The painted glass sign, mounted on a walnut base, sat on the White House desk of Harry Truman. In his farewell address, Truman emphasized the importance of its message: “The President — whoever he is — has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody.”
It has become a gesture of strong leadership — especially in a crisis — when a leader proclaims, “The buck stops here.” People are comforted by this assertion. Accountability is clear. One person accepts responsibility.
How does this buck-stopping clarity work in situations with shared governance? Governance in theological schools used to look more like corporations. Lines of responsibility looked simple: The president, a board, or a bishop ran the school. In part, this simplicity was possible because presidents and rectors were mostly academics who had risen through the ranks. Thus they understood not just academic standards in general, but the particular academic environment at that institution.
Over the past 30 years, in contrast, governance has become more challenging. Many boards have become more sophisticated, many presidents have been appointed from outside the institution, and the operations have become much more complex. But when more responsibilities are shared among more actors, feet get stepped on in the governance dance. Who is really responsible for the curriculum, the budget, the bottom line, educational programs and outcomes, fundraising, policy, strategic planning, or downsizing the faculty?
Shared governance is innately multifaceted. “Shared governance follows from the collegial nature of theological education,” according to the General Institutional Standards of the Association of Theological Schools. “Unique and overlapping roles and responsibilities of the governing board, faculty, administrators, students, and other identified delegated authorities should be defined in a way that allows all partners to exercise their mandated or delegated leadership.”
Some board members who are used to corporate or congregational governance structures are uncomfortable with “overlapping roles and responsibilities.” They are baffled — and sometimes frustrated — by the demands of shared leadership, particularly when facing pressures. The desire for a Truman is overwhelming — someone to take full responsibility, to accept the blame, to take the credit.
But governance in theological schools is rooted in a shared calling, a shared vocation that requires that power be distributed across various groups. This is hard work. And it is complex. David Tiede, interim president of Luther College, often explains that “governance is the ordered exercise of power in an institution to accomplish the school’s mission and purpose.” Rebekah Burch Basinger, one of the In Trust Center’s long-time Governance Mentors, points out that a better name for “shared governance” might be “distributed governance.” Unfortunately, there is no ready-made model for defining or implementing this shared leadership. There is no single mold for how responsibilities will be distributed among faculty, board, administration, and church authorities. These responsibilities must be worked out in each institution — defined, reviewed, and taught to the whole community. This is the challenge and promise of shared governance.
Here is the advantage of a shared governance model. It’s contextual and adaptive. In other words, for distributed governance to work, it must be clear today where the buck stops and starts. Shared responsibility does not mean an equal voice in all operations. Rather, the weight of each voice is directly proportional to the responsibility that voice has been given by the community at any given time. As Basinger says, “Faithful leadership is exercised through sharing, and it is sustained on trust.”
For shared governance to work, therefore, it must be clear where the buck stops. Truman was right, sort of. The buck needs to be distributed here — and here — and also here.
Richard H. Bliese