Illustration by Brett Affrunti
For the past three years, the In Trust Center has led cohorts of theological school leaders through the Wise Stewards Initiative, a program designed to improve boards and institutional governance.
The leaders of 28 institutions and members of their trustee or advisory boards have participated in the initiative, which involves schools spending a year in a cohort working to maximize board potential. The work includes a board assessment, a learning plan, cohort learning, and individual coaching.
The initiative is generously funded by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust of Vancouver, Washington. The Murdock Trust renewed its funding this year for another three years. That will allow three more cohorts of schools to participate as they navigate how to move forward in a post-pandemic world.
For the In Trust Center, the initiative is “deeply connected to our mission,” President Amy Kardash said.
“Our organization was founded to support board members in theological education, and we’ve been committed to good governance for over 30 years,” she said. “Our partnership with the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and our combined commitment to board growth and development has provided the financial and expert resources to empower boards as they dedicate a year to maximizing their potential.”
The first two cohorts had stand-alone schools. The third cohort had embedded schools. The schools came from across North America and spanned several denominational backgrounds, including Roman Catholics, mainline traditions, Peace, and evangelical schools.
Dr. Kimberly Thornbury, senior program director for enrichment of the Murdock Trust, said that the Murdock Trust recognizes that organizations that perform well in the nonprofit world have “a strong leader, a strong fundraising plan, and a strong board.”
“Rarely do we see healthy organizations without healthy boards,” she said. “To that end, it is an honor to partner with the In Trust Center to help provide customized board training for its member schools.”
This initiative has enabled institutions to move the needle on pertinent strategic issues and position their boards for future thinking and opportunities in a changing landscape.”
—Ann Marie Glanden
vice president for programs, In Trust Center for Theological Schools
She noted that the Murdock Trust exists to enrich organizations and that by helping boards and the leadership, it strengthens the entire organization.
“The Murdock Trust believes that a need exists for comprehensive board training among a majority of nonprofit organizations,” she said. “Research reveals that an effective, well-trained, and highly engaged board has a direct impact on the overall success of a nonprofit organization.”
Thornbury noted that the Wise Stewards Initiative provides training on strategy, oversight and policy, and added that the training includes “key elements” of governance, sustainability, recruiting, and succession. The result, she said, is that “boards are more prepared and engaged as they think strategically about the future of theological education and delivery.”
Dr. Rebekah Burch Basinger, a consultant who works as the program director of the Wise Stewards Initiative, has a long history working in governance and advising institutions, including serving on a seminary board. Basinger said there is a great importance for boards to provide clear leadership, particularly as institutions come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everybody is talking about the post-pandemic world, and campus communities are darting hither and yon on all of these issues, but hopefully, the boards can be a stable force in this,” she said. “Boards aren’t sucked into the day-to-day, so they should be able to focus on the issues that the schools most need to keep their eyes on.”
She said boards “should be asking themselves what they should be doing to help the schools better navigate these complex challenges.”
Basinger, who has worked with the In Trust Center for more than 25 years, said that the Wise Steward Initiative provides the time and space for a board to clarify its role and objectives and strengthen its position as an asset to the institution. Through the faculty coaching, leaders can engage coaches who have deep experience in higher education to identify and work through specific issues confronting their institutions. The institutions can also learn how to increase the capacity of their boards.
Basinger noted that there often is tension between the leadership of the school and the board, and often boards aren’t as engaged as they could or should be. She said this is vital work for theological schools because “boards are too important to languish.”
Ann Marie Glanden, the In Trust Center’s vice president for programs, called the initiative “a tremendous blessing for the In Trust Center and its member boards.”
“Over the last three years, we have had the opportunity to serve 28 schools and over 490 board members through assessment, board education, Resource Consulting, and peer learning opportunities,” she said. “This initiative has enabled institutions to move the needle on pertinent strategic issues and position their boards for future thinking and opportunities in a changing landscape.”
The In Trust Center is currently taking applications for future Wise Stewards cohorts. Schools commit to participate in three phases over the course of the academic year, which include engaging in board assessment, working with an In Trust Center faculty coach, and participating in cohort learning opportunities with the goal of designing a customized learning plan for the board. The institutions also submit a final assessment at the end of their year’s work.
Schools can find more information about the initiative, including requirements and an FAQ at: bit.ly/WiseStewards and the schools’ costs for the training are covered by the Murdock Trust’s generous funding.
Past participants have praised the initiative, its coaches, the annual conference, and the intentionality in which schools walk through the process.
“Change takes time and intentionality,” one board chair said in an evaluation. “Participation required our board room to make both.”
Interested schools can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where faith and governance meet
For the past three years, the In Trust Center’s Wise Steward Initiative has worked to help North American theological school boards grow and develop. Boards spend a year in a cohort learning together. Here’s a look at the program by the numbers:
More information and application for upcoming cohorts can be found here.