When I was getting started as a seminary president, I was surprised to learn that my school’s evaluation policies called for an assessment of the chief executive only once every five years. Within the first few months, I spoke to some of my key board leaders about it. I said something like: “I hope you won’t let me head in the wrong direction for five years until suggesting some course correction!”

As a result of those conversations, we implemented an annual review process to take place each summer. The board’s executive committee would reflect with me on the past year’s work and then plan for the coming academic year.

These annual reviews took a variety of formats. Some years we distributed surveys to various constituent groups, incorporating their feedback into the review process. At other times, we took an “appreciative inquiry” approach, which focused on achievements and generated goals for the next period of work. For each review, I prepared an extensive self-assessment document in which I cited progress in areas where the board and I had agreed upon annual goals and emphases. The annual review process culminated in a summary report that was presented to the full board at its fall meeting. Often a brief synopsis of that report was included in a post–board meeting communique sent to the entire seminary community.

In keeping with institutional policy, we also maintained the five-year cycle of a more comprehensive review. All parties involved concurred that the most helpful of these comprehensive reviews took place when board leaders invited an external facilitator into the process. That time, a recently retired college president assisted the board’s leaders in designing the process and reflecting afterwards about their own involvement in the relationship between board and chief executive officer.

Because of my personal appreciation for such an intentional presidential assessment, when I was invited by Sioux Falls Seminary to assist in a review of President Gregory Henson’s leadership, I replied with an enthusiastic yes. The timing was auspicious — the review was scheduled on the heels of my retirement following 17 years of service at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary. In the course of that relatively long presidency, I had worked closely with more than 30 other presidents who had served our seven sister seminaries within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and I had interacted with hundreds of other leaders from member seminaries of the Association of Theological Schools. My own experience, and the wisdom gleaned from so many other seminary leaders, provided a solid foundation for assisting the board of Sioux Falls Seminary in their review.

The purpose of this article is to supplement reflections about my own presidential reviews with insights gained from the process at Sioux Falls last summer. The latter are shared with the permission of President Henson and key trustees.

Process design is critical

More than in most environments, those who work in the academic world are finely attuned to process. What student, professor, staff member, or trustee has not said, “While the ultimate decision may be all right, the process stank”? Great care must be taken in all personnel assessment processes — particularly when they involve the intricate web of relationships that tie a seminary president to the board, church body, faculty, donors, and more. Who leads the process, and how it is conducted, will be scrutinized.

The folks at Sioux Falls wisely chose as chair of the presidential review process a highly respected trustee with broad-based credibility. Board member Gregory Kroger, a South Dakota pastor, worked closely with the board officers and was in frequent contact with me as together we designed the process. I spent two days on campus interviewing more than two dozen key leaders and constituents including trustees, faculty, students, and members of other “publics” served by the seminary. The process afforded me several opportunities for private conversation with the president in which I could share what I was hearing, seek clarification of his perspectives, and offer some recommendations.

Given my own experience, I urged the Sioux Falls leaders to move forthrightly through the review process, and to communicate, in broad strokes at least, the timeline and desired outcomes. I recalled that during one of my own five-year reviews, delays caused by other priorities and demands on board members had resulted in the process dragging out for more than six months, and a few colleagues had confided in me that they were beginning to hear rumblings that there must be some serious problems given how long the process was dragging on. Moreover, I learned that if you don’t offer at least a brief public summary of a presidential review, you create the impressions that something is being hidden.

For a review to be effective and avoid undermining a leader’s authority, a measure of confidentiality must be maintained. Those who need to voice criticism should receive assurance that doing so will not result in reprisals. In the Sioux Falls process, I assured interviewees that while general areas, and even some specific comments, would be shared with the president and trustees, the identities of those sharing would not be revealed. At the same time, broad-based transparency must mark a process if it is to be deemed trustworthy among diverse constituencies. Finding the proper balance between respecting privacy and honoring the community’s need to know is particularly critical if serious problem areas are identified, or if a president is being placed on notice of possible termination.

Seeking the input of those supervised by, or accountable to, a president can be particularly tricky. An ethos of inviting candid feedback can become excessive if review process leaders send signals that “it’s time for everyone who has a beef with the president to voice it.” Written surveys and interview questions must be carefully worded, so as to focus on the effectiveness of the presidency — the work — and not merely the personality or popularity of the office holder. Wise trustees should also recognize that a president who has initiated transformative change may endure widespread resistance for a time.

For the building up of the body

In all assessment processes, the desired outcomes of a presidential review should include an affirmation of the leader’s achievements, coupled with recommendations to strengthen future direction setting. At least some specific goals should be agreed upon between the president and the board for the next period of time. Such objectives — ideally written and shared broadly — can then become a basis for subsequent reviews.

In the annual review sessions with those who reported to me as a seminary president, I indicated that my final question was always the most important: “How can I better support you in your work and personal and professional growth?” In this same vein, those who conduct a presidential review should set as their ultimate goal the undergirding of the president’s leadership for the sake of strengthening the entire community in fulfillment of its mission. In addition to asking, “How is our president doing?,” trustees and others should inquire, as did those who are the current leaders at Sioux Falls Seminary, “How are we doing in supporting the one we have called as our chief steward?” Out of such mutual commitments to strengthen every member in the body (according to the directives of Ephesians 4 and Romans 12) will come the building up of our schools, which are unique theological and leadership seedbeds and are needed now more than ever. 

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