Vincent Cushing enjoys reminding leaders in theological education that "after Jesus, it's all about money." His edgy quip sums up 24 years in the presidential hot seat at the Washington Theological Union, a school founded as the joint venture of nine Roman Catholic religious orders. Before he retired in 1999, Father Cushing's candid leadership style was recognized more broadly with his election as president of the Association of Theological Schools. He was also founding board chair of In Trust.
This six-word mantra—at times rendered more smoothly as "after the Gospel, it's all about budget"-directs today's board members to keep our priorities straight. We don't struggle for money alone in these hard times. It's about mission—an educational mission derived from the call to preach and teach God's healing redemption known most fully through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It's a mission that opens us to expressing God's love to all peoples and invites dialogue with all faiths.
Historically, this mission has always inspired sacrificial giving. It's often been expressed in hopeful, bare-bones educational ventures that benefited from the growth of the North American economy and the success of its immigrant peoples. The downward trend in these times exposes the vulnerabilities in our modest but complex institutions.
Today's economic storms force us once again to examine mission in its institutional expressions. Of course such radical testing is not new—seminary enrollment and finances have been threatened before, especially during times of denominational mergers and splits. Some schools did not survive. Others tried weathering the challenges by venturing into partnerships that required strong leadership and governance to accomplish dramatic institutional transformations.
Several years ago, when I studied the boards of three schools that had weathered transformation, I found that in comparison to the boards of other schools with no history of partnership, these boards scored higher on a survey measuring board performance.
The board of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary governed an institution created by a consolidation of Southern and Northern Presbyterian schools which took place in 1901—a full 82 years before the Southern and Northern Presbyterian denominations came together to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary's board, on the other hand, oversaw a school that resulted from an involuntary merger. Two Chicago-area seminaries—one in the Evangelical United Brethren denomination, the other in the Methodist Episcopal Church—were forced to unite in 1972 when the two denominations came together as the United Methodist Church.
Luther Northwestern Seminary (now Luther Seminary) emerged in 1982 from a six-year process of integrating Luther Seminary (of the American Lutheran Church) and Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary (of the Lutheran Church in America). That joint venture predated the 1988 denominational merger that produced the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Not all partnering yields such a history of strength in governance, but when "governance awareness" accompanies prescient presidential leadership, the combination is potent. The board of a merged school must be mindful of two or more heritages. To survive, such a board must address the demands posed by wider constituencies, greater expenses, shared leadership, palpable differences in culture (and the board room), and greater public need for credible communication. In other words, it must achieve a higher standard of performance than in the past-a standard that can become a legacy endowing the merged schools with the discipline to pursue a clear educational mission. It may be worth the trouble, in Jesus' name.