Setting the Course

Illustration by Carlo Giambarresi

A successful leadership transition is vital to schools, and an opportunity to critically examine mission, relevance, and viability. Dr. David Gyertson, a longtime educator and leader in theological education, talked with the In Trust Center’s Matt Hufman about transitions. Here’s part of the conversation in which Gyertson provides an overview of four areas boards should consider before moving into a search.


Mission relevance

The best boards I’ve worked with see the transition as an opportunity to revisit the core mission of the institution and ask some foundational questions about the mission’s continuing relevance. And, usually, at the 30,000-foot level, it is. The question then is: Has our mission, in terms of deliverables, adapted to the realities of the current day? For schools of religion and seminaries our historical approach to preparation has been a formal degree that tends to be very theoretical and theologically and philosophically oriented and quite light on the applied aspects. So, are we preparing our students well for what they’ll encounter? I think that the reality is that boards need to ask if they’re meeting the needs today.


Delivering on promise

Transitions provide boards with a less threatening approach to ask tough questions about whether the institution is really delivering on its promises. Every mission statement and every publication is filled with all kinds of promises – implied, if not explicit – about who you’re going to be, what you’ll experience, and what you’ll become because of what you do. And so boards really need to start by asking about their mission and its relevance, and then ask for the evidence on whether the institution is delivering on those promises.


Institutional viability

The other thing is to do a deep dive on institutional viability. A lot of boards are not well-informed about some of the essential components for institutional viability and sustainability. We immediately think about funding in terms of tuition resources. It’s not uncommon now in the undergraduate world for the average Christian college to be looking at a 50 to 55 percent discount rate, so that they’re left with only 40 to 45 cents on the dollar to run the place. And some institutions can get away with that. Right now we’ve got a lot of institutions that have received federal support, PPP money, which they’re using to bridge the gap until normalcy returns. So, their budgets are unbalanced. They’ve been fortunate enough, I would say providentially, for the support, but I doubt another round of PPP is going to come, particularly to Christian colleges and religious institutions.

Those that have endowments have been spending them because they’ve had shortfalls due to tuition revenue declines in their core programs like the M.Div. The falloff has been very significant in most institutions, which has been their bread and butter, and fundraising has dropped off as well.


More than money

The other viabilities have to do with accreditation standards, which are changing dramatically. And what that means is that national standards are going to become more in play, even within regional institutions. And then there are professional standard accreditations, and with seminaries, they have denominational affiliations. How do you meet those, and can you continue to? The whole idea of this is getting to what’s the true viability of the institution. And now’s the time to ask those questions before you begin defining what you need a new president to do for you.


For more view Dr. Gyertson’s webinar and his white paper on transitions.

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Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

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