than just a welcome dinner where everyone introduces themselves. Instead, it needs to be thoughtful, targeted, and regularly repeated.

“No one is born a perfect board member or, should I say, no one is born a perfect board member for your school,” says Rod Wilson, former president of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a former member of the board of directors of the Association of Theological Schools. He adds, “Everyone needs a thorough orientation to what it means to serve on this particular board, at this particular time, with these particular challenges.” Wilson was a co-presenter of a recent In Trust Center webinar on board orientation titled “Lead Your Board in the Right Direction” (available for viewing at www.intrust.org/webinars).

Instead of focusing on general information about the school, orientation should focus on the board’s governance issues — policy making, decision making, committees, oversight, investments and finances, and the relationships among the president, faculty, and staff says Rebekah Burch Basinger, project director of the In Trust Center’s Wise Stewards Initiative, who was the webinar’s other co-presenter.

Basinger suggests that orientation plans should specify what they want to accomplish, be clear about why orientation matters, and include creative solutions on presenting the information efficiently and effectively. The goal is to make a board’s work and culture clear for new members, she says.

New members should not feel that they’ve been asked to “sit” on a board, which implies passivity. Instead, orientation should communicate that they have been invited because of their expertise or experience in strategic planning, fundraising, or other areas. New board members are always going to be motivated when they are used in their areas of passion and expertise, Wilson says.

While it may be tempting to hold off on orientation “until next time” when there are only one or two new members who have joined the board, too often the “next time” never comes, Basinger says.

While the format of the orientation for small groups or even a single new member may vary, the material covered and the seriousness of the process should be the same. “The few need or deserve orientation as much as the many,” says Basinger.

An ongoing process

In fact, all board members — not just newcomers — can be invited to participate in the orientation process. This solves the problem of orientation only for a small number of newbies. “We can all use a refresher course,” Basinger says. “There’s always something new to learn.”

Even for the new members, orientation should not be a once-and-done event, says Wilson. “It’s an ongoing process that begins in advance of a new member’s first meeting and continues throughout his or her first year.”

Orientation can begin even before the new members’ first meeting, with the sharing of some documents, including a board handbook. (Download A Guide to Developing Your Board Handbook at www.intrust.org/Online-resources/Resource-guides.)

While orientation is the board’s responsibility (usually coming under the purview of the governance committee), new board members should realize their responsibility, too. Basinger says, “You’ll guide them and educate them, but they can do some of the work themselves.” They can peruse the school’s website, read blogs and listen to podcasts by the president or faculty members, and attend public events like convocation or graduation.

Another way to assist new members is by assigning them a board buddy to show them around the campus and help them to get a feel for the institution’s culture.

On the day of orientation and afterward

On orientation day, avoid the lecture format and try to make the presentation lively and interactive, Basinger advises. Include a campus tour.

Within a couple of months after orientation, follow up with new board members to see if they have further questions. The president or the board chair may also consider visiting new board members in their hometowns if it is feasible.

In addition to orientation, reorientation is valuable for all board members, even long-serving ones. Because schools and boards often face new challenges, it may mean there are new topics for board education, including new policies, and new duties (such as hiring a new president). When that happens, board orientation and reorientation should be brought up to date. “It should always be about this particular institution at this particular time,” says Basinger.

What to cover

Because new board members have so much to learn — everything from the mundane, like typical dress for meetings, to the complexity of the institution’s financial picture — it is a good idea not to inundate them with an overly comprehensive orientation that leaves them feeling overwhelmed.

By carefully planning the orientation process, this kind of information overload can be avoided. Information about the school and its constituencies can be brief, supplementing what new members already know with an overview of the financial picture, enrollment patterns, and institutional planning goals of the institution.

“I think it’s natural to want to talk about what we love about the school and how it functions, and that’s not a bad thing,” Wilson says, “but that shouldn’t be all the orientation you give.” In addition to board service and board priorities, orientation should also include an overview of the school and its constituency, how the school is positioned in the broader educational industry and education about the contemporary landscape of theological higher education.

Because the industry is undergoing such an enormous paradigm shift, it is important to educate new board members — and current board members too — about the current landscape of the sector. This should include the following:

  • Changing student profiles
  • Student debt
  • The shift away from full-time faculty
  • The costs and benefits of new curricula
  • Technology
  • Public scrutiny including accreditation requirements and relevant federal, state or provincial, and local regulations
  • New or shifting financial models

A review of what issues dominated the board’s work in the previous year, as well as a preview of issues on the agenda for the upcoming year, can help orient new members to the board’s priorities and some of the history around them.

Wilson says he sometimes asks new board members to share any previous board experiences, including what worked well and what did not. This not only provides board leaders and the president further insight to the newcomer, but it can lead to clarification of this board’s expectations, which may be different from the new member’s past board service.

While orientation is primarily a one-way communication of information, Wilson says more “reciprocal mutuality” can help to recalibrate that power imbalance. “Orientation implies someone has a lot to learn, and that’s fine. It has its place,” he says. “But I think one of the problems in theological education is there is not enough listening.”

When Basinger joined the board of the Lancaster Theological Seminary (a United Church of Christ school in Pennsylvania), her orientation included some time for personal sharing and listening to others. After the formal presentations were over, Basinger and one other new member joined the board chair and trustee committee chair in the school’s parlor for informal sharing about each person’s faith.

“It was really lovely and a reminder of why we’re here,” Basinger recalls, noting that such an exercise would be unlikely in other types of boards. “It gave us a chance to ground our board service within the context of a theological school and the religious purpose of the institution.”

More information

Wise Stewards Guide: The Roles and Responsibilities of Boards in Theological Education is available at www.intrust.org/Online-resources/Resource-guides. 

To request a copy of the Facilitator’s Edition, which includes case scenario worksheets and discussion questions, email resources@intrust.org. 

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Roles & Responsibilities
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