|The Reverend Vincent de Paul Cushing, O.F.M., now an independent consultant, was president of the Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C., for twenty-four years. He is a member of In Trust’s board of directors.
Before I succumbed to bifocals, I had one eye far-sighted and the other near-sighted. So, though my vision was defective, I could see both near and far. I take that as a description for the role of a president of a theological school: despite being humanly flawed, we do our job well if we can see both far and near.
We need to be able both to manage the quotidian affairs and yet to develop and sustain the vision that will bring the theological and educational enterprise into a viable future. Now that I’ve left the presidency, I ask myself, “Which of the two aspects of being president is ultimately more important—vision or management?” I’ve concluded it is vision. Let me tell you why.
Two basic characteristics (among others) that Robert Cooley of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary says a president needs to have are those of steward and seer. In my experience I’ve tried to join together the tasks of seer and steward. The president has to care about where the school should be going (possibly different than where it is going) and how it will get there.
In simple terms he or she has to have a vision and to help raise the funds that will transform vision into reality. Ultimately, the president (always with the board) shepherds the institution into the future. The president and the board need to enable that future financially. So the task is both to envision and enable.
The most frequently found characteristic of theological schools is financial need. Yes, here and there a few schools enjoy robust financial health, invariably built on endowment. Yet well over 60 percent of our ATS schools stand on shifting financial ground. We hope the stock market will continue to flourish, thereby building up our endowments, yet we feel queasy about our ongoing need for it to flourish.
We must develop a vibrant, energy-laden, compelling vision of where the church should be going.
The question a president faces is this: “How can I ensure the future of this institution so that it will serve a vital church?” We must develop a vibrant, energy-laden, compelling vision of where the church should be going. Such a vision will galvanize supporters into action and raise from them and others the endowment needed to sustain the vision.
Note what it is we need to envision. It is not the vision of where the school is going, but rather where the church should be going. Then, in the light of that, one asks, “What is the best education for ministry to ensure that that church will come to be?” Moreover, envisioning the church’s future and enabling its realization are noble tasks indeed and constitute a vibrant intellectual challenge for the thoughtful president.
To enable the vision of a theological school carries some presumptions. It presumes the president thinks about what sound, contemporary, pluralistic pastoral ministry for the church entails. Unfortunately, that presumption can never be taken for granted.
Today, some respected churches and confessions choose to flee headlong into a romantic, cherished past, a past impossible to regain. Other churches lie supine in the face of a steamrollering secular culture. Still others are havens of magical healing, burdened by media presentations notable for bad taste and glitzy display. Imaginative pastoral ministry gets lost in the maelstrom of ideologies and gimmicks. Amid such churchly clutter, we need to ask: Who thinks for the church?
No quick fixes or somnolent surrenders will address the pastoral imperative. The president needs to take up a prophetic ministry and thoughtfully engage—and then interpret—God’s word and grace within the contemporary history of the church and the society in which we live. He or she must ask within the community of believers and scholars what is happening in our time and what that says to the church.
The president’s task, thus, is to engage in social analysis, then use the findings to envision the school’s future as an education for ministry. This means being steeped in the Christian tradition as the foundation for exploring the key questions of catechesis and hermeneutics.
Another task for the president: to invite generous and believing disciples to join in giving time and money to enable the critical pastoral vision to become practical by and through its educational program. If that means time away from day-to-day management of the institution, so be it.
I believe the president and the board are, by position and vocation, futurists who believe in the possibility of the institution making a difference in the future that will carry forth the gospel as a treasure of meaning and a statement of hope.
In education we have too quickly accepted the paradigm of president as “manager” and made manager the prototype of the successful executive. While that might work in business and the corporate boardroom, I question whether it is the best understanding for the presidency of a theological seminary. I think not.
Admittedly, daily managerial tasks can’t be ignored, but they can be parceled out to other members of the leadership team: dean, business officer, development staff, and executive assistant. But no executive staff colleague can raise the endowment needed for the future—only the president working closely with the board can. This requires that the president speak to the many publics of the seminary and preach the gospel in season and out of season about what the church needs and what the seminary can do.
The president can come to this through broad and informed conversation. Who are his conversational partners? The board of trustees should be equipped to carry out that role. Two conversations with board members have reshaped my understanding of the presidency of the school I served.
The first took place in the early ’90s when a trustee bluntly said to me one day, “Vincent, you talk a good deal about excellence in education, but it seems like so much blather. Neither you or the faculty do much of anything about it.”
That pithy broadside certainly focused the issue of academic excellence for the faculty and me. After some prodding I got the faculty to ask: “How do we evaluate the quality of our education?” We commissioned two studies: one to see what other professional schools (law, business, medicine) were doing and one on how we formulated our first curriculum in the early ’70s.
After that we asked David Shuler, former associate director of ATS, to do a two-phased field study. His first task was to evaluate the quality of ministry experienced by congregations where our alumni and alumnae serve. Second, he was to ask our graduates to evaluate their education.
Faculty formulated the questions for Shuler’s visit, and ten meetings were held, stretching from Boston to Los Angeles. The message came back: revise the curriculum in regard to both process and content.
After a number of thought-provoking meetings, the faculty produced a new curriculum, based on input from parish congregations and graduates working in the field as well as the best academic judgment of our faculty. The whole experience changed my vision of the role of the president. The president is the one who keeps asking if what we are doing makes sense for today’s church.
The second conversation was with a well-known Washington lobbyist. He asked what contribution a school of divinity should make to the multi-layered political and ethical conversations of the nation’s capital.
In his memorable phrasing, “You can train ministers or priests anywhere, but what has this school got to offer to the conversations that go on in the think tanks, the halls of Congress, and the law firms of this mean town?”
Given that challenge, a colleague and I began to look at what role a divinity school could play in the political bubble of Washington, D.C. I struggled with the question during my last three years as president and grew to agree that the trustee’s approach expanded the vision and mission of our institution.
We effected little change in our institutional culture, however, even though this challenged our vision mightily. It was an approach that only endowment could support, and I did not raise that money. Yet, I remain convinced it would have been a valued expansion of our mission and vision.
Do these struggles with vision then change the paradigm of the presidency of the theological school? Yes. They describe a shift in focus from management to vision, from that of the esteemed educator within the institution to the broader educational role of interpreting the church to society and what is happening pastorally in our world. Education for ministry is a response to that challenge.
It also raises the evangelical imperative to the president to keep looking beyond the walls of the school to the church and society in which he or she lives. This is where ministry happens, and that is the arena trustees can both lead the president to and join with the president in raising the money needed to ensure that ministry is relevant, contemporary, and rooted in scholarship.