"Wise Stewards: The Roles and Responsibilities of Boards in Theological Education," a new document from In Trust, outlines the essential components of governance in theological schools. It addresses board members in various settings — governing boards of freestanding seminaries, advisory groups that oversee university-related theological schools, and boards assisting church authorities. 

"Wise Stewards" begins with an outline of the context of theological education today: 

  • A shifting religious landscape 

  • Student uncertainty 

  • An epidemic of personal debt 

  • A more diverse, more tech-savvy faculty 

  • The high cost of an expanded curriculum 

  • Enhanced public scrutiny 

  • A need for new financial models

Wise Governance Essentials 

Next, six sections outline the chief elements of wise governance. Taken as a whole, the document can serve as a guide for assessing both formal mandates and informal practices. And it clarifies the relationships among boards, presidents, other administrators, faculty, and other constituents.

"Wise Stewards" is designed for board education. To this end, discussion questions are provided after each of the six essentials — questions that can be revised to fit any institution's unique circumstances.

Governance leaders may find "Wise Stewards" useful for orienting new members or committee chairs, or for reviewing and repositioning the board's work. It may also be used to prepare for accreditation reviews, helping to identify strengths and weaknesses in governance.

An excerpt is provided below. The full text is available at www.intrust.org/WiseStewards. We invite you to read and discuss it with your board. Further information about how to use this resource is available from Amy Kardash, In Trust director of mentors. Contact her at akardash@intrust.org or 302-654-7770.


6. Implementation of planning and assessment at all levels

As a wise steward, the board models an institutional culture of collaborative goal setting, continuous planning, and hard-nosed evaluation.

The board's role in planning begins with the desired end and circles back to the question of resources — both present resources and those that will be needed in the future. In between, the board's role is to monitor progress.

Planning is not about producing a product. It is an ongoing process with adjustments, refinements, and even new directions as unanticipated challenges and opportunities emerge. The board should cultivate and concentrate on processes that sharpen institutional priorities.

Board meetings should facilitate ongoing conversations, and clear linkages should be made between the work of one meeting and the work of the next. Continuity should characterize a board's engagement so that the board's work does not become episodic, redundant, or inefficient.

The goal of theological education is to educate and form competent leaders of strong character who can contribute in particular contexts. Thus, the heart of the issue of quality is how successfully a theological school performs the task of forming such leaders. This is an enormously complex and challenging task with multiple variables, and there is no single model that guarantees success. Boards, administrators, and faculty should come to an agreement on measures of quality, feeling confident that these measures truly reflect the institution's mission and core values. This demands that the board think beyond the next fiscal cycle and lead in asking where the school needs to be financially in five or 10 years.

Despite the trend in some academic circles to constrict the board to narrow spheres of influence, board members must not hesitate to claim their place as full participants in the process of envisioning and shaping institutional direction. Wise boards encourage a strategic approach to decision making, focusing the bulk of their time on issues of long-term significance for the school. These boards work in partnership with the administration and faculty to sharpen the school's priorities through careful goal setting and a clear delineation of institutional objectives. They are co-creators of the school's future, even as the board safeguards the present.

Whether the school faces danger or opportunity, the board should stand ready to assist administrators as they take strong, decisive action. A board should consider issues carefully before they become crises, recognizing that planning is an essential task. Furthermore, the board should take advantage of the budget process to consider the most effective allocation of available resources to achieve the school's mission. In some instances, this may include pursuing creative collaborations, partnerships, or even mergers with other institutions.


■ What are the three to five strategic priorities of the school over the next three years, and how are they used to frame the board's work? How does board orientation ensure that new members are familiar with the reasons behind those priorities and the measures that are being used to accomplish them? 

■ What recent changes or innovations in teaching and learning have been introduced by the school's faculty? How do these match up to trends across theological education and the churches served by the school? How does the board know whether these changes are producing desired results? 

■ What systems or safeguards are in place to warn the board when the school is edging toward danger? How does the board monitor the safeguards to ensure that they are working? Describe and discuss a time when the safeguards spurred the board to an early response to a possible threat. 

■ How does the board ensure that concerns and questions raised at one meeting are addressed in subsequent meetings? 

■ In what ways may changes in denominational and/or other church relationships affect the future of the school? What is the board's role in negotiations with denominational representatives or other church bodies? How does the board handle sensitive conversations about relationships when major players from the church body are members of the board?

Download the whole document at www.intrust.org/WiseStewards.

A board chair's response

In December, In Trust asked a small group of board leaders to comment on an early draft of "Wise Stewards." One of them was Dr. Jack Dryden, chair of the board of trustees at Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. Later we asked him to comment on the final version.

What key issues does the paper address? What do you think are most important?

I found the section on the context of governance in theological education to be especially helpful — particularly the sections on student uncertainty and the high cost of expanded curriculum.

In the section called "Respect for the past and the future," the third question (focusing on how a school defines quality) is excellent. We've never asked ourselves anything like that, but we should.

In the section called "Responsibility for effective institutional leadership," I was struck by the question about what the board learned about its own performance through the most recent evaluation of the president. We've never thought about it in those terms, but it's something we need to consider during our next presidential evaluation.

As a board chair, how do you think that "Wise Stewards" might be helpful as a tool for you?

The discussion questions will be most helpful. I would spread them out over multiple board meetings so good discussion can occur at each. I would also provide this document to new board members. It is very appropriate for this use and can be used in addition to our own orientation manual. It's the right length.

—Interview by Amy Kardash

Note: The Wise Stewards Guide was updated in 2019. Links in this article have been updated to the latest version

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