John M. Mulder

The difficulties faced in recruiting and retaining candidates for ministry is well-known. The average age of clergy continues to climb as their numbers decline. Equally daunting is the challenge of recruiting, replacing and retaining trustees of theological schools.One of the leaders in board development, who has advised other seminaries, is John M. Mulder, president of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky. We asked him to share his thoughts and to address specifically the issues of how he attracts qualified board members, gets them up to speed, and keeps them active and informed.

On Recruiting Board Candidates
You’ve asked a whole series of different questions. Let’s start with the issue of board recruitment. That happens primarily through me but not exclusively. That is, we regularly review the composition of the board for all kinds of different screens. One would be male-female, another would be racial, another would be lay and clerical, and another would be skill sets. We’re currently looking for an architect, for example, because the architect who was on our board died. We look for geographical representation. We look for trustees from significant clusters of support for the seminary so that we can maintain strong relationship with our constituencies. So there are a whole lot of different factors and at any given moment some factors are going to become more important than others.

Then when—either by contacting other board members or pastors in the area or areas where we’d like to have a trustee—I get a pool of possibilities I narrow it down, usually to one; then I go meet the candidate either by myself or with another trustee or with the pastor of the church that the candidate belongs to.

Essential Qualities
Over the years I’ve developed three absolute, essential, non-negotiable qualifications. One is that they have to be utterly committed to the Christian faith, they cannot be marginal members of the church. I have no desire to do evangelism with my board of trustees. There are certain givens and one is a clear commitment to the Christian faith.

The second is that they have to be deeply committed to the Presbyterian Church. You can find trustees in some areas who are really on the boundaries of the Presbyterian Church and wish they were some place else and they’re deeply dissatisfied and all that sort of thing. They may have a pile of money but I don’t want them on my board.

The third qualification is that they have to have a basic assumption of the value of theological education. They may not know anything: they may not know what “exegesis” is or “pastoral care counseling,” or anything related to the curriculum and work of the seminary. I can teach them that or we can teach them that.

But those three are non-negotiable: Christian faith, Presbyterian Church, and a basic assumption that what we’re doing is valuable. Because a lot of people don’t really know how valuable it is and we can teach them that but if they’re unwilling to assume its validity or its value then we can’t go down that road.

After that, all the other issues come up: skill sets, gender/racial/geographical balance, all that sort of thing come into play. We do some screening ahead of time through networks of people—either trustees or pastors—and try to find the very best people we can.

Orienting Well
Now, how do you get board members acclimated and involved? Well, first of all, you do the normal orientation that may take some a little bit deeper than others, but you have to have a good orientation process. We do that with each one—me and each of the vice presidents for the various sections of the administration, and then the chair of the board of trustees, who normally concludes the orientation session with almost a kind of homily about what it really means religiously to be part of a theological seminary and to be a trustee.

And then, in the early ’80s, as a result of the Lilly program on board education and development, we started doing a lot of work trying to educate our board—to the degree now that education is one-quarter of the time that the board spends on campus. We educate them about everything under the sun—student life, questions in theology, church issues in society—but the thing they love the most is to talk to students. Every year they keep coming back to that, “We want to meet students, we want to talk to students.” So student participation in the educational programs is always very, very high.

“Over the years I’ve developed three absolute, essential, non-negotiable qualifications . . . Christian faith, Presbyterian Church, and a basic assumption that what we’re doing is valuable.”

We have a day-and-a-half board meeting and Friday morning is all education. Halfway through we have a service of the Lord’s Supper and generally one of our faculty members preaches so they get to see one of the faculty members in the pulpit. Then Friday afternoon is devoted to committee meetings. Friday evening is devoted to fellowship and we invite members of the faculty and the student body to have a very nice dinner—it’s a banquet but it’s not a big huge thing with 200 people, it’s more like a group of about eighty or so people.

Then in the spring every year that banquet is also a recognition dinner for donors. So we bring donors to the campus and then they interact with members of the board of trustees. Each board member is assigned a table where they introduce the donors who are sitting there. They don’t get any preparation in advance, they have to engage them in conversation at the dinner table to learn the relevant and most important things about these people who have been generous to the seminary.

Saturday morning is the meeting of the full board. So, you’ve got four distinct time slots: Friday morning, Friday afternoon, Friday evening, and Saturday morning. All Friday morning is devoted to education and board members tell me consistently that the main reason they come to the meeting is for the education.

All the board members receive something they have affectionately dubbed “Mulder’s Clipping Service.” I read pretty widely in a variety of things and I will clip things that are of interest to the board and collect it about two or three times a year. It’s sort of a continuing education program at home on issues that I think are important and relevant in the life of the church and in the theological seminary.

We’re just coming off a board meeting which included a self-evaluation and the scoring on the questionnaire was just absolutely unbelievable, the degree of consensus within the board on all kinds of different variables was really quite extraordinary. It was in the 90th percentile on every question that came up.

Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

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