This article is adapted from an essay, "Stewards of Hope: The Work of Trustees," to be included in Building Effective Boards for Religious Institutions: A Handbook for Trustees, Presidents, and Church Leaders, edited by Thomas P. Holland and David C. Hester, to be published by Jossey-Bass (Fall 1999). Printed with permission.
In the work of governance, inquiry (the practice of thoughtful questions) is most frequently expressed in settings we call meetings. Many times, though, meetings are not so much occasions of conversation, inquiry, and relationship as they are platforms for already determined outcomes. In this regard, trustee meetings often are made up of one committee report after another. As an alternative to this usual way of doing things, the meeting of the board of trustees should be considered as an event that includes different kinds of meetings and occasions. These meetings flow from the board’s own work in determining the issues that are most important in the life of the school—the issues that must be researched, discussed, and addressed in the board and other communities of institutional life that share the activities of governance. This is so central to the work of trustees and presidents that it should become the essential focus of their work.
The president’s office brings this work about. It begins during the annual review of the president and trustees that usually is conducted by the executive committee of the board in June when the president presents a memo discussing the goals set and the work done during the current year. The president also frames the emerging issues that are crucial for the seminary and the work of the board of trustees in the coming year. Behind the president’s memo lies extensive research and consultation with staff and board committees. The latter should continually review issues that are primarily their responsibility and try to anticipate the new issues emerging within the institution or external factors that may impact it. Each committee should maintain its own plan of work that names issues and questions, develops a schedule for research and consultation, and considers the way these issues need to go to the board for inquiry and action.
In the June meeting, president and executive committee agree on the issues that are to be the work of the whole board for the coming year. This decision by trustees is the key to inquiry in the whole institution because it requires a plan of work, a schedule of collaboration with those involved and affected most directly, and the creation of a series of meetings and tasks that will make possible the trustees’ inquiry and possible decision-making.
Each issue should be developed in regard to the kind of data required to generate usable information, the necessary process of collaboration and consultation, and the schedule of board meetings when these various steps will be taken. Thus the nature of the year’s meetings will be shaped by the issues the board needs to address and the kinds of decisions, if appropriate, it will have to make. This kind of process requires the development of priorities and the designation of key issues. While unpredictable issues always arise in the life of the school, this process aims at sustaining a more intentional way of working. Most of all, it encourages trustees to think about their responsibilities for the care of the institution. It moves them to a more active involvement in leadership at an appropriate level. In looking ahead and trying to discern the kinds of trends and factors shaping the school, the trustees have a chance to anticipate and respond to the issues they will face; they can shape the ways that questions about these contextual factors can be posed instead of letting some other group or pressure define the question for them by default.
Presidential review (also an occasion for reviewing the work of trustees) and definition of issues for the coming year in light of Mission Statement.
Definition of responsibilities and research.
Creation of plan of work—envisioning how to deepen inquiry and move toward decisions.
Initial work of the board committee and consultative groups.
Preliminary report on research, development of models/options.
Board action, commit to further inquiry or creation of planning process.
Process ends and begins again.
A key issue in theological education, for example, is the trend toward part-time students who extend the length of time for completing academic programs. Recognizing that this trend is basic in theological education, trustees should be informed about present trends in the student body, credit hours, graduation profiles, and other matters that depict what is happening in the life of the school. Rather than simply waiting until a major change has occurred in patterns of enrollment and ways of going to seminary, the trustees should ask the faculty and administration to research these issues, define the educational and institutional questions that they might shape, and then inquire whether this is a direction in which the school wants to move, or, if it cannot do anything to affect these trends, what is required of the school to respond to them in light of its basic commitments? The fundamental question is, Given the changing circumstances, how does the school claim the most important commitments of its life before those commitments are forever modified by forces and factors that are beyond its control?
For this example, in the June review, the president, after consultation with faculty and staff, presents the changing enrollment patterns as the primary issue that will frame much of the board’s work for the coming year. In the planning memo for the trustees, the president should outline the various aspects of the issue and develop a plan for research and inquiry that deepens understanding of it. At this point, it will not be clear what the full extent of the issue will be or the kinds of questions that the school will have to address. The main thing at this stage is for the president and trustees to agree on the primary issue and frame a way of thinking about it in the board and other appropriate communities of the school. The work of the summer is to identify the research needed to provide the background data for inquiry. This will mean researching both the external and internal contexts of the school, assigning responsibility for carrying it out, and designating the schedule of work. The goal is to have preliminary material ready for the board’s meeting in the fall.
At the fall meeting, the issue is described, the larger context defined, and the effort made to transpose various data into usable information. At this point the aim is to deepen the nature of the question and to develop a base of information that accurately describes the issue. Findings should be conveyed to the trustees in readable form that does not overwhelm with minutiae but helps frame the questions. The development of this briefing paper is the primary work of a board or an ad hoc committee made up of staff and faculty, students, and graduates who are invited to help the board think about the issue.
During this first trustee meeting of the academic year, specific time could be focused on deepening the board’s understanding of the issue with the help of someone knowledgeable about it in its larger context. The seminar leader should provide background material for the trustees to read ahead so that the meeting is a time to explore the broader nature of the specific institutional issue the trustees are addressing. The facilitator could be a theologian who helps trustees think about biblical and theological foundations for ministry and the kind of education needed to equip the ministry of pastors, teachers, and leaders. Or the board could seek assistance in understanding contemporary church life and how it provides a larger context for understanding the issue of students’ patterns of completing degrees. Just as appropriate, the leader of this seminar could be someone from higher education who traces the ways that the trends facing theological education have been part of the recent history of colleges and universities. Again, the aim of this time of teaching and learning within the board is to enhance the trustees’ understanding and to help them think about the question out of their particular commitments as a school and an institution of the church.
Another way of deepening the board’s understanding of the designated issue would be to hold an evening dinner and program in which various members of the seminary community could look at it together. In small groups composed of faculty, students, staff, and trustees, board members could hear stories from students who feel that the nature of their lives requires part-time study and extension of the time it takes to complete their degree programs. Their presentation could be augmented by faculty and staff perspectives on how such student patterns affect courses and institutional life.
Before the end of this fall meeting, the trustees should clarify next steps to be taken, identify the research and consultation that might still be needed, and affirm or modify the original schedule for considering the issue. If appropriate, the trustees could focus their next meeting on considering options or models that respond to the dynamics of the issue, with the third trustee meeting of the year focused as the time for actually making a decision on a policy direction or deciding that the board will continue to think about the matter. Again, the mode of inquiry is a continuing style of trusteeship. Sometimes it will result in decisions that emerge out of the board’s careful delineation of issues and questions. At others, it will permit board members to realize the complexity of the issues and recognize that they cannot be resolved quickly in some kind of technical fix. If the board does decide it needs to act, it can move toward a more formal planning process designed to lead to a decision.
The Nature of Meetings
In order to follow the kind of model I have described for the work of the board and to have the flexibility to adapt and redesign similar models for your own school or institution, it is important to shift the basic understanding of the nature of meetings. Many boards convene two or three times a year around a business meeting that is essentially structured by committee reports. Often there are social gatherings with faculty, students, and staff, but primarily the trustees’ time on campus is devoted to a meeting mostly composed of hearing reports, taking votes, and engaging in itinerant discussion. In contrast, I suggest that the board meeting be conceived as a series of events and settings that are shaped by the current commitments and priorities of the board. My expectation is that a board will meet three times a year, but when the board meets only twice, this format can still be followed. Also, it is important to maintain the flexibility and adaptability of the schedule so that it can be changed as the nature of any particular meeting suggests.
An Alternative Meeting Structure
A model of what I have in mind looks something like this:
Beginning with worship that provides time for thanksgiving, prayer, and meditation should be more than a brief devotional period that feels ornamental. Instead, it should be a substantive moment of gathering in the name of Christ that establishes the essential context for the meeting.
2:00 PM—Plenary Session
This plenary session is really the business meeting of the board. It is the occasion for the president’s report, financial reports, and action on designated issues. While committees might use this meeting as a time to discuss their work, generally this would be more in the form of sharing information that the board needs to know and to check on the directions in which it is going. The important thing is not to replicate the usual pattern of inert, deadening “committee reports.” The assumption is that committees are created to expedite the process and to equip the board for its continuing inquiry and the decisions it has to make. This means each committee should pay attention to the crucial issues and questions over which it has particular oversight. In a sense, committees function best when they are perceived as the antennae of the board. This moves committee reports from inert summaries toward deliberative support for board inquiry and action.
Trustees meet as a seminar to understand more fully a theological, institutional, or educational issue. In particular, this is an occasion for the board members’ own continuing education concerning their work as trustees and their understanding of the issues they face. Moreover, in this setting, theological reflection is a direct objective. It undergirds the life of the board and provides ongoing education in the gospel, an activity that reflects a key reason why many persons agree to serve on the board of a theological seminary or institution of the church in the first place.
5:00 PM—Dinner with the Campus Community
The board could invite the whole community of the school or representative faculty, staff, and students to a dinner where they are seated at tables with trustees. On other occasions, trustees could have dinner with small groups in faculty, staff, or student homes. On a regular schedule, faculty and trustees should be brought together around meals where they have a chance to get acquainted on a personal basis. These could be dinner gatherings held at the president’s home or arranged as smaller groups in faculty homes and at other sites on the seminary campus.
6:30 PM—Evening Program
Presentation on a current issue or some other kind of program related to questions on seminary or church life. This could be enhanced by small group discussions of specific questions that could then be shared with the whole assembly. On other occasions, a member of the seminary faculty might be invited to speak on the subject of his or her research. Sometimes a person from outside the seminary community could be invited to speak. If appropriate, endowed lectureships could be used for such an event. Periodically, it might be good for the whole school to be convened for a musical event—a program presented by seminary or outside musicians or a community project in which something like Handel’s Messiah might be sung by the entire community of faculty, staff, trustees, and students.
8:30 AM—Committee Meetings
Committees may have met at other times before the board meeting, but the committee session within the board meeting is placed here so as to emphasize the long-term planning and inquiry of committees. Sometimes just before a business meeting committees will make decisions or suggest courses of action without adequate time for reflection.
The president and trustees gather for candid conversation and to reflect on the issues raised in the meeting, look ahead to the next meeting, and discuss with the president questions that would not be appropriate in a more public gathering. It is also a time when the board can act on an issue that needs immediate attention. Most important, it is an occasion for formative evaluation on the nature of the meeting itself, the work of the trustees, and the functioning of the board. At some designated point, the president should leave the conversation and let the trustees meet alone, rejoining the group before the session concludes. This session is a crucial moment for developing trust, emphasizing the particular work of trustees, and discussing issues that are often talked about in the corridors but not brought to the table.