Illustrations by Jordan Andrew Carter
Over the last four decades I have served on, worked with, consulted for, and observed hundreds of nonprofit boards. It may be that as we look back on “governance” in the last 50 years, we will understand that the overemphasis on “policy” as the primary task of boards has been a major flaw of seminaries, colleges, churches, and nonprofits.
It is easy to understand why we got here. Policy is, of course, core to what boards do. But policy must be understood in a larger context. We have all seen cases where boards often drift into the weeds of administration, personnel, and other issues. Or we have seen where other boards, or their members, never go deeper than seeing their role on a board as an honor, a recognition of their achievements, or ability to bring their cachet to the institution or organization.
While “policy” formation is a critical role of boards, there is a fundamental principle that is the single-most important overarching principle of high functioning boards. It is the “Stewardship of the Mission.” Stewardship is a calling that is deeply rooted in biblical understanding. David McKenna, in his book, Stewards of a Sacred Trust, reminds us that “… the mind and spirit of Christ must be the integrating center that penetrates and pervades every thought and action of the organization.… To do so brings structural clarity, division of labor, assignment of roles and use of gifts….” Stewardship also is a practice of high functioning boards, regardless of faith commitment or sector of service. Faithfully practicing stewardship requires boards to be attentive and adaptive. No two boards or organizations are exactly alike.
Stewardship of the mission is expressed in five critical ways; failure to nurture and care for these five practices can leave a board and an institution vulnerable to failures and mission drift that farw too often plague our institutions, organizations, and churches.
Boards must commit to, and engage in, strategic thinking and planning
While this should involve and be done in partnership with administration, faculty, and other constituencies, it cannot be delegated. It is not finished when you have a strategic plan (which in many cases ends up on a shelf). It is a living, dynamic, and ongoing part of the work of the board in partnership with the president and her team, who have shared the formation of the plan with the board and are responsible for the plan’s execution. “Covid times” have demonstrated that strategy and priorities must be current, adaptable, and contextual to changing realities. And stewardship requires that strategy be guided and fully informed by organizational culture and mission.
As Peter Drucker has observed, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” To which I would add: Culture plus a thoughtful strategy born of a clear mission is the right combination for strategic impact.
I know a seminary which had a dynamic president who personally wrote an inspired strategic plan. The board approved it. The faculty and staff, only marginally involved, yawned and kept doing whatever they wanted. The institution had neither the resources, nor the faculty buy-in, nor the management savvy to fulfill the plan that was conceived.
The CEO eventually moved on to his next presidency, with the board and faculty wondering why, by all metrics, the institution had continued its dismal decline. Strategic thinking, planning, and nurturing a healthy culture are critical, but these must be connected to the other four principles that follow, otherwise they are hollow acts of busyness.
Boards must ensure that programs, priorities, and practices reflect the mission
This is expressed in large part through the budget. Does the way a school spends money reflect the mission and values? Many institutions fail to consider and assess that what happens outside the classroom is almost as important as what happens in the classroom. Whether the “classroom” is virtual, in person, or blended, how faculty and those supporting them are rewarded is fundamental to fulfilling mission stewardship. Institutions and boards also must ask: How does mentoring fit in? How might spiritual and leadership formation best occur? What do curricular and co-curricular expenses say about the mission, values, and desired outcomes in the educational experience? In short what kind of leaders are we forming, and how do we assess if the mission is really happening?
I have known of seminaries that have lost students because of rude people in the business office or registrar’s office. I have known seminaries that have drawn students because of vibrant, formative worship experiences, intentionally formed experiences of small groups, or service to the community that prospective students learned about from alumni. Theological formation of leaders is incarnational, not informational. One of the great falsehoods of our technological age is the promise that technology can serve all of our educational and formational goals. Board stewardship requires an understanding of the mission and how it is delivered through the programs, people, priorities, and partners of the institution. The budget provides a window where all can see the mission, vision, and values in reality. This gets at the heartbeat of theological education in the Christian tradition. This was a part of John Wesley’s practical theology genius that became a part of educational institutions all around the U.S. Wesley’s understanding that faith was about more than theological doctrine or propositional truths set him apart as a reformer and catalyst for renewal. Wesley understood that we must “take every thought captive unto Christ” (II Cor 10:5) and that we are on a journey of our minds being renewed and transformed while living out our faith in the company of small groups of fellow pilgrims (Romans 12:1-3).
Unfortunately, we have seen many schools who have simply adopted the values, priorities, and practices of higher education as it is often expressed in the West, a reflection of the old enlightenment assumptions and framing. A truly formative learning experience in nearly every Christian tradition involves community, worship, service and other ways of learning in addition to rigorous intellectual engagement. As Amos Young has stated in his recent work, “…theological scholarship for ‘the world’ usually emerges over time: improvisationally nurtured by expanding life experiences in ever-wider circles of public engagement, theological educators must grow in their capacity to produce scholarship that is both fluent and credible with ‘worldly’ audiences.” (Renewing the Church by the Spirit, p.127)
The hiring and care Of leaders, and at times the transitioning or dismissal of leaders
The third practice of stewardship should also include the stewardship of the executive leaders, faculty, staff, and the board itself. We sometimes have seen leaders who are fired because of moral failure, professional ineptitude, or unethical behavior. While this is painfully disruptive for institutions, it is also often reflective of boards who’ve “fallen asleep” in their stewardship and care of leaders. Boards can be lulled to sleep in at least two common ways: First, by a successful, effective president. The board falls into a cheerleader role instead of continuing to steward leadership and the mission in healthy ways. And second, when institutional leaders flood the board with an overload of information. All of us have been there. Eyes glaze over, minds drift, and people quit paying attention. Is the board clear on the information it needs to receive and pay attention to?
I know an institution where a president was fired, and a board chair dismissed because the board was being lulled to sleep. The board thought, after it hired the new president, its job was done. Members could relax or coast and let the new president do her job. Then the board began to realize the decisions and actions the new president and board chair were arbitrarily making, without the knowledge or approval of the board, were not representative of the values and the mission of the school. They realized the mission was being altered and actions being taken were leading the institution off course. Fortunately, they had the courage to act. The institution is now thriving under new leadership and a more fully engaged board. Sadly, there are many cases where boards either fail to act or limp along unaware of the mission being co-opted by decisions and actions of leadership. They are frozen by the vague idea they should “stick to policy.” Mission stewardship is hard work. It requires that boards not only hire a president, but stay fully engaged and care for the president and leaders of the institution. Nurturing and ensuring care and clear direction for leaders is fundamental to a flourishing culture that brings the mission to life. People are the ones who make the difference; through them the mission comes to life. Hiring is a core part of stewardship, and it starts at the top.
Boards also ensure that faculty and staff are committed to embodying the mission. The academic guild has done much to undermine and distract the focus and formation of faculty in today’s seminaries. Seeking to nurture, support and grow faculty who have the theological convictions as well as the personal, social, and relational formation that is necessary for a vibrant learning community is a never-ending challenge.
Boards should be clear in establishing a clear, centered set of convictions while encouraging creative, engaging, and collaborative work. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity,” Meldenius reminds us from the early 17th century. This requires a vibrant, ongoing conversation if institutions are to be relevant and rooted. Stewardship requires knowing and being clear about the missional convictions of the school.
Friend-raising and fundraising to help extend and support the work of the institution
Boards have the opportunity to join the work of the seminary by introducing and helping an ever-growing circle of individuals to be engaged with the work of the institution. This can include prospective students, supporters, and those who may be interested in graduates, but it also includes extending the network of people and organizations that should know about or be connected to the work of the school. Unfortunately, many leaders of schools miss out on encouraging or engaging their boards in this way. Sometimes presidents or faculty feel threatened by networks that board members may have. Sometimes seminary leaders fail to think of or include others within the seminary who may benefit from such connections. Sometimes board members simply fail to creatively think or connect their networks to help advance the school, its mission, and its people.
The other side of this practice has to do with financial support and giving. If a board member is not willing to include the school in their personal giving, they need to step off of the board. Every board member can give something. I have asked more than a few boards, “Why would someone want to give to your organization if 100% of the board members are not willing to give in some way?” If the boards are the stewards of the mission and the organization, they must give and encourage others to give too. And as we all know, what we give to, we pay more attention to. How the school or organization uses its money or deploys its resources matters. Of course, the same could be said to be true of faculty, staff, and leaders within the seminary. Do they believe enough in the organization of which they are a part to give? Additionally, it is always good to see when alumni value the experience they had with an institution and give financially.
My friend, Randy, is a huge booster of his state university – known for its faithful and loyal alumni. When he joined a seminary board, he made the statement, “Even though I am not an alum of this seminary, the investment we are making in this seminary has more eternal significance than any investment I will ever make in my good ol’ alma mater – I cannot imagine that our giving would not be greater here!” Of course, many schools simply fail to ask their board to give or ask in clumsy or indirect ways. That is why clear-headed thinking and input in this area, like the wisdom in two of my favorite books on this subject, Growing Givers Hearts (Thomas H. Jeavons & Rebekah B. Basinger) or The Spirituality of Fundraising (Henri Nouwen) are an important part of training for every board member.
Serving as an ambassador, recruiter, listening ear, and encourager for the seminary
Internally, board members can attend major events, and engage students, faculty, and staff as opportunity may present itself. Boards should encourage those who are delivering the mission; it is hard work and often done without the gratitude that it deserves. Externally, being a bridge can help represent the school when opportunity arises. This is an area of often unexpected joy and reward for board members.
Sheri would often give out books, podcasts or articles to friends and family written by faculty members of the seminary where she served on the board. She learned of a person she knew who was contemplating a call to ministry, and she connected the person to the admissions office. The person attended the school and graduated. A few years later, Sheri was delighted to learn that the individual, now a seminary grad, would be going to serve as pastor of her relative’s church! “I felt like I had a part in the mission and work of the school and the church, and I had served my family in a special way,” she said. Max De Pree, in his beautifully written book on board service Called to Serve, reminds us of the gift of volunteer service, particularly board service, when he says, “Like no other endeavor [volunteer service] engages our choices, our hearts, our minds, and our spirits.” He goes on to say that it provides the special opportunity to give back and serve the world in ways that will far outlive us. We are not primarily in the ‘credentialing’ business, though credentials represent some of the work that is done. We are raising up and equipping leaders to serve the church, the work of the gospel, and the needs of the world.
When boards are operating on all five “cylinders” (practices) they are exciting, rewarding, and fulfilling expressions of being a part of something bigger than ourselves. We join the great cloud of witnesses seeking to advance “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)
Dan Bolin has written a board prayer that should be prayed and read by every seminary board (“A Board Prayer” by Dan Bolin). He closes it by saying:
“Help us to see the possibilities for a better future. Help us to honor the past, and give us the courage to abandon the methods that provided yesterday’s success but will lead to futility tomorrow. Help us discover and employ the most effective methods to accomplish your mission for this ministry in the days ahead. Help this board to avoid the herd mentality that could stampede the ministry in a dangerous and reckless direction. Help us to see which decisions are easily reversed and which ones are changed at great peril. And dear God, help us to REMAIN UNIFIED. Allow every member to express his or her opinion fully. Help us to engage the dreams for the future with harmony and enthusiasm. Help each of us to leave ... with the commitment to speak with one voice and to support the group decisions in public and private. Help us to remember that few decisions are worth the divisions caused by dominant winning or belligerent losing. Help us to seek your glory and not ours. Grant us the joy of arriving at adjournment closer to one another because we are closer to you. Amen.”
And we might add, “It gives us great joy because we have stewarded well the mission of the institutions of which we are a part.” The times bring their own set of challenges and opportunities. Perhaps now, as never before do we need leaders and schools that educate and form leaders to serve the church and the world, and boards that will steward well.