The president (or chief executive by whatever title) has become the pivot of seminary governance. In the 19th century, before the theological institutions then in existence had presidents, boards played central roles, even conducting certain educational activities, such as final exams. As the professoriate became a highly respected profession in the early 20th century, faculty were ascendant, and presidents served chiefly as chair or president of the faculty.

At the beginning of the 21st century, however, few if any theological schools’ governance is dominated by the faculty. Even in mainline Protestant institutions with no denominational ties, the group of schools at which the faculty has the most decision-making power, only seven percent of board members said that the faculty was the most influential “person or group” in making decisions about the future of the school.


Boards, which gained power in the 20th century as their fiduciary responsibilities increased, are still viewed as influential, but in every sector of theological education, boards themselves see their chief executives as even more influential.

Governance that insures the strength of an institution requires interplay among at least three groups: the president and other administrative leaders, the faculty, and the school’s board or other “overseers.” (For freestanding schools, the term “overseers” refers to the boards or religious officials who govern; for embedded schools, the term means the university officials who supervise operations.)

This project’s research on 11 institutions reputed to have especially effective governance revealed two patterns of “governance that works”: Many schools with strong governance rely on an especially effective chief executive, who serves as the center around which the governance partners revolve. At a smaller number of schools, the board itself is the center of the system.  


Executive-centered governance

Not surprisingly, given the prominence of chief executives in the findings of the survey research, the most common effective governance pattern has a mature, skillful president (or rector, principal, or divinity school dean) at its center. The president’s relationships with the other participants in governance make the whole system work.

“The president is our leader,” says the chair of the board of a freestanding school that relies on this model. “He wants everyone to feel as if they belong.” In this institution, the president vets all prospective board members, looking for fit with the culture of the institution as well as talent, diversity, and expertise. “He thinks a lot about the chemistry as well as the constitution of the board.”

The initial attraction of board members may be to the president who recruits them, but because they are selected with care, they soon form a community in which they find great value. Some board members say that they have formed lifelong friendships during their time on the board. “It’s humbling to be with those people,” says one member. “It’s a mountaintop experience.”

The admiration that these board members have for each other and the president who brought them to the board seems to have a positive impact on the board’s work. Attendance at most meetings verges on 100 percent. Members report that there is vigorous debate during meetings. “Because there is a high level of trust, we can speak our minds, work our way through tough issues,” says one member.

The board’s effective functioning depends heavily on an extraordinary president. 


In this example, one of the president’s most effective qualities is his candor. Every board meeting begins with an executive session in which he shares the problems he faces and admits to the board what he perceives to be his own mistakes. He then leaves the room and encourages the board to discuss his performance and report their conclusions to him later.


A pattern of governance centered on the chief executive is in place in many institutions, including those that do not choose their own boards. The survey of board structures reveals that at least half of presidents do not participate in the selection of board members or other overseers. 


The president of one such school, a church-controlled denominational seminary, has demonstrated a high degree of interpersonal skillfulness, first in persuading church officials to appoint to the board those persons he has identified, and then by working well with the board members in whose appointments he played no part.


Deans of embedded schools face similar challenges. They rarely have a role in selecting the provost or president to whom they report, so relational flexibility becomes all the more important. The deans of embedded schools visited for this research have honed their skills at “managing upward,” molding their approach to fit the strengths and quirks of the university official or church-appointed governing body to whom they report. 


The qualities of openness and generosity in a dean make a significant difference in these embedded institutions. For instance, all the deans that were interviewed have discovered that by taking on university assignments, even those with no immediate relevance for their schools, they earn respect from senior administrators and occasionally even from university boards. This places them in good standing when they later make a case for the needs of their own schools. 


Lateral outreach — the ability to work well with peers — can be very effective too. Several successful deans of embedded schools have become, in effect, the “dean of the deans” in their university setting. In this role as a leader among equals, they are more prominent in the university, and thus more likely to secure needed support for the theological school.


The executive-centered governance described here appears to be the dominant model in theological schools, and there are numerous examples of its effective implementation in both freestanding and embedded schools. Significant dangers, however, accompany this approach. One is obvious: whether this model of governance succeeds depends on the skills of the person who builds and maintains it — the president, rector, principal, or dean. If the chief executive does not have the appropriate relational gifts or is defensive, insecure, or over-controlling, the model opens the door to one-person rule. 


Some respondents have reported stories of highly relational presidents forced to build boards and administrative teams under great pressure, because their schools were facing imminent failure. In such cases, there may not be time to create collaborative cultures, either within the board or between the board, administration, and faculty. Rather, those talented individuals who constitute the core of governance relate chiefly to the president who recruits them, and once the talented leader leaves office, significant attrition follows. This is a danger even in settings in which meticulous attention has been given to the chemistry of the board, staff, and faculty. “None of this is on automatic,” says a board member at one president-centered school. “It’s on manual. Not sure what you would have if you took away the president and the good people he has picked.” To sustain executive-centered governance that works, it is necessary to find very gifted successors.


A more subtle danger of this governance approach is that it minimizes the chances that the board or other overseers will challenge the chief executive. Even the wisest and most mature executive leader can be wrong. “Things [that the president proposes] do get tweaked and modified all the time” says a board member at one seminary whose president dominates its governance, “but nothing’s been stopped in its tracks.”  


Engaged-governor governance

Over an extended period, one site-visit school had made major efforts to minimize their dependence on a single gifted individual, and the other disadvantages of executive-centered governance, while preserving many of the positive features of this model. The institution describes itself as having created a long-lasting culture of governance whose core is the mission of the school rather than the personality of the president. “There’s a strong ethos here,” says a former board chair. “We are part of a thoughtful, big-tent religious movement. Joining the board is joining the movement.”

The building of this mission-centered board is an accomplishment credited to an earlier president. He took many of the same steps that presidents of executive-centered schools use to assemble boards of quality and workability: a vigorous search for talent, careful screening to assure a good fit between each person’s values and the seminary’s, and assiduous, patient pursuit of persons identified as excellent prospects, even if they are initially reluctant to serve. 


That former president then took a further step. He insisted that board members make the mission of the school their priority. He also devised ways for the board to hold him and his successors accountable for achieving the mission. Though he exercised powerful moral leadership at the school, he also made clear that the board rather than the president had final say about institutional direction.


A president built this style of board, but through time, the board’s center of gravity has not been the president — or, at least, not the president alone. The board chair and key leaders have been right at the core. “[Our leadership] puts difficult things on the table,” says a board member, “unlike boards that focus only on cheerleading and fundraising.” On a number of occasions, “daylight” between the president and the board has been evident. In one notable recent case, a major presidential proposal for physical plant development was rejected as not sufficiently justified by the school’s long-term mission. At an earlier point, the board also insisted that the president appoint senior staff in an area in which the president himself was not strong.  


Who chooses whom?

Another dimension of ownership can be seen in how the board has been restocked. Most new board members have been located by other board members. “The president doesn’t choose the board. The board chooses the president,” says the chair. After selecting the next generation, long-time members have inculcated the new ones, teaching them, in the words of one of the newer members, “the tribal narrative.” This handing-down of traditions and values has worked in part because this school, unlike most freestanding seminaries, does not impose limits on the number of terms its board members can serve. This practice has created intense loyalty — not so much to the president and other board members, as in the executive-centered model board, but to the school itself. Few members of this engaged-governor board reported forming personal friendships within the board.


Remarkably, given the power of this board, relations between it and the faculty have been excellent. A series of presidents has skillfully interpreted the board to the faculty, and the board has regularly included several nationally respected figures from higher education who have signaled to the faculty that respect for academic values is built into the board. The result, says a board member, has been “a partnership ethos. The board knows that the school is only as good as its faculty.”


The culture of engaged governance that this school has worked decades to establish clearly has many benefits. When the model is working well, board members (or other overseers) who understand the work of the school and the roles that it plays in its wider context have the potential to steer the school in wise and even inspired ways, keeping its mission in view when those engrossed in day-to-day operations might lose sight of the demands of the longer-term future. 


Perhaps the greatest value of a deeply engaged board, however, is its capacity to carry the gains of one presidency into the next. In the executive-centered model, continuity is entirely dependent on the commitment and capacities of the successor. In the engaged-governor approach, the school’s values, ethos, guiding policies, and vision are firmly planted in the board and carried by it through time.


All the elements of the engaged-board formula need to be in play all the time for its successful operation. Practices like unlimited terms can backfire unless board leaders set and enforce high performance standards. If noncontributing board members are allowed to stay around forever, the board can ossify and the school may come to a standstill. And board power can be overplayed. In both theological education and the wider world of higher education, expert observers report, there have been egregious instances of boards trampling on the legitimate roles and responsibilities of chief executives and faculty.


The model also requires a succession of non-defensive presidents who can accept criticism and correction. If even one president feels threatened by an engaged board and starts to hide problems and overplay successes, the culture of accountability dies out.


Not a fit for embedded schools 

This model can be hard to implement. Solid accountability relationships — and, even more, a continuous tradition of this kind of governance — are very hard to establish for embedded institutions and others that have little say in who their board members are. No matter how adept a dean might be in educating supervisors and creating a decision-making partnership with them, the theological or divinity school leader cannot ensure that new university leadership will have the same views and will take seriously the commitments of their predecessors. 


The case studies include several embedded institutions in which an exemplary accountability arrangement has been forged among a university president (or provost or church official) who is supportive of the mission of theological education; a university board (or church oversight body) that offers real direction; and a seminary head who welcomes their wise oversight. In some of these embedded schools, there is also an advisory committee that, despite a lack of real authority, helps to carry the institutional memory through time. In every one of these ideal cases, however, the dean or president is aware that the careful balance may be up-ended in an instant. More than one dean has pointed out that a major obstacle to sustaining the commitment of those to whom they report is that in any larger system, the theological school is usually the smallest unit and generates the least revenue. 


What about the Carver model of Policy Governance?

One of the most prominent models of nonprofit governance is the “Policy Governance” model promoted by John and Miriam Carver. In Policy Governance, everyone has a role and stays strictly in it. The role of governors is to determine the “ends” of the organization — the difference that it should aim to make in the sector it serves. Policy ends are communicated to the executive, whose role is to determine the means to implement those ends. Executives and others who work for the organization have little or nothing to say about its mission and purpose, and governors have no role in over-seeing operations, except that they may, as part of their fiduciary role, specify limits (what the executives and staff may not do as they work to achieve the mandated ends). Policy governors do not receive reports on operations, or review staff plans or work; they do not give advice, even in their areas of expertise. Their business is policy, and that territory is exclusively theirs. 


Some nonprofit organizations do use Policy Governance in its pure form, though the policy model is not often applied in higher education. Chief executives of educational institutions are not willing to be limited in their function to implementing policies they have no say in making. Faculties are rarely if ever willing to stay completely out of the process of shaping their school’s mission.

It is not surprising, then, that none of the institutions recommended to be case studies for this research operates by the Policy Governance model. Some of its elements, however, especially its careful delineation of role boundaries, are used to good effect in the case study institutions. The emphasis on ends, on goals stated in terms of the most profound impact an institution hopes to have, is evident in the case study schools. Determining ends is the main business of boards and overseers, and most prominently so in the engaged-governor model: the monitoring of operations is secondary. In both settings, board members are well aware that, even though they have general oversight of operations, it is not their role to manage operations.  


Reflections and recommendations

Knowledgeable observers of theological education interviewed for this study echoed much of the general dubiety within higher education about the effectiveness of boards. One stated the problem sharply: “Too many boards do not know what the school does for a living.” (The same, this observer noted, could be said of some of the officials who oversee embedded schools.) 


Others pointed to an apparent paradox: Those board members whose expertise and access to resources are most needed by schools — in order to cope with current pressures such as financial constriction and enrollment decline — know less about the purposes and contexts of theological education than do the church and theological education insiders they may be replacing. In the course of reflective conversations, one long-time leader in this field questioned whether the volunteer board model can still function in the current environment to sustain and strengthen theological schools.


That perspective, and the fact that the board and other oversight structures that govern theological schools are firmly in place, lead to the following reflections and recommendations based on the data in this report.


Presidents should build the board

For the long-term good of their institutions, chief executives should enable and encourage those who govern the school, whether boards or other over-seers, to take an active role in setting direction and monitoring progress. 


This does not happen as often as it should, for several reasons. Chief among them is time. The president who built the “engaged” board described earlier in this report said that he spent the largest part of his time — well over half his working hours — in contact with the board and its members.


In trips organized and resourced by the president, that board traveled together as a body to sites that had relevance for the school’s work and engaged in extended conversations about the religious environment and the school’s place in it. In addition, the president devoted considerable time to individual meetings with board members, both to provide information about the school and to get their counsel on critical issues.  


Another obstacle is the temptation chief executives experience, when reporting to those who have the authority to make judgments about their performance, to emphasize accomplishments and at the same time to conceal difficulties and mistakes. Sometimes the motive is self-protectiveness, but hiding problems can also be a rational strategy for presidents and deans whose boards (or other overseers) are not well equipped to make critical decisions. Some who have governance authority in theological schools have little or no knowledge of the school and the world in which it operates; and some university administrators are unsympathetic to the aims of theological education. In these cases, the board or supervisors cannot supply the nuanced wisdom that important decisions require.


A third reason that boards (and the governors of embedded schools) may be left on the sidelines is a fear that overseers will overplay their hand, shutting administrators and faculties out of key decisions. And indeed, a few boards in the history of theological education have excluded presidents and faculties from their legitimate roles in decision making. Evidence from this study suggests, however, that these fears are mostly misplaced. The study site that had gone farthest toward creating a comprehensively engaged board was also the school that had the best relationships among board, administration, and 

faculty members. 


The benefits of critically and supportively engaged governors are great. Engaged boards and supervisors bring diverse perspectives from outside the school that can help those who run the institution to anticipate the wider impact of its programs and policy decisions. They can provide an essential link to churches and other constituencies whose good opinion and support the school needs to survive. And university officials who are invited to weigh in on key internal decisions may advocate more vigorously for the needs of the school with board members and other university decision makers.


The most important benefit of engaged governors is the continuity they provide over time. Boards and church and university officials who know the school well, and who have been active partners in guiding its direction, are in the best position, when an executive vacancy occurs, to decide what kind of leadership the school needs in the next period. Engaged governors can also be executors of the legacy of a distinguished administration. Executives who hope that their most meaningful accomplishments will have benefits for the school beyond their tenure can best realize this goal by keeping governors at the center of decision making.  


Recruitment and education of governors are both critical

Boards and executives should do their utmost to find the best people for governance roles. Boards that have the freedom to select their membership can be more diligent in developing a pool of potential members. All current board members should be involved in the search for their successors, funneling names to a committee that screens and then cultivates the most likely prospects. Concentrated attention from the chief executive and board chair is usually essential in convincing people who are in high demand to join a seminary board.


Leaders of embedded schools and schools governed by outside religious groups or officials can apply these techniques in their search for persons to serve on their advisory committees. They can also, sometimes, have more say about who makes decisions if they negotiate changes in decision-making structures. One divinity school dean, for instance, became the organizer of professional school deans in his university. Together, they convinced administrators to recognize that the publishing patterns of their faculty members were different than those of the scientists whose standards had dominated in university tenure decisions; as a result, key decisions about tenure were made by persons better attuned to the standards of excellence in professional schools. 


Similarly, the rector of a diocesan Catholic seminary worked to establish a pattern of collaboration between the chief financial officers of the school and the diocese, including the agreement of the bishop to approve whatever they jointly presented to him. Both examples illustrate the fact that, short of a role in selecting the person or persons with ultimate authority for the school, leaders of embedded and church-controlled institutions can sometimes arrange for important decisions to be made by those who know the school and its needs. 


Funding patterns and governance structures need to be better aligned

Patterns of denominational and university control may need to be adjusted to enable theological schools to fit themselves for the future. 


The governance structures of most theological schools were devised when very different patterns of relationship between churches and schools were in place. In many denominational schools, governance structures were controlled, in whole or in part, by church bodies who reciprocally provided financial support that the schools needed. Many denominations also required that prospective ministers attend the denomination’s seminaries, thereby insuring a steady flow of students. 


Schools founded as part of a university or as part of a college-seminary combination were similarly well supported. Usually they were viewed as central to the mission of the larger institution. Although most did not contribute tuition revenue to the larger institution at the same rate as did undergraduate colleges or other graduate schools established later, it was assumed that they were magnets for raising funds from religious constituencies for the whole institution. In exchange for the valuable religious identity the theological school conferred, the university usually subsidized it.


These patterns have changed dramatically, as the figure below shows. Financial support by most denominations for their associated seminaries has declined sharply. In 2006, gifts from church sources to all members of the Association of Theological Schools totaled $154 million; by 2013, contributions had shrunk by 31 percent, to $106.5 million. 


Meanwhile, at university-related theological schools, there have been further changes in patterns of support. For example, mainline Protestant divinity schools are often part of secular universities, which are much less inclined than they were in the past to find special subventions for the divinity school. Catholic and evangelical Protestant universities that have seminary divisions have often refocused their programs to attract a broader base of support. Although still Christian, albeit in a more generic sense, they are now less likely to attract either denominational support or donors who have special commitment to a seminary that educates religious leaders of their particular religious tradition.


While funding patterns have changed dramatically, however, there have been few changes in governance structures. Positions on the boards of denominational seminaries are frequently filled by religious bodies that use criteria that are not correlated with the needs of the schools. Embedded schools and those controlled by church officials or committees are often restricted in their efforts to build a solid constituency and recruit donors. Yet more and more in recent years, these institutions are expected to balance their budgets without special support from the institutions that own them. 


Sponsors and owners cannot continue to have it both ways: They cannot control their theological schools tightly without offering them support and still expect them to survive and thrive. “Governance and funding have to be aligned,” says one commentator on this study’s findings.


Strong bonds to religious traditions, denominations, and parent or partner institutions are critical for the schools’ survival. Those bonds should not be broken, but in many instances they may need to be loosened. Schools that have boards need more latitude in selecting board members competent to help them solve their most pressing problems and find the resources they need. Those that are governed in other ways — by a church or a university — have to be permitted to forage for themselves, for both funds and students. This may mean a development officer for the school whose work is coordinated with the controlling body but not tightly constricted by it. It may also mean the freedom to shape marketing and recruiting strategies for their most likely student constituencies, which may be very different from the constituencies that the parent university or church group cultivates for other purposes.


Reforms may lead to health

Many features of theological school governance are under stress, but governance can and does work remarkably well in some institutions. A few tough-but-necessary reforms might enable governance to work well at the remainder of theological schools: A determination to educate governors to assume their full role in decision making, attention to the composition of boards and to patterns of decision making in schools that do not have boards, and revising governance structures of church- and university-controlled schools to provide the degrees of freedom they need to make their own way. These steps hold the promise of governance that can work for all.


Barbara G. Wheeler directed this project, which was made possible through collaboration among the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Seminary, the Association of Theological Schools, and the In Trust Center. Helen Oullette is a public member of the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools. Lilly Endowment Inc. provided funding for the research and report.

More on the new governance study

The New Year 2015 issue of In Trust included a condensed excerpt from a new study on seminary boards by researcher Barbara G. Wheeler. This article is a continuation of that condensed excerpt, “Effective Leadership for Theological Schools,” which is available online at To read and print the two articles as one continuous PDF document, visit


 The full report as published by Auburn Theological Seminary, Governance That Works: Effective Leadership for Theological Schools, is available in PDF format at

How this study was conducted

The research team gathered data from four sources:


1. Governance structure and practice. A questionnaire was sent by the Commission on Accrediting of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada (ATS) to approximately 270 member institutions of ATS, seeking information on the level of authority of the board and the make-up of the board by various demographic characteristics. The return rate for the survey was 74 percent.


2. Background, expertise, and views of board members. Employing the In Trust Center’s database of seminary board members, surveys were sent by researchers at the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education in 2002 and 2012, seeking information about the background and expertise of board members, and asking their views on administrative leadership and the quality of governance at their institutions. The return rate in 2002 was 38 percent; in 2012, the return rate was 32 percent. 


3. Patterns of governance. Auburn researchers made site visits to six institutions reputed to have durable, well-functioning patterns of governance. These included three freestanding schools (two Protestant, one Roman Catholic) and three embedded in small universities. Chief executives and board members were interviewed, as well as academic, financial, and development officers, among others. Additional interviews (by phone or in person) were conducted with chief executives or board members of other schools in these categories and embedded divinity schools of large universities.


4. Consultations. In the course of the project, the researchers consulted with the leaders and professional staff of various organizations that serve theological schools. 



Part 1 of this article, published in the New Year 2015 issue, contained the following errors in the print edition.


In Table 1, found on page 9, the fourth and fifth figures in the list should be 88.5 and 83.4, not 87.5 and 81.5.


In Figure 10, found on page 10, the percentage of theological school board members 50 and older is 92, not 83.


In Table 2, found on page 11, the percentage of board members not involved with mainline denominational Protestant schools before they joined the board is 57, not 67. 


The figures have been corrected in the online version of the article.


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