Leadership and Change: A President's Story, by G. Douglass Lewis (CreateSpace, 2016, 292 pp., $14).
A good memoir is a gift — a gift to those who come to it looking for the same things for which the author was searching. G. Douglass Lewis’ account of his 20 years as president of Wesley Theological Seminary is this type of gift to current and future seminary leaders.
In Leadership and Change: A President’s Story, Lewis recounts the issues and events that characterized his 1982–2002 tenure at Wesley. During those years the school underwent monumental changes, and Lewis gives his readers a detailed look behind the scenes — how he and his colleagues led the seminary to financial stability, how they developed long-term strategies and managed change, how they calmed anxiety, and how they embraced a global perspective. Lewis and his team accomplished all this by nurturing relationships, building a more diverse and inclusive community, and transforming the board. Anyone charged with responsibility for theological school governance would do well to read this account of significant institutional transformation and the careful, sometimes painful, work involved.
The most significant part of the story is about finances. When Lewis became president, he discovered that like many other schools, Wesley was using endowment funds “like an interest-free credit card with no payback required.” As a result, the institution was rapidly going broke. In the 1981–82 fiscal year, the school had drawn a breathtaking 23 percent from its endowment to cover expenses. Lewis received a report from the seminary’s auditors less than two months after taking office.
Its finding was that “the seminary may be unable to continue in existence” due to its perilous finances. No one had realized until that moment that finances were so dire, not even the seminary board, which had been reviewing the yearly budgets and financial reports faithfully. Each year everyone saw a report from the previous year and a projected (and usually unrealistic) budget for the coming year, but no one was looking at long-term trends. If they had been, they would have seen the downward spiral to financial ruin that was so obvious to the auditors.
Lewis details the work that he, his staff, and the board of governors accomplished over the next 20 years — a “two-decade climb to fiscal health and stability” with plenty of happy achievements and some disappointments on the journey. Luckily for the school, Lewis was an enthusiastic fundraiser.
He writes, “Over the years, people would ask me if I ever got tired of fundraising. My answer became standard: No! It is actually fun and the most meaningful thing I do. Fellow seminary presidents would ask how often I thought about fundraising. My answer: every day” (p. 20).
Raising funds was critical, but fundraising by itself could not solve the school’s financial problems. Lewis outlines the elements of a complete approach to financial stability, with a focus on tuition, student retention, and the necessary jobs of cutting costs and saying “no.” Seminary presidents and trustees can learn from Lewis’ methods for building development staff, transforming the board into dependable donors and fellow fundraisers, and effecting cost controls.
Beyond his recounting of the climb toward financial health, other gems round out Lewis’ story. He provides frank accounts of front-row encounters with the full range of issues that occupy leadership in the 20th and 21st centuries: technological change, shifting relationships with denominations and congregations, board development, changing student demographics (older students, with weaker denominational ties, taking classes part time), senior management team development, curriculum revision, long-range planning, faculty diversity, recruitment and admissions, maintenance and improvement of the grounds and buildings — the list goes on.
Among this wealth of information about the work of governing a seminary, Lewis is wise to focus at several points on “the care and development of a president,” who is always on the job, he says. Lewis notes that early in his tenure he was:
surprised — shocked is a better term — to discover that people listened to what I said. That was a new experience. They also remembered it, often quoted it, even if they put their own spin on it. I realized I needed to be thoughtful, sensitive, even careful about how I spoke and what I said (p. 10).
Another important emphasis is that there were no quick fixes to any of the school’s challenges, and that sometimes “successes spawned challenges.” For example, by 1995 the school had achieved diversity in enrollment, an important goal. However, that created new pressures, such as a need for more flexible scheduling of classes and advisory time. Personnel changes resulted in valuable gains, but also sometimes hard feelings. Most of the “mountains” that Lewis and the school climbed in 1982 needed to be surmounted again and again, on an annual or semiannual basis.
Some aspects of the Wesley Seminary experience are not replicable at other schools. For example, at one point the seminary was in the unusual position of having Kenneth Starr, at that time solicitor general of the United States, and Charles Manatt, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, as board members — “political foes but Wesley colleagues.” The school enjoyed the unusual privilege of being a space where “Democrats and Republicans met for conversation and theological inquiry.” In fact, together Starr and Manatt co-chaired a group of leaders that met once a month for breakfast and group interaction.
Every seminary is unique, but there are so many commonalities to the challenges faced by schools, presidents, and boards that Lewis’ book will be a valuable addition to the reading list of anyone facing these issues today.
A webinar with the author and his successor
On March 28, 2017, G. Douglass Lewis, president emeritus of Wesley Seminary and the author of Leadership and Change: A President's Story, joined David McAllister-Wilson, current president of the seminary and Lewis' successor, to host a webinar on "the story behind the book": dealing with financial crisis and managing change successfully.
Lewis and McAllister-Wilson had worked together at Wesley Seminary since Lewis' first year as president, when no one had any inkling that McAllister-Wilson, the energetic first-year student working in the school's development office, would one day become seminary president.
During the In Trust Center webinar they focused on topics related to surmounting financial instability: developing long-term strategies, determining the most critical areas for change, managing anxiety among staff; faulty; and board members, and "naming the issues": telling bad news in a constructive way.
Both presidents concurred that fundraising alone is not enough to solve a financial crisis. They agreed that financial problems do not exist in a vacuum but rather are indicators that significant transformations are needed in almost all areas of a school's life: mission, governance, administrative team building, faculty development, facilities, and long-term development planning.
A recorded version of this webinar is available at www.intrust.org/webinars.