I once heard a seminary dean warn emphatically that a seminary job is not a marriage. In other words, don't get too attached. And yet we all know that faculty and staff who labor in theological schools often fall in love.
They revel in work that connects them to the holy-in the studies and students, worship and community life, graduates' ministries and donors' generosity. They may even find an opportunity to be more fully themselves in body, mind, and spirit. Isn't the work of theological education a calling? Doesn't it feel covenantal, even sacramental?
Enter the specter of fiscal collapse. Some of the most faithful lovers are now vulnerable to being jilted, even if they have been conscientious in their work and realistic about the fragility of their modest institutions. Even if the board and president have been practicing good institutional governance, including well-planned hiring and regular evaluation.
In times of financial crisis, governing boards and administrators stand in the spotlight. Rumors abound, making transparency essential. They have urgent decisions to make, some requiring legal counsel, and many without benefit of lengthy deliberation. If they are honest, they are haunted by the faces of those lovers of the seminary whose creative work, or even livelihoods, are threatened by their decisions. If they are responsible, they must focus on mission priorities as they consider where to streamline operations and how much risk to assume.
Leaders who walk humbly before God know this tension intimately-it is the cost of disciplined leadership. They must tend those in their charge today, while also preparing for those to come. As G. Douglass Lewis points out beginning on page 16, only with agreed-upon, clearly articulated values do leaders have a public framework within which to work at the balance.
For better or for worse, boards and administrators also teach as they make their hard choices about scrapping programs, decreasing student aid, buying out contracts, reallocating work, and terminating positions. They can model faithful leadership, especially when they match any personnel cuts and reassignments with open expressions of respect and gratitude toward those affected. Even schools with meager resources can help the unemployed find new positions or retrain them for new responsibilities.
Administrators also teach when they anticipate the first reactions of laid-off and reassigned employees and absorb their expressions of anger and bitterness without responding in kind. While those who govern are responsible for protecting the institution against retribution or legal action, they dare not forget that people who lose jobs in a theological school live in fear-not only of unemployment, but of a loss of connection with a place that honors the holy.
Mistakes will be made by all parties in such perilous moments. Where possible, apologies and regrets should be given directly. Behind closed doors and in executive session, boards should pray as they seek out and hold themselves accountable for both the intended and unintended outcomes of their decisions. Then they will be ready to review patterns of communication and policy statements and to develop sharper strategic indicators and more calibrated plans of action to prepare the institution for the future.
An institution can be a place where individuals have an opportunity to grow in their lifelong quest to reflect the image of God. This is no guarantee of employment for anyone, but it does call for virtuous leadership for the sake of places that honor the holy, and for the sake of people who form the community.