Illustration by Laura Costas

Can you remember the first meeting you attended as a newly elected board member? I recall my own sense of being an outsider entering a new land. Some of the language, especially acronyms, was foreign. Most of the people in the room were unknown to me, and the school itself held more of a visual than an institutional presence in my mind. What was current, I had learned primarily by hearsay.

I hoped that as one of the few women on the board, and one with convictions and a streak of intensity, that when the time came to speak, I wouldn’t blow it and close off opportunities for useful conversation both inside and outside the boardroom. Oh, and was I dressed right?

As I listened for the patterns of discussion, I watched to see whose responses and manner seemed the most sensible and wise to the others and to me. But beneath my anthropologist’s guise, another question lurked: What levels of truth about the institution were tolerated or even encouraged? Did the board chair and the president value meaningful deliberation? In those early days of board membership, and as a younger person, I thought truth-telling a relatively simple matter.

I know now that truths are various and that not all of them are relevant to the board’s role. Some belong at the table; others are best discussed away from the table, and some, not at all. Some are of high importance, others of low level. Different religious cultures and institutional histories absorb truths at their own rates and in their own ways. But lest all these qualifiers about truth become too discouraging, let’s look again at the new board member.

A new member bears a degree of self-consciousness that may be personally painful but institutionally useful. The self-consciousness endows the new member with a keen capacity for observation, if not always understanding. I mean that newcomers are good at pointing to truth issues, but may not always know what they’re exposing. Even when they trespass on protocol, their questions can be harnessed for the sake of the board’s work. Who else can still see, not to mention probe, the obvious?

I tested this hypothesis on some veteran presidents and found that they tuned in immediately and had stories to tell. Benjamin Griffin, current president of Andover Newton Theological Seminary, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, and former president of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, tells of the lone Roman Catholic layman on his board, whose business is ethical investing, asking repeatedly for an explanation of the school’s theological identity. “He kept saying he couldn’t understand it,” Griffin recalled. 

This outsider trustee’s nose had led him to an issue with historic proportions. Andover Newton is the product of a merger of two very different theological traditions: New England Congregational and New England Baptist (today, United Church of Christ and American Baptist, respectively). As a result of the trustee’s persistence, the school engaged in a process to draft a statement of theological identity and core values with the help of an outside consultant who knew the Reformed tradition. The result: a two-page statement that, according to Griffin, has other board members saying, “This is the first time I’ve been able to get my mind around Andover Newton.”

Or consider the stunning question Malcolm Warford, now a professor at Lexington Theological Seminary, had to field in the boardroom in the early 1990s when he was the new president of Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine: “How many students that we are admitting to this school are people that I would want as pastor of my congregation?” Warford admits that the question needled. To be answered honestly, it required the school’s administration and board to review recruitment and admissions policies. As a result, the board authorized hiking up qualifications and reducing the size of the Master of Divinity student body, an expensive proposition that ultimately led to a reconfiguration of the institution.

At Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, fifteen-year dean and president Durstan McDonald recalls a new trustee who asked if the other board members were only window dressing, since the board chair, by board statute the Episcopal bishop of Texas, and the chief executive appeared to make all the real decisions. “Until he named the issue, we had no way of considering how to empower the trustees,” recalled McDonald. A revision of board structures and offices took more than a decade, but under the bishop’s leadership yielded a far more effective board with more satisfied members.

Where and when does the new, or not so new, board member, ask the hard questions? When hard questions are good, they often point to obstructions or myopias that keep the school from achieving its mission or the board from doing its work. They don’t always have to be asked publicly, but if fresh air is needed, somewhere a window or a door will have to be opened. 

Imagine some of the instances when the right question at the right time can make a difference. I’ve collected several after a decade and a half of consulting with dozens of theological school governing boards. Suppose, for example, that board members begin to suspect the competence of the new president they themselves selected. Or what if the board chair has been in office for more than a decade and uses her authority to block the development of new leadership? Or, imagine when the endowment, managed by a board investment committee, continually underperforms. Consider a continuous decline in enrollment with no one measuring the slippage over time or bringing comparisons with similar institutions to the table. Or, how does a board member know that faculty members are doing justice to the school’s own religious tradition?

Board members, new and old, are capable of raising thorny questions, and ones that may in the short run be even more costly to answer than our three presidents’ tales suggest. For this reason, board members, and whole governing boards, need to weigh the costs and benefits of truth-telling for the long haul. And isn’t that precisely what boards are for? Their job is to ensure the long-term vitality of the school’s mission.

All the research about governing boards suggests that members long to deal with real issues. In the parlance of the corporate world that rubs off on voluntary service, board members want to “add value” and not be convened episodically for show-and-tell sessions in which their wisdom and experience are neither sought nor appreciated. At the same time presidents and other top administrators hardly relish the idea of board members going off half-cocked about complex matters they don’t fully understand because their chief experience comes from an institutional culture and environment quite different from a theological school’s. 

Let me propose some guidelines for truth-telling on governing boards. They come from my own and others’ experience. Note, though, that I intend this tentative proposal to open—not preempt—conversation. Like truth itself, guidelines for truth-telling are hot potatoes that need to be passed around a bit to make them tolerable.

Advice for Questioners

1   Calculate the level of your question. Does it shed light on primary issues that are the purview of the board? Is it about a nettlesome but small matter that gives the school bad press in certain constituencies? What’s the connection between the issue and other issues? Will it shed light or just heat? 

2   Do your homework. Important issues have histories and storytellers; find them. Your question will carry more weight if you indicate that you have some understanding of the context.

3   Know your reasons for wanting to know. The truth that you seek will be in service to what purposes? If you are asking from a partisan position, does the party you represent have the best interests of the school in mind? I think it’s sometimes hard to know. Church-related institutions need board members with dual, but not divided, loyalties to both school and church. Tension is inevitable and can even be productive. But when the loyalty is utterly partisan in favor of one entity and not the other, truth-seeking becomes harassment and board membership is destructive. Time to resign.

Moreover, don’t make the issue a study in your own character. Be succinct, direct, kind, and generous—but stay on the point. If you know yourself well enough to use personality traits to advantage, fine; but it takes the rare old coot to pull that off well, and then only intermittently.

4   Test your question. If possible and if the probe will be deep and perhaps painful, find trustworthy confidants to test the validity and strategy of your question. Such people may even help you explore more angles and shoulder some of responsibility for the intervention. You may even want to give the chief executive advance notice of your intention so that he or she can be prepared to answer and suggest ways to get at the answer.

5   Blindsiding and blaming usually backfire. Avoid them. Go back to Guideline No. 2. Why do you need to appear righteous and above it all? Remember, individual motives are at least as complex as institutional realities. If you really want useful information, don’t use rhetoric that puts people on the defensive. Your aim is not to attribute fault but to help the institution do better in the future.

6   Find the most strategic venue for your question. The president’s ear? A committee or task force meeting? A plenary session? Where will the question have the most effective leverage for generating information that will help the board or institution do better?

7   Some questions merit repeating. On those occasions when a worthwhile and well-tested question gets stonewalled, find another occasion to try again. Sometimes your request can be as humble as a minority report from a committee. It can take time for some to get used to the idea that the question has merit.

8   Don’t be apocalyptic about a single issue. Institutions usually fall or fail because of a complex of factors, only rarely lined up like dominoes. But do note strategic issues that will have multiple effects. 

9   Have courage. Mature adults know how to take the heat. Very likely you are not alone in your pondering. When truth, be it comfortable or not, is in service to mission, it becomes a building block for a new vantage point from which to see better and farther.

Remember that the truths we seek will be time-bound and partial. We can only see “through a glass, darkly,” to echo Paul’s message to the Christians at Corinth. A liberating, if humbling reminder. If Truth is God’s, then truths are of God. I think we are being schooled for a knowledge beyond our knowing by our experience with human institutions. We are creators in God’s creation.

For that reason, I trust my instinct that some board meetings should drive me to the confessional. I’ve been complicit in bad or even mediocre decision-making and I can’t gauge the consequences. We sin corporately on boards. 

But we also have the opportunity to seek justice. The board of trustees of a theological school can be a place where believers meet to discuss the future of their efforts at creation. They can be places to exercise the holy. Truth invites holiness. When trusteeship ceases to be an exercise in truthfulness, consider resignation from the board. Your time is too precious.

On the other hand, when boards seek truth consistently, they become splendid places where lay and ordained leaders share a rare opportunity to know each other’s minds and understand the institution they hold in trust for the sake of the church. 

As the three presidents’ examples indicated, finding truth and living in a more truthful way takes time and effort. Never forget that the board sets the standard for truthfulness in a theological school. That’s a serious form of theological education for students, faculty, staff, and seminary public.

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