What happens when you put board chairs around the same table for a day and ask them about the demands of their role? Through the generosity of the Kern Family Foundation, In Trust recently hosted its first such gathering, with the purpose of encouraging peer support, exploring wise practices, and seeking counsel about In Trust's services.
I hadn't expected how easily these men and women, all professionals from the fields of law, ministry, medicine, and academia, would find common ground. They represented theological schools differing in size, governance structure, and theological heritage. Yet each sat riveted by the others' testimonies about what it's like to hold the reins of governance when a long-term vision is threatened by destabilizing conditions.
One chair, presiding over a board on the brink of declaring a state of financial exigency, lamented that the time needed to build broad consensus had vanished. Now this chair must find other ways to mediate the age-old divide between impatient business leaders and shell-shocked pastoral ones. One side counts the immediate human cost as but one measure in charting the future, while the other argues that human relations define the school's ethical footprint.
Another chair described the hard work of "managing expectations." In the face of its first budget shortfall in 20 years, the board has been grappling with whether to continue recent initiatives such as including a new urban campus to enhance ministerial practice and more scholarships to maintain its enrollment levels and competitive edge.
This seminary's board members have agreed to "stay the course" under the watchful eye of the finance committee to ensure that adherence to the vision does not undermine the seminary's economic health. As another well-seasoned chair noted, the economic downturn is requiring new levels of discipline in the "governance culture."
A newer chair described how being tarred with a one-sided label in an intradenominational battle prompted him to reshape the role of board chair. Some board members, including him, had been elected by church constituencies eager to curb the direction that some faculty members were encouraging. Laboring to preserve a tradition of shared governance, he was hopeful that by working from his deep commitment to Christian hospitality, he and the president might succeed in rebuilding trust within the school and within the denomination.
Across the table, another chair recounted how the seminary board and faculty were recovering from the quagmire of a failed presidency. They had all come to recognize the importance of clarifying roles and processes before electing a new president. Now, with a new president in place, the chair and president had to forge the partnership they needed to strengthen this fragile trust and move the institution forward.
Other chairs elaborated on the long work of building up their boards for effective partnership with the president and faculty in institutional advancement, or to accomplish much needed transformation in the delivery of educational services.
These unpaid leaders all stood with their presidents at the hub of shared governance, each in his or her own way naming the relationships that needed tending to keep the school faithful to its purposes in the face of disruptive events. They all spoke with grace and humor about current and oncoming challenges.
Yet, they did more than nod at each other in either recognition or amazement. At the suggestion of one chair early in the day, each took a turn at praying for another's leadership and school. The cumulative effect of these prayers brought to the table their common passion for sustaining their schools for the glory of God and in service to the world. By this practice, we all drank deeply from the well of vocation, the true reason for this gathering and for the ones In Trust will continue to host in the months ahead.