Defining governance is like holding a slippery fish. Hold it the wrong way, and with one sudden jerk, the fish is lost. What definition of governance do you hold? My favorite comes from David Tiede, a former In Trust Governance Mentor, who is president emeritus of Luther Seminary:

“Governance is the stewardship of power to accomplish a common mission.”

The complexity behind this simple definition emerges as you reflect on its key words — power, stewardship, and mission. How can it be unpacked — or how can your own favorite definition of governance be unpacked — for directors, faculty, and administrators? How can you ensure that the idea of shared governance gains traction and doesn’t slip away?

A framework for grasping any theological school’s governance mandate begins with an understanding of the church, because a school’s ministry, organization, and mission flow out of its ecclesiology. Reformed theologian Craig Van Gelder describes the dynamic this way in The Essence of the Church: 

The critical question is, what is the church? To answer this question, we must understand that the church’s nature is unique, and that this unique nature is the result of the work of God’s Spirit in the world. Understanding this unique nature provides the necessary perspective for addressing the ministry and organization of the church. 

Van Gelder suggests a threefold categorical framework to describe the church’s character: 

  • Nature. The church is what God has called it to be. This category of nature defines the “is” of the church.

  • Ministry. The church does what it is. The church’s activities flow out of its nature and self-understanding.

  • Organization. The church organizes what it does. How the church structures itself for mission reflects its service to the gospel. 

These categories can also shed light on theological school governance:

Nature. The identity of a theological school is shaped by its understanding of what God is calling the church to be, and by what God is calling the school to be as an institution that emerges from and supports the church. This identity is suggested by the stories and biblical texts that a theological school uses to explain its own story — its founders, its history, its reason for being.

Ministry. The identity of the theological school is likewise defined by what it does. There is no school without the activities of teaching, research, and formation. How a school does its work — how it shapes students into scholars, pastors, and lay Christians — flows directly from its identity. Ministry flows out of nature.

Organization. In order to achieve its mission, the theological school’s ministries must be structured in some way. The manner in which this structuring takes place is directly related to the nature of a school and its ministry. Thus, more top-down theological traditions tend to have more hierarchical organizations, while theological traditions that emphasize equality tend to have more messy, democratic structures. 

Each of these categories is complex and interdependent. A school’s nature affects its ministry and vice versa, and none of its work is possible without a sound structure. Form follows function, but function and form both follow identity. When all work together, they thrive. 

But as many schools can attest, when identity, mission, and structure don’t function in sync, they start to crumble. So as your school reflects on its own governance, are you essentially addressing issues of nature, ministry, or organization? Knowing how to hold onto governance issues can bring a school a long way down the road of stewarding its power effectively to accomplish the common mission. 

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