|Courtesy McCormick Theological Seminary
In February 2017, Frank M. Yamada was named executive director of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the accrediting and leadership development organization that includes more than 270 seminaries and theological schools in the United States and Canada.
Since 2011, Yamada has been president of McCormick Theological Seminary, a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Chicago. He will step down from McCormick’s leadership on June 30 and will take up his new duties at ATS on July 1.
Yamada has been on the board of directors of the In Trust Center for Theological Schools for the past year. Since many of In Trust’s readers serve on boards of theological schools, we asked him to tell us about his relationship as a seminary president with his school’s board of trustees, as well as his thoughts on what the board members of theological schools across the United States and Canada should look for in the future.
Q Tell us about your board at McCormick. What are your current board’s strengths?
A The board at McCormick Theological Seminary has 39 members in three classes of 13 each, and they meet three times a year. Our board is one of the few that I have seen that has two students and two faculty representatives, all with both voice and vote. The nominating committee carefully assesses the skill sets and strengths that trustees bring to McCormick and makes recommendations to the full board about what type of expertise the school needs going forward. Our current board has a diverse range of gifts and includes professionals in investment and finance, fundraising, human resources, and higher education.
Q How often do you meet with your board chair?
A The Rev. Dr. Deborah Block, the chair, knows McCormick not only as a trustee, but also as an alumna and former faculty member. Beyond formal meetings of the board and executive committee (three for each), she and I communicate regularly about once every week or two.
Our relationship is collegial and also serves a coordinating function for the school. I appreciate her pastoral care for me and her wisdom about the seminary’s history and dynamics. I, in turn, help her see the day-to-day operations of the school in relation to strategy and institutional assessment so that she has the information to lead her trustee colleagues.
Q What should seminary board members and other seminary leaders be concerned about in 2017?
A Daniel O. Aleshire, the current executive director of ATS, has named many of the concerns and challenges that theological schools are facing. They include:
To this list, I would add that seminary boards are increasingly asked to engage in institutional partnership conversations, including mergers, shared services, shared campuses, and more. We are likely to see an increase in this type of activity in the next several years.
Q What high-level issues should boards keep their eyes on?
A There is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution to the futures that theological schools must envision for themselves. ATS’s Educational Models and Practices project, funded through a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., is helping us to see the many creative ways that theological schools are adapting to today’s challenges and opportunities. One of the things that we have learned is that while there are different approaches, each school’s engagement with its context is creative and a unique expression of the school’s mission.
There are a couple of things that board members (and other leaders) can take away from projects like this. First, there is an opportunity to become more knowledgeable about the particular challenges that your school faces. For example, the issues confronting endowment-driven schools like McCormick are very different from those facing seminaries that rely heavily upon tuition, and embedded schools face very different issues than independent schools. Seminaries with commuter populations must think differently about curriculum delivery than those committed to residential education.
Second, we can learn what other schools are doing to address similar challenges. For example, ATS’s Lilly Endowment–funded initiative addressing the economic well-being of future ministers is an important window into what schools are doing to help students with financial literacy and indebtedness. Initiatives like these are important frames through which board members can learn how schools are adapting to current realities in theological education.
Q Do you have hopeful or sobering thoughts about the future of the church?
A Our seminaries have a long history of being both adaptable and resilient. I currently serve at a school that has trained leaders for the changing church for more than 187 years. A lot has happened in that time! Theological schools, like the church, have transformed over the centuries to address social, theological, and political realities that previous generations could not have imagined. So, while the current shape of those issues — finances, enrollments, innovative models, and student diversity — is a reflection of our present moment, the longer narrative of our seminaries’ adaptability and ability to persevere will most certainly continue.
Seminaries, like the church, figure out ways to adapt to the pressing needs of the moment in order to fulfill their mission. The biblical narrative is witness to the ways in which the people of God are always changing to address more faithfully the call of God in their lives. Our hope is not grounded in our own ingenuity, though the genius of our schools is a constant source of inspiration to me. Our future belongs to God and the way that God remains with us in this process of transformation to the benefit of the church and world.