It was my first semester as assistant professor at the seminary where I taught for twelve years before joining the Association of Theological Schools staff. One of the “honors” granted to new faculty was to preach in chapel sometime during the first year. This was a large school, with a chapel that would seat 1,200 people. Though never very crowded, it was an intimidating place to preach.
I struggled with the sermon. And, at some point, it became clear to me that the struggle was more about something in me than about the sermon. In the end, the only sermon I had in me was about that struggle. It was a struggle between my desire to be good—I did want them to respect me when it was over, and to do good—the desire that this worship invite people to the task of all authentic Christian worship: being transformed more fully into what God is calling us to be. Being good gets a thank you or some affirmation for the preacher. Doing good causes some reflection or reaction in the listener, often far removed from the service in which the sermon was heard.
I wonder if the first year as the senior leader of a theological school nurtures the same kind of struggle that I had with my first sermon as a new faculty member. On the one hand, you want to be good—be respected and appreciated, maybe even be liked occasionally. On the other, you want to do good—to accomplish the agenda that was set out for you by your analysis of the needs of the school at this time and the perspective the board shared with you about future hopes and directions. In the end, we probably can both be good and do good, but if they had to choose, I think good leaders would probably come down on the side of being do-gooders. I want to talk with you tonight about doing good.
Most presidents, through the interview process and their own discernment, come to the presidency with a charge—the school needs some things done, and if done, these things will introduce changes, both large and small.
After the inauguration and the other formal and informal “hello’s,” and the first few changes that organizations grant new leaders, I have heard presidents make statements like, “It is so hard to get anything done in this school.” The least little change in direction, let alone the big changes they thought they were appointed to make, take so much time, require so much consultation, absorb so much energy. It is surprising and perplexing to them. While they have a charge—a responsibility to see that some things happen for the well-being of the school, they are not in charge—they don’t have the ability, by themselves or with their immediate staff, to make things happen, at least easily or in a time frame that seems proportionate to the amount of change the action represents.
You may never have an experience like this, but don’t be surprised if you do. Even when you have decided to do good, it is, more often than not, hard to do.
I want to explore with you some of the factors that I think contribute to the complexity of change in theological schools, and then examine some of the issues about the vocation of leadership that this complexity can teach us.
The Vocation of Leadership
1. Calling is necessary when the work is hard.
Leadership in theological education is a calling, I think, and callings are about tasks that are difficult, like leaving the Ur of the Chaldees, or taking up a cross and following Jesus. If the task were easy, there would be no need for a calling. If a seminary could go where it needs to go with little effort, if its various constituencies agreed without fail on its directions and best course of action, then leadership would be easy and, probably, unnecessary. Jim Dittes, in a book several decades old now, reminds pastors that in those troubling moments when the people in the congregation say “no,” or break their promises, or resist the gospel’s claim on their lives—the things that cause pastors to doubt their work and wonder about their calling—these very moments can help pastors understand their calling. It is precisely because people in congregations do these kinds of things from time to time that they need pastors.
Seminaries need presidents because the work is hard, very hard at times. The call to leadership is, at its root, a call to work more energetically and persistently than may seem commensurate to the change that is being sought. Leadership is a calling, I think, and it is a calling because it is taxing, sometimes stressful, but absolutely necessary for theological schools.
2. Leadership is a function of a community.
Leadership is not a private exercise of gifts for the enjoyment or benefit of others. Leadership is a function of a community, not of individuals. A violist does not need a conductor, an orchestra does. A soloist doesn’t need a director, a choir does. A conductor of the symphony or director of the choir is needed because the job to be done requires a community of persons to do it—mixing melodies and harmonies and rhythm and silence that create musical art and meaning. Leadership in the church or its institutions grows out of a community that, as a community, has as its vocation the accomplishment of goals and purposes that only a community can accomplish. One person cannot make a theological school; it takes students, faculty, administrators, contributors, trustees, and congregational and denominational constituents. It takes all of these people to accomplish the vocation of the school, and only they can accomplish it.
3. The vocation is integral to the community.
Because leadership is a function of the community, the vocation of the leader is rooted in the “vocation of the community.” Leadership is a necessity that communities require in order to accomplish their vocation. Leaders help a community do its work by reminding the community of its vocation—why it exists; by giving organizational direction to the community—how the vocation is translated into tasks and work; and by helping the community find the resources for its vocation—what talents and treasure are required to fulfill the vocation. The literature I have seen on leadership focuses a great deal on the attributes, skills, and characteristics of leaders. While I am sure all leaders have attributes and skills, I think we need to give much more attention to the vocation of the community and the community’s responsibility for nurturing leaders, as well as its responsibility to function as a lead-able ensemble. The work of leadership is hard; it takes so much time and effort, because it is the community that needs to do the work.
4. Presidential effectiveness is seen in terms of the community’s accomplishments.
Understanding that leadership is rooted in the community’s calling requires a greater commitment to evaluating presidential efforts in terms of the accomplishment of the community’s vocational purpose. This would be a very different way of understanding presidential success. Press releases about presidential accomplishments often read, in effect,
During President Krypton’s tenure, a distinguished faculty was appointed, the endowment grew from $3 million to $30 million, a new chapel was built, and student housing was renovated. It was a successful presidency.
These announcements don’t say much about whether the president helped the school accomplish its vocation. In my fantasies, I someday would like to read an announcement like this:
Because of President Nowhere’s leadership, the school greatly increased its ability to educate persons so that graduates are providing more pastorally skilled, theologically informed leadership for their congregations. During these years, the faculty engaged in the kind of scholarship that has helped the church, the community, and the academy think more wisely and well about critical issues in our time. It was agreed by many (even in a fantasy press release, I can’t imagine a theological school where agreement could be unanimous) that, during the president’s tenure, the work and learning of the faculty and students contributed significantly to the church’s capacity to interpret its vision effectively and meaningfully to this culture.
At the heart of the president’s calling is the hope that the theological school will accomplish its calling.