When properly managed, a change at the top is a pivotal moment in the life of a theological school. That said, the transition process is also fraught with danger. Frequently, the first signs of a failed presidency can be traced to the early months of the leader's tenure. It is critically important that the board be vigilant and involved during the early days of a new presidency. Beginning with the vote to accept the search committee's recommendation of a finalist candidate and continuing through to the first-year evaluation of the president's work, the board must take a proactive role in the beginning days of a new presidency.
Throughout the search process, communication between candidates and the school is at its best. Yet, once the search is completed, many presidents report that news from the campus dwindled to a mere trickle and the board all but disappeared. At the other extreme are those presidents who recall being overwhelmed by too much contact from the school. It is up to board leaders to monitor communication between the campus community and the new leader, seeking a middle ground between too little and too much information.
The months between the end of the search and the beginning of a new presidency are a busy, stressful time as the appointee wraps up work in one setting while looking forward to the new assignment. Patience on the part of board and staff helps ease pressure on the president-elect. Riess Potterveld, president of Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Theological Seminary, spoke glowingly of the board's understanding that he "was fully engaged in helping to run another seminary" (Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, California) at the time of his selection.
Similarly, Douglas Fagerstrom, president of Grand Rapids (Michigan) Theological Seminary, described the board's "general respect for my time in transition from my role as pastor of Calvary Church and the 'space' I needed to prepare for my new role."
When the new president comes to the office from inside the institution, the board faces a different, but no less critical, challenge. Familiarity can breed -- well, familiarity. The board must model for the campus community a different relationship with the new-but-not-new leader. The trustees may also need to help "insider" presidents redefine how they relate to long-time colleagues and the board alike.
For Helmut Hefner, rector at St. John's Seminary (Camarillo, California), his switch from faculty member to seminary head was marked by an invitation to participate in the last board meeting scheduled under the former administration. And while John Erickson, a former faculty member and now dean at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary (Crestwood, New York), joked about needing to do little more than "reprogramming our speed-dialers," he noted the importance of being "prepared to be pleasantly surprised by the board, even when you already know them quite well."
In addition to tending communication between the new leader and the seminary community, preparing the campus community for the arrival of the new president is also the board's work. Change at the top is almost always unsettling to faculty and staff, and all the more so if the board chooses this occasion to address legacy issues that could slow the progress of the new president.
Board leaders must be alert to the mood on campus and be prepared to address employee concerns immediately. Even the most innocent actions can lead to serious misunderstandings, if the situation is allowed to simmer, and especially so during a presidential transition.
A Warm Welcome
Many presidents recall feeling lonely, frustrated and completely out of the loop during their first weeks on the job. Administrators who report to the president may be uncertain how to relate to the newcomer, and staff can feel awkward around a new CEO. If at all possible, then, a representative of the board -- preferably the board chair or the chair of the search committee -- should be on hand to welcome the new president and to assist with orientation to the school and making introductions. But that's just the beginning.
At a minimum, the board chair should be in contact with the new leader at least once a month during the critical first year of his or her presidency. As Myron McCoy, president of Saint Paul School of Theology (Kansas City, Missouri), noted, the task of welcoming and assisting with the transition of a new president is a "task done over time" and involves activities both on and off the campus. "It is important to have board members who will connect the new president to church leaders, community leaders, and places of interest in the community," McCoy stated. In his case, the board's care for their new president included recognizing his unique needs as an African-American coming to the area. "My board chair contacted a well respected African-American clergy-person and civic leader, Emanuel Cleaver II, who welcomed me to Kansas City with a reception held in his home," McCoy said.
His comment is a reminder that it is often the small kindnesses that make the biggest impression as the new president settles into office. Whether it is stocking the cupboards in the president's home, as the LTS community did for Riess and Tara Potterveld, the several invitations to lunch that Keith Jenkins received in his first weeks on the job at Houston (Texas) Graduate School of Theology, or the encouragement for Douglas Fagerstrom to purchase new furniture for his office, the combination of actions and words make the new leader feel welcome and appreciated.
Planning for Success
In addition to appropriate communication and a warm welcome, a realistic work plan goes a long way in helping assure the success of the new leader. Novice presidents, eager to get on with the work to which they have been called, are apt to set unrealistic expectations for themselves. Urged on by the inevitable backlog of "must handle" issues on the campus, new presidents can very quickly work themselves into exhaustion. The perspective of board members is invaluable as new leaders set priorities and organize their work during the first year on the job.
Douglas Fagerstrom advises boards to "grant permission, safety, and time to the new president." Especially in the beginning months of a presidency, the board needs to be tolerant of errors and provide ample feedback. In turn, St. Vladimir's John Erickson encourages new presidents to "remember that board members who ask the hardest questions are, on the whole, also those who are most willing to work hard with the president, to advance the seminary's mission."
Within a few weeks of the president's arrival at the school, the board chair (or a designee, if the chair is not available) should assist the president in establishing a work plan for the year ahead. At some schools, the elements of such a plan are obvious. For example, Erickson described himself as fortunate "since two tasks immediately awaiting me were (a) development of a new strategic plan to guide the seminary through the next decade, and (b) preparation of a self-study for our impending ATS decennial visit."
In most places, the priorities are not so clear cut. So it is a tremendous advantage to the new president to be able to draw upon board members' history with the school and their insights about the challenges ahead. Myron McCoy tells how the board, with the assistance of his predecessor, "developed a list of key persons I should try to visit with on the phone the first day, as well as a most thoughtfully developed transition packet." Even experienced administrators can benefit from help in knowing where to start, and it is the fortunate newcomers who are provided assistance early on.
Few activities are as consequential to the institution or a greater test of a board's performance as the selection of a new president -- except perhaps how the board welcomes and works with the president during the first year on the job. In the words of Keith Jenkins: "Cliché though it may be, you only get one chance to make a first impression, so don't waste it. The job of securing a president isn't over when the candidate is elected. It is just the beginning."
This is the first of a four-part series on the presidential life cycle. In the Summer issue, In Trust will explore best practices in presidential evaluation.
In Trust welcomes other thoughts on the board's role in assuring a successful beginning for a new presidency. Contact us at email@example.com. Comments and questions will be posted at In Trust Online.