While rummaging through a box of old books, I found a 1953 denominational pamphlet written to rally the faithful around a “unified and correlated emphasis” for ministry. The booklet painted such an optimistic picture of the church’s future! Except for the denomination’s three seminaries.

It seems that young pastors-to-be were turning to schools other than those supported by the denomination — some for economic reasons, others because of theological differences — and their lack of support was jeopardizing the future of the denomination’s own seminaries.

“It should be the prayerful concern of Annual Conferences, local churches, and of interested persons to give assistance to our young ministers in order to help finance their attendance at a school of our own denomination,” members of the denomination’s Commission on the Study of Higher Education urged.

But their plea must have fallen on deaf ears. Within a decade, one of the seminaries had been closed, while another joined forces with a school up the road.

But for the grace of God and strength of the board

I tell this story not to lay blame at the feet of long-ago decision makers — including the boards of the seminaries — but rather to underscore the link between the strength of an institution and the strength of its governing board. More than 20 years on various boards have convinced me of the following:

  • Careless or bad governance can do real harm to a theological school.

  • Good governance is an impetus for even greater mission effectiveness by the institution.

  • A theological school will be only as strong its board — at least in the long term.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that much of what troubles theological schools these days is beyond the control of boards. In fact, it can feel as though board actions are futile in the face of plummeting trend lines. But board members dare not give in to seeming powerlessness.

The ways by which boards (and others) respond to internal challenges and external forces — the decisions made and actions taken by leadership — is what separates thriving institutions from those that struggle. Everything else flows from there.

Watching for more than lip service

Members of strong, value-adding boards don’t settle for mere lip service to good governance, but rather they commit to it, laser-focused on how their decisions, actions, and advocacy contribute to the fulfillment of the institution’s mission with economic vitality. Their determination to lead well translates into specific actions like these: 

Board member recruitment. It seems intuitive. Invitations to board service are as much about the future as the present, and all the more when the goal is to enhance the strength of the board. Yet from what I’ve observed, the future — that is, the longer-term plans and aspirations of a theological school — isn’t much considered in the recruitment process. Rather, governance committees look for men and women whose personal characteristics, expertise, and connections are about now. This is a mistake, because the fast moving environment in which theological schools operate calls for a forward looking, strategic approach.

But how do you choose board members for tomorrow’s opportunities and avoid picking governance leaders that focus only on today’s problems? One way is this: When you identify the desired characteristics in board recruits, be sure to keep the standard board profile matrix in one hand and the school’s strategic plan in the other. Even essentials like attention to diversity and representation should be viewed through the lens of the school’s long-term plans and aspirations.

New member orientation. Regardless of experience, all board recruits deserve a thorough orientation to what it means to serve on this particular board, at this particular time, focused on this school’s particular issues. Whether it’s an incoming board cohort of one or many, the commitment to orientation should be the same. No board member should come to the table without it.

A high-quality orientation clarifies for new members what they’ve been recruited to do, how the board advances the institution’s mission, and why their personal best matters. This requires that orientation materials focus on governance-level issues, staying clear of operational minutiae. Ideally, the orientation session provides new members with enough information to enter immediately into board discussions and committee work.

That said, orientation to a new board assignment rarely happens in a single session. A year-long orientation schedule is the surer way to fully integrate new members into the culture and ambitions of the board and the institution. Not all of these orientation activities need to take place during the board meeting. For example, a follow-up phone call with the board chair could take place within a couple of weeks after the first meeting. The president could schedule a visit for a few months later. A “board buddy” could be assigned to call each new member regularly. Or an online gathering of the new board class, facilitated by the chair of the board development or governance committee, could be scheduled to give the new members a chance to ask questions.

Meeting agendas. Board meetings that educate, encourage, and empower board members are foundational to board strength. This makes agenda planning one of the most important shared responsibilities of the board chair and the president. Considerable skill is required to balance administrative reports, committee work, board discussion and learning, interaction with the campus community, and opportunities for worship and prayer. Wise leaders test agenda items against the question, “Does this contribute to the board’s ability to govern well?”

The most important hours of any board meeting are the first and the last, assuming the chair uses the time strategically. Opening comments can be used to highlight the purpose of and linkages between agenda items. The chair can pose critical questions that guide discussions throughout the meeting. In the final hour, comments can include a summary of value added to the institution because the board has met, or they can map out the next steps to address key issues. And no meeting should end without a reminder to board members of their part in advancing the institution.

Regardless of the topics chosen, the first and last words should reinforce the correlation between board strength and institutional strength.

Board self-assessment. The paradox in board self-assessment is this: although focused on past performance, the benefits are felt in the board’s future actions. The most useful assessments highlight ways by which a board can improve the quality of its output.

Committing to and participating in an assessment exercise is a critical, but insufficient, step — if the board stops there. The real value of board self-assessment comes as board members dig into the findings and commit to strength-building next steps. Responsibility for shepherding follow-up activities frequently falls to the governance committee, but all members must commit to continuous improvement.


1953 and now


It’s tempting to look at that 1953 brochure, so optimistic yet so plaintive in its call for church members to support the denomination’s seminaries, and to paint the boards of those schools as poster children for weak governance. Yet it’s possible to misread the past. Truth be told, the decision to close one school and merge another may have been the wisest or most courageous moves in a tight situation. Hindsight is frequently 20/20, but not always.

Times change and so do the demands on boards. There’s value in learning from the successes and the failures of long-ago boards. But even more important is to look ahead, to scan the horizon for possible threats and challenges, and then to prepare accordingly.

Getting started is as simple (and hard) as asking, “What difference will it make in how our board functions now if we truly believe that our school’s health depends on us, the board?” How board members answer this question makes a tremendous difference in a school’s future prospects.

Rebekah Burch Basinger is a consultant on board governance and fundraising. A former member of the board of the In Trust Center, she blogs at www.generousmatters.com.

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