The Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education recently completed a four-year study of "Leadership that Works." The research team — Auburn Center staff Barbara G. Wheeler, Sharon L. Miller, and Anthony T. Ruger, along with former seminary presidents G. Douglass Lewis and David L. Tiede — visited 10 new seminary presidents once a year for three years, interviewing them, their board and staff colleagues, and members of their faculties.

They also selected six schools reputed to have "well functioning" leadership teams and visited each of them once, asking their administrative leaders, board and faculty members, and students to identify the ingredients of effective leadership.

These case studies were complemented by surveys of presidents, academic deans, and financial and development officers of U.S. and Canadian member institutions of the Association of Theological Schools.

What are the proficiencies of outstanding theological school presidents? The well-led schools that the Auburn Center studied were diverse in denomination, size, and condition. Amid the variety, however, a picture emerged of presidents who were effective at creating or maintaining stability at their schools, fostering a constructive working environment, and leading toward the changes required for the institution to do more and better educational work. Those who met this standard of effectiveness had mastered five core functions of their role.



The best presidents forge strong administrative teams that combine key appointments with the best staff they inherited.

Team-building is a delicate balance between conservation and change. One example: The head of a freestanding school brought in a deputy who could take his place if necessary — an administrator with a national reputation in the school's religious constituency whose decision to work at the school helped to raise its reputation and visibility. "You know, with [the deputy], it makes me sleep more secure at night," said the head.

This same president decided to keep an academic dean until the dean's term expired, even though their styles did not mesh. But at the same time, he terminated a financial officer and hired a replacement more committed to the seminary's values. He also encouraged a number of staff who were already in place. "My idea as an administrator is you don't come in with a broom," he said. "You work through retirements and try to find a few bright young people. . . . My style isn't to come in and say, 'We need to upgrade here.'" 

The CEO of a university-related school focused efforts on making the most of the staff already in place. He used his considerable relational abilities to build up morale in a school where several predecessors had stumbled in human relations. He brought virtually everyone he worked with to a higher level of functioning while skillfully managing his superiors in the university administration and securing recognition for his staff.

The spirit of a collegial and competent administrative team can infect the whole institution. A faculty member in a school where this happened made this comment:

The faculty is working together for a common goal. Deep down, there is a personal connection which makes people part of the team. This is solely [the president's] work, the connectedness. This connectedness begins at the top and works its way down through all relationships. Once people come here to work, they don't leave. It's organically a very healthy place to work. We share a common vision of how we serve the church. . . . The president is gifted at building relationships . . . ; she listens and places things in the larger context [with] so much integrity, clarity, and professionalism.

Team-building is not easy. Presidents told us what experienced managers everywhere know — that choosing and managing staff is one of the trickiest parts of the job. Even the relationally gifted agonize over personnel matters. "They are the ones that get into my gut," said one highly effective president. Presidents soon learn that there is no magic formula for choosing personnel. Most make some wrong choices. 

But some of the mistakes that are obstacles to team-building are avoidable. Our study suggests some sound practices:

  • Don't let less-than-effective staff linger. One president made some brilliant hires but, by his own account, had a dysfunctional cabinet until he steeled himself to fire a nonperforming staff member. 
  • Avoid exclusive alliances with senior staff. It is tempting to choose one trusted associate as a confidant, but that's a mistake. Other staff are alienated and the president is cut off from a diversity of views. 
  • Don't import past associates. That sends a signal that a leader thinks more highly of a previous institution than they do of the present one. 
  • Don't be a bully. We heard about some who lose their temper frequently and intimidate others with their angry behavior. In more than one case, the president was charming and amiable with the powerful but short-tempered with clerical and maintenance staff who were powerless to defend themselves. This created an atmosphere of fear and lowered morale in the whole school community.


Faculty relations

Relationships between the most effective presidents and their faculty colleagues are marked by mutual respect. We observed an example of this in the interaction between a faculty and a president who had no academic doctorate and no background in seminary teaching or administration. This president had high regard for the faculty:

I want each faculty [member] to be strong, not weak. Disagreements don't frighten me. . . . The world is counting on us — we need strong faculty. The faculty has responded well; one says that the president knows that power is not a zero-sum game — that one side does not necessarily have more if the other has less. Rather, power expands as it is shared.

Mutual respect does not, however, mean that presidents and faculty always agree. Sometimes it is necessary to say no, and effective presidents do that when they have to. This president, a faculty member himself before his election, decided that an appointment backed by the faculty was not right for the school:

I just came to a moment of clarity for myself when I was awake at 4:00 in the morning and said, "This is not the thing to do for us at this point in time at this institution." . . . I told [the dean] immediately that this what I had decided, and I was not going to take that recommendation forward. [The dean] was fully supportive of that. I called the meeting of the faculty on a Friday morning, sat down with them, and told them that I had decided that I was not going to take this recommendation to the board. There's a provision in the faculty handbook where ... they can override the president and send a recommendation to the board over the president's objection, and they did not exercise that prerogative.

It is important that the president exercise authority when necessary, but only when necessary. We saw instances of presidents violating the process norms of the school — for instance, in the appointment of a dean. These efforts usually did not succeed, and the president suffered a major setback in faculty relations. The slow process of re-establishing mutual respect and laying the groundwork for the exercise of presidential prerogative had to begin all over again.


Financial management

The best presidents we observed do not tolerate deficits. This sets them apart. In 2009, 40 percent of all freestanding North American seminaries ran deficits. One-third of those spent more than $1 million more than they collected in revenue, and half of those had deficits of $2 million or more. Some of the schools we studied were in extreme financial difficulty when the current president arrived. In every case, the budget was balanced immediately, even though, in two cases, it required the transformation of the institution to achieve that result.

Figure 1
Surplus (or deficit) as a percentage of expenditures in six well-managed schools. 
For the purpose of this study, investment revenue is set at 5% of investment opening value. Investment draws of greater than 5% are considered deficit spending.

Is this kind of discipline worth the stress it places on the school and its president? Our findings suggest that the answer is yes. Figure 1 demonstrates that restraint in spending now is related to future strength. This chart is based on the financial data from the six well-functioning schools that we studied. When we chose the schools, we knew only their reputation for educational quality and management competence. We did not look at their financial records, though we were careful to choose some schools that were not rich and that were known to have overcome major financial challenges.

The chart diagrams financial results from those schools over eight years. Eight years of data for six schools equals 48 fiscal years of data. In 47 of those 48 years, these schools had balanced budgets or surpluses. Only one school in one year had a deficit. Some of these schools still face financial challenges, but all of them have good educational reputations and highly regarded faculty and administrative leadership.


Institutional advancement

Figure 2
Presidents describe their change in focus over time

The three foregoing functions, which require a focus on internal operations, occupied new presidents during their first years of work. Figure 2 illustrates a progression in the balance of presidential functions. After the initial period in which presidents' attention is focused on the inside workings of the school, effective presidents turn increasingly toward building relationships with external constituencies, especially those whose support the institution needs to survive and grow.

For many presidents, advancing the institution means raising money chiefly from individuals who give to the school from their personal resources. For some — for deans of schools that are part of larger institutions and for many Roman Catholic seminaries — it means working effectively with the persons and groups who make decisions about funding the school from various institutional sources, such as the university or diocesan budget. Despite these variations, the core task is the same: making the case for the institution to those who shape the school's financial welfare.

Figure 3
Confidence level at beginning of presidency

Figure 3 shows that a large majority of those who answered our survey reported that this is the function they felt least prepared to exercise when they first took the job, ranking below even financial management. Yet among our presidents, some who had never raised a dime before becoming a president were nevertheless good at it by the time we completed our three-year study. How did they do it? One, whose only prior experience was as a faculty member, read a few articles, talked to some experienced colleagues, and then plunged into the work:

The only way to learn this is to do it, and the only way to raise money is to ask people, and you're going to get turned down, and if you're not getting turned down, you're not asking enough people for enough money. . . . If you don't have experience or expertise in fundraising, you can do it, just learn all you can about it. Educate yourself.

Another used the discipline developed earlier in life as a scholar:

There are some people who still terrify me to ask them. There's one grumpy old [man] that I can't get to return e-mails or return calls, and he's kind of a curmudgeon, and I have to get my courage up to give him a call. He's given us $50,000 the last two years. And I'm a pretty . . . scheduled, methodical kind of person, and so [I] take it on much like I would take on a writing assignment. I can get this much done in this day. I can make this many phone calls or this many letters before I have to . . . go lie down.

Will power goes a long way toward fundraising success. Where it fails, a kind of spiritual discipline can fill the gap. "I dare not ask the Lord to provide for [my institution] if I'm not willing to go and sit in some living rooms," says the president just quoted. 

These examples suggest that anyone can be a highly effective fundraiser with sufficient application and a little help from the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, this is a major arena for work avoidance. Some presidents become enmeshed in internal operations and seem to be unable to propel themselves outside the school to ask for financial support.

Even more common than hiding inside the school are skewed perceptions of the likely payoff from the ways that time is spent outside. Presidents can easily convince themselves that activities at which they shine — attending conferences, preaching, or giving academic talks — are the keys to constituency development and fundraising. There are sound institutional reasons to do all these things, but they do not count as fund development. Research shows that cultivation of a limited number of individuals, whether donors or influential institutional funders, produces the most financial results. (See Great Expectations: Fund Raising Prospects for Theological Schools, which is available at



A last key function of "leadership that works" knits together the other functions - internal and external. It is what prevents the other functions from devolving into mechanical operations that keep the school running well in place but headed in no particular direction. The president's job is to discern a vision that is both rooted in the school's heritage and expressive of the highest aspirations of its constituencies for the future. Then the president must articulate and embody that vision and motivate the institution's other leaders — board, faculty, donors, graduates, students — to support it. 

The best presidents forge a vision from the highest hopes and most generous impulses of all the school's stakeholders. Then they project it, make it audible and visible: As one put it, "You have to radiate life and hope for your institution." Shaping the vision is only the first step. Able presidents also know how to move the institution in the direction of its highest hopes. They set the gauges for institutional performance, and they find the means to support the effort.

Money is only part of what is needed to realize a vision. Motivation is just as important, and deft presidents supply it by example, precept, and personal encouragement — and by keeping all constituencies and segments of the school engaged and playing their roles. One of the most skillful leaders we observed underlined the importance of this: "Remember you're president for the whole institution. It took me a while to learn that because I was an academic, and I realized after a while I'm not just president for the faculty."

Presidential envisioning can go awry. Some presidents go too far. They galvanize the hopes and goals of some constituencies but alienate others. In some cases, they may promote the boldest ideas of faculty and other insiders but put the school at odds with its outside supporters. More than one president has left office early in such situations. Difficulties can also arise in the other direction. Presidents may make common cause with venturesome, entrepreneurial donors but fail to incorporate the values of the faculty or administrative team into the plan. Both versions of going too far are recipes for trouble. 

Another serious mistake is for a president to import and impose a vision that has few points of congruence with the mission and values of the school he or she has agreed to lead. A vision should orient a school to new possibilities, but it must be rooted in the school's own traditions.

How do schools find presidents who will excel at these core functions? Further findings that may help search committees locate such presidents and boards support and supervise their work are summarized in the study report, which will be published later this year.

This article is the first is a series on "Leadership that Works."

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