Southwest Airlines has survived and thrived through the most difficult times in American aviation history. Since Southwest began flying in 1971, numerous competitors have come and gone. Some merged and others closed, but few survived and managed to stay profitable. I am not an aviation expert, but some things are worth noting. During Southwest's start-up, with cash short and few planes, it developed the discipline of turning around a plane in 20 minutes. This "20-minute turn," which the airline retained into the good times, is part of the reason why Southwest's planes spend more time in the air and less on the ground than those of its rivals.
But there's more: Southwest uses only one model of plane-the Boeing 737. All employees are familiar with the equipment, and maintenance work is limited to a single type of airliner. Southwest selected its markets carefully and added routes gradually-following its own timetable despite the pleas of many civic leaders. Southwest's planning strategy is for the long term.
Reading recently about Southwest, I kept comparing the airline industry to North American theological education. Theological education has a large number of schools for a limited number of students. It has an extraordinarily high cost per student. It continues to expand its product lines (i.e., degree programs) to chase a few student dollars. Many schools hear the siren song to become more prestigious-"If only we had a Ph.D. program!"
I was reminded of the Concorde, the fastest commercial airliner ever, which never made a profit and was finally discontinued. Similarly, many schools have pursued new locations and markets assuming they will promote growth, draw students, and earn revenues. Not all of these strategies are bad-just as many of the airlines' strategies made sense at the time. But the proof of success is what happens in lean years.
An opportunity for self-examination
For the airlines, the lean years were marked by deregulation, the increasing cost of fuel, and the attacks of 9/11. For theological education, the hard times are now. The current economic crisis has been a shock to seminaries across the board, and it has also uncovered trends long present but previously unacknowledged. Many schools have been on a downhill slide without knowing or admitting it. Financial support from church bodies has been steadily declining. Tuition hikes and cost-of-living expenses have encouraged students to take on unsustainable debt. FTE enrollment in many schools has been slipping, and some schools have been producing graduates who are not effective in the marketplace.
I am not suggesting that either the airline industry or theological education is about to close up shop. But here's a hard truth: Many theological schools are not going to make it. What I am most concerned about is whether theological schools, now facing their most serious financial threat in a half a century, can use this as an opportunity to take a hard look at themselves. In "normal" times, most schools resist data-driven, unflinching self-assessment even when pushed by their constituencies or regulatory agencies.
In an interview in the February 2, 2009, issue of Fortune, best-selling author Jim Collins reflected on Built to Last, his study of American companies that thrived during the course of 75 years. He remarked that the last half of the 20th century, a period of stability and prosperity for North American society and most of its institutions, was really a historical aberration, not the norm. The norm, he said, is more like what we are experiencing now-turbulence, change, insecurity, and an unpredictable future.
How institutions manage through crises
All of us-individuals and institutions-need periodic wake-up calls to jar us into a deep and honest look at ourselves. We need to examine how we are living our lives, how we are doing our business, and how we are planning our futures. Taking a cue from Collins, I want to suggest three central elements that are crucial for organizations during tough times and good times, in whitewater and on placid lakes.
Crucial element 1: Clarity of mission
Who are we? And why do we exist? What focuses and pulls us into the future? Around what does our community coalesce? Answering these questions tells us what our mission is. Any organization that hopes to survive and thrive must know this. More than that, an organization's mission must be in its DNA. Members of the community must know it, feel it, and be able to say it in one breath. While this sounds simple, it is not. It requires digging deeply together until the board, administration, staff, faculty, and other constituents know it, believe it, and act on it.
But in most institutions, the mission statement lives in a document lying on a shelf. The more ambitious institutions may take the first step, asking what acting out the mission might entail. Most institutional energy goes into "what we do"-teaching courses, researching, maintaining campuses and buildings, worshiping together, and fellowshiping with others, reaching out to the world.
These are "outputs," and doing them well is important, but fulfilling the mission does not stop with the product. It also must ask for whom we produce these outputs, and what benefits the wider church is receiving from our excellent outputs. The real payoff of a seminary's mission is that lives are changed-graduates depart with a capacity to minister in the church and the world, and they are successful in that ministry.
Crucial element 2: Persistent core values
Human communities and organizations are held together by core values. Mostly they are unspoken, but they are often felt or understood in the depths of people's souls. When we violate our core values, we feel anxious, uncertain, dislocated. Likewise, institutions that stray from core values usually become unproductive and shortsighted. Morale suffers, and people's motivation and investment in the institution declines.
Clarity about an institution's core values is especially important in turbulent times, because turbulence pushes people to act hastily, looking for a quick fix. The current financial stress is certainly tempting theological schools to act hastily, with a short-term vision. How will we deal with this impending deficit? How can we cut expenses? Who will throw us a lifeline with additional gifts? But institutions that thrive in turbulent times know their core values and live by them.
For example, at one school that I'm familiar with, one core value looks outward and another looks inward. The outward-facing value states that "whatever we do as a seminary must have value for the church and its ministry," while the inward-facing value reminds everyone that "the community is more important than any individual member but every member is of value to the community."
Being clear about core values is not easy. During times of crisis, people are tempted to ignore those core values and, consequently, sometimes they lose their way. At such times, it can be helpful to ask ourselves: Why is it essential that this theological school exist? Why do I want to invest myself in this school?
Crucial element 3: Excellence in personnel
In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins has a catchy way of talking about personnel: To be great, he says, you need the wrong people off the bus, the right people on the bus, and everyone in the right seat. For theological schools, this means finding places for students, staff, faculty, administration, and board.
Few would argue that the quality, drive, and commitment of people hold the key to a school's success. But personnel issues are never as easy as kicking someone off a bus! Perfection is never reached. Nevertheless, schools that commit to this quest and are willing to make hard decisions prepare themselves to thrive.
A new administrator or board member arriving on the scene at a theological school discovers an already-loaded bus, with each person occupying a favorite seat or angling for a better one. Reloading and rearranging the bus is a delicate and daring task-one that is not accomplished quickly. Sometimes shuffling or even eliminating personnel clashes with a seminary's unspoken code of conduct: Act kindly. Don't hurt anyone's feelings. Rarely discipline. Fire no one. Settle for who is given to you. Tolerate and work around ineffective performers.
Some managers regard a period of financial strain as an opportunity to cull the dead wood and get rid of underperformers. But this may be the worst time to lay off staff. Perhaps a better long-term message-one that can motivate everyone-is this: "We are in this together. How can we fully commit ourselves to our mission? How can we help one another be the best?" Getting the right people on the bus is a long-term strategy, not a short-term remedy. It should be implemented whenever a staff member is hired, a board member recruited, a student admitted, a faculty member selected or promoted. A school that thrives has personnel with a passion for its mission-people who are there because it is their calling and whose rewards are more internal than external. Pursuing this core value doggedly is a key to becoming an exceptional theological school.
The unwanted gift
Essential elements are easily forgotten and ignored when times are good. That's why a crisis can be a gift, reminding theological school leaders to look deeply and recommit themselves to the long-range values and directions that will sustain a healthy theological school in good weather and bad.
Such a gift is never on anyone's wish list, but it can nevertheless be of great value to the wise recipient who opens it with care.