Leaders and Their Schools

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Six years ago, when In Trust ran a cover story on that season's new crop of seminary heads, the Reverend Gabino Zavala had just become rector of St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, California. In his first "rector's talk" to new students, he shared some of his history, including the joy he'd had as a parish priest, and his surprise at being asked to study canon law in order to help meet the needs of the Spanish-speaking members of the diocese. "This," he said, "was the first thing asked of me in ministry that was not of my choosing, not part of my plan." Now auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, he looks back on his time as rector and says, "It taught me to be open to callings that I have not only not expected but not wanted."

The participants at the meeting for new presidents, sponsored by the Association of Theological Schools and held in New Orleans this January, resonate with Zavala's sentiment, although it is only one note in the chord of their response to their calling. The fifteen presidents and deans, all of them in office less than three years, came from richly diverse backgrounds, some of which did not at first seem to be pointing toward seminary headship. The Reverend Ralph Gore of Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, South Carolina, was a military chaplain, for example, and the Reverend John Loftus, S.J., president of Regis College in Toronto, is a psychologist who spent fifteen years running a clinic for dysfunctional clergy. ("I'm not at all alarmed by angry faculty," he said with a smile.) But now they are bringing their varied gifts to seminary leadership, wrestling with the same problems that have always plagued presidents -- building programs, curriculum reform, growing pains, the prospect of financial disaster. They have some new challenges, too, that reflect the changing nature of church and of education -- for example, the question of what kind of distance education and how much to offer, the challenge of maintaining denominational identity in schools that have a minority of students from the sponsoring denomination, and survival in the face of the possible disappearance of traditional funding sources.

They come with impressive energy and remarkable good cheer. Jay Marshall, presidential dean of Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana, said of his school, "I walk in the door and I know I'm in the right place." The sentiment was echoed throughout the meeting. The sense of security, of being where they should be, surprising though it is, was frequently stated in terms of faith. "I didn't seek this position: I regard it as a call," said the Reverend James Echols, president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Getting the Word Out
One of the surprises waiting for Jay Marshall was the fact that his school wasn't nearly as well known among the sponsoring Society of Friends as he had assumed it was. "It seems we needed to begin with marketing to our own," he said, and the school is doing just that, beginning with a nationwide consultation with twenty focus groups. They center their conversation on the leadership needs of Friends, and on what the school has and has not done well. "They're very honest," says Marshall with a shrug. "Sometimes the groups serve as catharsis for hostility." One of the directions the school is moving toward preparing people for ministry, not just as academics. Marshall categorizes the responses to the shift as ranging from, "It's about time," to, "Why would we ever?" His own take? "It's good to have a place in the world for the study of religion as an academic pursuit. We also have a mission to prepare people for ministry."

An even more sweeping rethinking of his school is on the Reverend Scott Rodin's plate. He assumed presidency of Philadelphia's Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary at the beginning of a four-year review of curriculum, delivery systems, and information systems. And if that isn't challenge enough -- and opportunity enough to shape the school's future -- the school is in the process of filling seven major faculty vacancies. "It's a phenomenal opportunity," said Rodin, who thinks of the last fifteen years as preparation. "I felt in 1984 that the Lord was calling me into a ministry context, into preparation for leadership," he said. His journey took him through a fundraising job at World Concern, through theological studies at Fuller and in Aberdeen, Scotland, a stint as vice president for advancement at Eastern, and finally a year as acting president before assuming the office. Rodin, by the way, is a Presbyterian heading a Baptist school -- not a typical state of affairs, but in his words, "the least of issues."

The Canadian context provides a unique set of challenges, and the Reverend Bradley McLean believes that the five years he spent at St. John's, a non-ATS accredited theological school in Winnipeg, Manitoba, helped him to see those challenges more clearly than those who have spent their careers in the relative security of the East. The issues with which he is accustomed have to do with survival at a fairly basic level. Seventy percent of Manitoba's population lives in Winnipeg; smaller towns are depopulating as the grain elevators shut down. Under these circumstances, he says, the church needs to focus on lay education within a local context, on looking at varied ways to do ministry ("Why do we identify parishes without pastors as 'vacant'?" he wonders), and on First Nation concerns. Now McLean is dean of the Huron College Faculty of Theology in London, Ontario, and cites as one of his initial surprises "the relative safety of having lots of Anglicans here, some of whom are monied." Another set of challenges has to do with "meeting the needs of the church as articulated by the church while maintaining academic integrity," he said. "The next generations of priests and ministers are going to need a far broader range of skills. How can we prepare them without sliding into a skills-based program?"

The Reverend William Close, president of Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has also spent time on the prairie. He spent twenty years directing the D. Min program at St. Stephen's, Edmonton, Alberta, five of them as academic dean. Now he is working to form strategic alliances to keep in place academic programs that may be jeopardized if provincial funding shifts, to implement distance education programs, and to encourage institutional flexibility. "I'd like the school to be more quickly responsive not to needs but to opportunities, knowing that there are risks. Opportunities come and go, and you can't, you shouldn't, latch on to all of them. But if you always can't take advantage of them, that's institutional inertia." In the meantime, there's plenty of the day-to-day to keep him occupied. Half his faculty will be retiring within the next five years, and he's looking to fill those slots with people who can "work in more than one discipline and more than one modality." Looming on the horizon is the possibility that a huge number of lawsuits brought by First Nation people against church-related schools for abuse spanning a number of years in a number of places could result in what Close calls, "a fire sale of church assets." The United Church of Canada, one of Atlantic's sponsoring bodies (along with Anglicans and Roman Catholics), is, as a national church, especially vulnerable to such a possibility.

Presidential Tenure Chart
Comparing the two surveys, it is clear that the average tenure of a theological school's chief executive is relatively short. Also, the averages have changed very little in the intervening seven years, whether measured by all schools, theological tradition, or country. The ATS survey further notes that a chief executive usually needs four or five years to be fully knowledgeable and function in her or his role.
Click here for larger view of charts. 

How Denominational?

A majority of students at the Quaker-related Houston Graduate School of Theology are members of the Society of Friends. Hardly a remarkable statement, except that this is the first time in the school's fifteen-year history that it's true. And it's a slim majority. Southern Baptists are the second largest group, followed by twenty-seven other denominations. The school's ties to evangelical Quakers have mainly to do with its founders and its ethos, according to its new president, David Robinson, who points out that the school is tuition driven and receives no church support as such. "The reason I'm in this job," he said, "is because I was a pastor for twenty-seven years." (Before that, he was an X-ray technician for twenty as he put himself through college and seminary.) The search committee also cited his familiarity with the school, familiarity gained in ten years on the board, six as chair. The school is committed to tying into community resources and has one it's found especially helpful: the Executive Service Corps, a group of retiree volunteers, have been helping the school, and particularly the board, with a variety of financial issues.

Memphis Theological Seminary is a growing school. It is not to be expected that most of that growth will come from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Indeed, only one in six of the school's students come from the sponsoring denomination. "We are in Memphis to be a resource here," said the school's new president, the Reverend Larry Blakeburn, who is proud of the school's denominational diversity and of the fact that 34 percent of its students are African American. He's content to maintain Cumberland Presbyterian identity with history and polity courses, and by keeping a large part (but not necessarily a majority) of faculty from the denomination. Blakeburn attributes his presence in the presidency as, "The providence of God -- that means I wasn't interested in the job." The search committee was looking for a pastor with administrative abilities: a dean is responsible as a chief academic officer. Blakeburn plans to use his time in office reconfiguring the school's administrative staff and style. His predecessor left after a seventeen-year tenure just as the school was getting too large to be run through the president's office. Blakeburn says that there is excitement at the prospect of a more collaborative leadership style.

The Never-Ending Task

The new presidents were virtually unanimous in their response to questions about the surprises their first months in office have brought. It's the quantity of work. "The job is everything I thought it would be -- squared," said Erskine's Ralph Gore. The former chaplain said, "I thought military paperwork was a nightmare, but at least it had a certain consistency, and you knew that eventually there would be a respite."

Another president sheepishly admits to subsisting on four hours of sleep a night. "You can't do that forever," he notes wryly.

Several of the new presidents at the meeting were stunned by a particularly unpleasant one-two punch: just as they realized the magnitude of the task in front of them, they discovered that the committee responsible for their hiring had not been entirely forthcoming about the state of the school's finances. "I came in with eyes partly open," said one. "I knew we had challenges. But then I walked into my first board meeting and heard the words 'financial crisis' for the first time."

Forewarned is not necessarily forearmed, as the new presidents who went through accreditation self-studies in their first year can attest. Memphis's Blakeburn is pointed on the subject. "It won't happen again here. Granted that it gave me a wonderful perspective I wouldn't have had otherwise, it wasn't fair to me or to the school. When I leave, it'll be a couple of years in advance of reaccreditation or right afterwards, but I won't put another president through this."

How Long To Stay -- and Why

These factors do not encourage long-term presidencies. Obviously reluctant to make public predictions about the length of their tenure, each of the meeting participants In Trust asked to identify a target number off the record did so quickly -- and almost all were well under ten years.

How to survive in the meantime? Erskine's Gore is reconfiguring his office, adding part-time deans with responsibility for postgraduate students and for academic affairs. Others are attending to themselves: Atlantic's Close is very intentional about self-care. "I'm not prepared to endanger my health for the job," he said, a point made all the more clear to him by the time he spends taking care of his wife, Doris, who has multiple sclerosis. Memphis's Blakeburn is intentional about using what he learned as a pastor: "It takes four to six years to develop deep working relationships," he said. "Then you can build on them."

And then there's prayer, mentioned over and over again as a source of strength. "The task is never ending," said Rodin. "But there are God's promises of great strength."

Finally, though, finitude is finitude, and the demands of the job are wearing. The Reverend Johnny V. Miller, one of the new presidents In Trust introduced in 1993, is leaving Columbia Biblical Seminary and Graduate School of Missions at the end of the spring term, and he's not at all shy about sharing why. "I'm thankful for the experience I've gained here and the relationships I've made. But eight years of the pace of this life, the complexity of the role, and unrelenting administrative detail have drained me to the point where I cannot be the kind of visionary leader the school deserves." He is returning to parish ministry.

Whatever Happened to the Class of '93?
Only ten of the twenty-two new presidents interviewed by In Trust at an ATS-sponsored meeting in November 1992 are still in office -- which makes their average tenure fairly typical. (See "Presidential Tenure Chart" in the left margin.) Of those who have moved on, seven are involved in Word and Sacrament ministry -- either at the congregational level or as bishop -- and three have retired.

Rev. Charles E. Bouchard continues as president of Aquinas Institute of Theology.

Rev. Wayne G. Boulton left the Presbyterian School of Christian Education when the school was subsumed into Union Theological Seminary and is now pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Annapolis, Maryland.

Rev. William M Cieslak continues as president of Franciscan School of Theology.

Rev. Blase J. Cupich left the Pontifical College Josephinum to become bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota.

Rev. Robert E. Harahan left Immaculate Conception Seminary to serve as pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Church in Summit, New Jersey.

Rev. Charles-Louis Harvey left Payne Theological Seminary to become pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

Rev. Thomas Hopko continues as dean of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.

Rev. M. William Howard continues as president of New York Theological Seminary.

Loretta Jancoski, then interim director of Seattle University's Institute for Theological Studies, was elected later that year to the deanship of what is now called the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry.

Rev. Steven J. Land continues as academic dean at Church of God School of Theology.

Rev. David A. Lichter left St. Francis Seminary and the active ministry and is doing financial consulting for nonprofit organizations.

Rev. Johnny V. Miller will leave Columbia Biblical Seminary and Graduate School of Missions at the end of the academic year to return to parish ministry.

Rev. Timothy J. Moran left St. John's Seminary, Brighton, Massachusetts, to pursue parish ministry in Hanson, Massachusetts.

Rev. Richard J. Mouw continues as president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Rev. Clarence G. Newsome continues as president of the Howard University School of Divinity.

Rev. Eugene F. Roop continues as president of Bethany Theological Seminary.

Rev. David T. Shannon is retired and living in Atlanta.

Rev. Philip A. Smith left the Dominican House of Studies to become president of Providence College in Rhode Island.

Rev. James W. Strobel has retired from Erskine College and is enjoying his lakeside house.

Rev. Del Tarr will retire from the presidency of Assemblies of God Theological Seminary at the end of the school year.

Rev. A. Gordon Wetmore continues as president of Nazarene Theological Seminary.

Rev. Gabino Zavala left St. John's Seminary, Camarillo, California, to become auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles.




Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
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