When Duke Divinity School was thinking about building an addition in order to address overcrowding in the early 2000s, the deliberations at the United Methodist seminary included seeking input from various members of the community. One of those groups was the divinity school’s board of visitors, an advisory group that provides input to the dean and other administrators. 

Like the board of trustees, which governs all of Duke University and its many schools, the divinity school’s board of visitors was sensitive to issues of cost, wanting to reserve money for much-needed student scholarships. But one member spoke up during the meeting, reminding that whatever they did, they should “do it for the glory of God.” 


That advice, remembers Wesley Brown, associate dean for leadership giving, “helped free us up to do an amazing building.”

Though the divinity school's board of visitors doesn't have fiduciary responsibility like the university's board of trustees, its input is essential, says Wesley Brown of Duke Divinity School.

Image Credit: Duke Photography

The 53,000-square-foot Hugh A. Westbrook Building, which opened in 2005, features a jaw-dropping 315-seat chapel, office space, a bookstore, a café, an outdoor patio, and a 177-seat lecture hall — all adjacent to the landmark Duke Chapel, which overlooks the university’s Gothic Revival campus in Durham, North Carolina.

The university-wide board of trustees had to make the decision to move forward with the building project, but the divinity school’s board of visitors was an essential part of the project, just as it has been instrumental in other strategic planning conversations, says Brown.

Different, but influential

Only a minority of theological schools have advisory boards — mostly Catholic seminaries and divinity schools, like Duke, that are embedded in universities — but at those schools that are using advisory boards effectively, they can provide not only financial support, but also an additional source of counsel and encouragement, as well as a vital connection to the wider church community.


Advisory boards go by a variety of names, including “foundation board” and “board of overseers.” But whatever they’re called, they can be strong partners in promoting the mission of theological education.


Created in 1983, Duke Divinity’s board of visitors has provided continuous support in striving toward “the best that theological education ought to be and can be,” says Brown. Although the members do not have fiduciary responsibility, as the university-wide trustees do, they are invaluable and influential, he says. 


“There are different kinds of power,” says Brown, who was instrumental in forming the advisory body. The board of visitors may not hire and fire the president, for example, but “they help the school decide other critical things. They learn about the school, and they’re able to speak and interpret that in other places. They also bring professional expertise that the school might otherwise have to pay for.”


The group of attorneys, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, physicians, pastors, and others can serve as a “reality check,” says Dan G. Blazer, a professor of psychiatry at Duke’s medical school and current chair of the seminary’s board of visitors. Budget conscious but not responsible for direct financial oversight, the group can look realistically at issues facing the seminary. “Exploring connections between the school and the real world may be our biggest asset,” he says. 


The former board of visitors chair, Terri Dean, brought her expertise as senior vice president of global communications for Verizon, which eventually resulted in a conversation between the seminary and Duke’s business school about adding business skills to some seminary programs. An advisory board can help the school’s leadership “think out into the future and evaluate what direction the divinity school needs to be going in — and about what network is needed to help the dean realize his or her vision,” Dean says. 


For some advisory boards, fundraising is the group’s key mandate. That’s how the foundation board at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, began in 1989, after the merger of three Lutheran denominations into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In its 27-year history, the foundation board has helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars, through the members’ own contributions as well as their contacts to other prospective donors. Most, though not all, advisory boards require members to give, even if there is no minimum required amount.


But Luther quickly learned that limiting the foundation board’s work to “getting and giving” didn’t take advantage of the members’ desire to contribute talent as well as treasure. Over the years, the foundation board has been involved in a number of strategic planning projects and even a new president search. 


“It shouldn’t be all about getting more money, although you do want more resources to flow,” says Jonathan Strandjord, program director for seminaries for the parent denomination. “You’re really after a wiser organization. A foundation board should be a source of talent you can draw on.”


Strategic advice

This “generative work” can be an advisory board’s most beneficial contribution, says David Tiede, who has consulted with more than 30 seminaries on governance issues. (Tiede is also president emeritus of Luther Seminary, but is not speaking on behalf of that school.)


A purely fundraising advisory board differs from one with a strategic role, says Tiede. A strategic-minded board can help ask and answer vital, mission-focused questions: “What do we need seminaries for?” “To whom will this school matter?” “What will make this place vital for the next 10 years?” “How can we build the capacity to do those things?” 


Tiede says that advisory boards are best when they are comprised of stakeholders who care about the mission of the school and are willing to help carry it forward. “A stakeholder council takes a strong leadership role in saying, ‘How are we going to build the capacity of this enterprise by bringing others into it to make a difference?’” he says.


Such strategic planning and implementation are accomplished collaboratively with a governing board and the school’s administration, with each group playing its appropriate role. For example, while an advisory board does not have the authority to choose a new president for the institution, it can be part of the conversation about what kind of leadership the school needs.  “Powers are plural,” says Tiede. “And they’re differentiated.”


Their suggestions are heard


That differentiation of powers is essential at Catholic schools, where the church’s canon law reserves certain powers to rectors and the bishops (or other religious authorities) who appoint them. For example, at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, a Benedictine school in Indiana, the rector and most members of the governing board of trustees are Benedictine priests and brothers. 

The members of the board of overseers at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology represent diverse perspectives but they are unified in their commitment to the church, says Father Denis Robinson. 
Image Credit: Saint Meinrad Archabbey

Yet, “in practice most of the hard work is done by the board of overseers,” an advisory group, says Father Denis Robinson, a Benedictine who serves as the president-rector. In fact, the overseers’ meetings are usually much longer than those of the board of trustees. 

At the advisory meetings, the board members offer advice and opinions on strategic questions facing the school. They also often do research and work in between meetings. For example, before the February meeting this year, Saint Meinrad’s overseers read John L. Allen Jr.’s The Global War on Christians to prepare for a discussion about how religious persecution issues affect a Catholic seminary. 


The outsider perspectives of overseers can be extremely helpful to the president-rector, but overseers find that service on the board provides benefits to them as well. “It gives us a much deeper understanding of the life and faith of our church, which we can then take back to our own parishes,” says Diane Murphy, current chair. “People really feel it’s time well spent. We feel our suggestions don’t fall on deaf ears.”


Murphy likens the meetings, held three times a year, to mini-retreats, in which board members stay overnight on the bucolic seminary campus. At other schools, advisory groups may meet less frequently, but they seem to agree that relationship building among members is important. At Duke, board of visitors members especially enjoy meeting with faculty and student panels, as well as the dinners during which genuine friendships are formed and nurtured, Brown says.


Two-way communication

All agree that “show and tell” meetings, consisting merely of reports from administrators, waste the time and talent of an advisory board, yet their board members do need to stay in the loop about issues facing the school. Father Robinson, the president-rector at Saint Meinrad, uses most meeting time for conversation but gives a “state of the seminary” report at the first meeting of the year and tries to stay in communication in between meetings.


Such reports to advisory bodies need to be honest, says Strandjord of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “That means frankness. You cannot be bringing people in and telling them happy stories and promises of guaranteed success with a new venture,” he says. Advisory board members “don’t just want to see the glossy brochure, they want to see the deeper issues.” That may require emails, briefings, or even conference calls in between meetings. A few advisory boards have committees, though it’s not common. In addition to receiving information from the seminary, advisory board members can bring information as well, becoming important connections to the wider church. One function of advisory groups is to help schools to be accountable to and gain support from their broader constituencies.


Although the governing board can do that as well, advisory board members become a “crucial part of the communication network,” says Strandjord. “It’s not just the school getting its message out, but also that it has more eyes and ears out there, telling the school what others are thinking and the questions they have.” 


Brown sees a twofold value in Duke’s board of visitors: helping the church understand the divinity school and helping the divinity school to understand the church and its needs. Board members take the story of the divinity school into the world, and they bring feedback. “We need people out there who can say at a church assembly or other gathering, ‘Here’s what’s happening at Duke, and here’s why.’ It’s a process through which we can have a reality check,” Brown says. 


Advisory boards and their connections to such constituencies can be crucial during times of transition or even crisis. “You need constituency engagement, because without a constituency, a seminary is nothing,” says Strandjord. He admits he was skeptical when Luther first formed its foundation board, but he’s become a strong supporter. “It asks a lot of the president, but over time it can really build a lot of links,” he says. “I think it actually works quite well.”


At Saint Meinrad, as its board of overseers celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the school’s president-rector couldn’t be more pleased. “The board is absolutely invaluable for my work,” says Robinson. “I can’t imagine running a seminary without their input.”


The right people

Who makes a good advisory board member? Membership criteria and processes vary, though qualities beyond “ability to give” have emerged as important for advisory board members. Advisory board membership should be more than just a “thank you” to a larger donor.


Prospective members should want and be able to be connected to the school in a deeper way. “If you’re on a foundation board, you’re not just a contributor, we want you inside the conversation,” says Jonathan Strandjord, program director for seminaries for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). “But it is a conversation. We’re not just registering your opinions. You’re part of something that’s living and dynamic.”


ELCA advisory boards tend to include 15 or more members, though some are much larger. Duke Divinity’s board of visitors, for example, has 30 to 40 members at any given time, including donors, alumni, pastors and members from United Methodist churches around the country, and people with expertise in business, law, medicine, communications, and other fields. Attempts are also made to include the “next generation” with younger members. Some members are named “emeritus” after their terms have ended; they are invited to continue attending board meetings. 


Not all Duke advisory board members are Methodist, although all are Christian. (Some advisory boards have an ecumenical or interreligious representative, especially if the school has a relationship with another denomination or faith.) Terri Dean, the former board of visitors chair, is a Baptist whose relatives had connections to Duke and the divinity school. She brought not only her corporate experience, but also experience from other nonprofit boards and from leadership in her own congregation. She says she agreed to serve on the board of visitors because “I felt this was a nudge from God to do something else outside of my church.” 


Diversity and a commitment to the church are important qualities for members of the board of overseers at Saint Meinrad Seminary, the Benedictine school in southern Indiana. 


“Since our church and our world are international and multicultural, I think it’s important we have the diversity that we have,” says Diane Murphy, chair of the advisory board. A lay Catholic, Murphy is president of the charitable foundation at Your Community Bank in New Albany, Indiana. 


About one third of the board’s 30 members are women, and several races are represented. Some members work in Catholic education or ministries, though most bring expertise from other nonprofits or businesses. The unifying characteristic is commitment to the church.


“The most important thing to me is for board members to be people who are very involved in church life,” says Father Denis Robinson, Saint Meinrad’s president-rector. That doesn’t mean they all agree, however, and that’s a good thing. “We need to hear all those points of view and bring them to our deliberations,” he says.


Strandjord also sees advisory boards as being able to widen the number and type of people who can contribute and support the seminary — a plus at institutions where members of the governing board are chosen at church conventions or by bishops. Even as the governing boards of seminaries have become more diverse, advisory boards can stretch “diversity” in all kinds of directions, adding younger members, those from smaller churches, or those that have connections to new constituencies. 


At some schools, there can be crossover between advisory and governing board membership. For example, five members of Saint Meinrad’s board of overseers serve simultaneously on the seminary’s board of trustees. At Luther, members of the foundation board occasionally serve on the governing board’s committees, and meetings of the two groups are held simultaneously, at the same table. At Duke, members of the board of visitors are occasionally invited to join the university board  of trustees, making the advisory board something of a training ground for trusteeship. 


Still, it’s important for the different roles of the two types of boards to be clear, with the advisory boards authorized by and subordinate to official boards of trustees. “They [advisory board members] have to know they are not a governing board, but a board of advisors,” says Father Robinson of Saint Meinrad, adding that orientation does a good job of preparing new members. “If we’re clear about expectations, we find it works very well.”      

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