Theological school faculty members are experiencing tumultuous days. Peer institutions — Catholic seminaries, mainline institutions, and entrepreneurial evangelical schools alike — are taking dramatic actions, including closing operations, merging into larger institutions, and shuttering campuses. All too often, our faculty colleagues are caught flat-footed by these changes, having been excluded from planning processes and sometimes treated with indifference and hostility.
I know key decision makers do not wish things to work this way. Moreover, I believe faculty represent a vital resource for strategic decision makers as we all sort our way through challenging moments. Here are several things I wish boards and administrators knew about the faculty members serving our institutions. They are generalizations, of course, as faculty vary in our outlooks and dispositions just as all groups do.
We’re eager to help. Our professional welfare depends upon our institutions’ vitality. Time and time again, the faculty where I teach have offered to teach more or work differently if it will help the institution. Some of us may have ambitious research agendas, but almost all theological faculty value teaching above all else. We do not wish to run things, but we’re deeply invested in our schools and our students.
Theological faculty stay in touch with one another. You’d be amazed how intensely we network. We meet in professional societies, through institutions like the Association of Theological Schools and the Hispanic Theological Initiative, and through social media. We get to know one another personally and by reputation. We know which schools are struggling, where there is conflict, and where our colleagues are experiencing vitality and joy. For all these reasons, we have a broad and nuanced sense of major trends in theological education — a key resource for institutional planning.
We’re called to excellence. Higher education is under all kinds of pressure to compromise on quality. We appreciate that change involves risk. We also know that some educational models tend toward a Walmart ethos: temporary workers selling mediocre products cheaply. Yet theological education is our vocation. We’re willing to do most anything that contributes to excellent theological education.
Long-term faculty represent a theological school’s public face. I often joke that I visit more churches than the Holy Spirit. Because most theological schools are smaller than colleges and universities, we relate to the public more intimately. Faculty frequently visit religious communities and meet with prospective students. Students, donors, and even board members commonly encounter a seminary through a faculty member.
Long-term faculty and staff also carry an institution’s ethos and collective memory. Educational institutions experience constant and rapid change, yet somehow theological schools sustain their distinctive gifts and graces. At my school those include an ecumenical spirit, authentic formation in students, and close relationships with communities of faith. These gifts abide because people stay and grow over substantial periods of time.
We’re worried. You may not realize how profoundly our professional lives differ from folks in other professions. Academic jobs are extremely scarce. If our institutions fail, most of us will have to start new careers, a process that takes years rather than months.
We want to communicate. Because most theological schools are small, faculty, administrators, and boards can sustain meaningful communication. Faculty don’t wish to cross boundaries in inappropriate ways or to interfere in proper governance. But we perceive a general trend to distance faculty from direct communication with boards, which concerns us. Please create space for meaningful, strategic communication with your faculty. If we reach out, it’s not because we’re being insubordinate or confrontational but because we want to communicate.