Under pressure

Illustrations by Miguel Porlan

A February 2023 report in Colloquy Online, a publication of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), examined high turnover rates among seminary leaders in the past five years. Its author, Frank M. Yamada, Executive Director of ATS since 2017 after serving six years as president of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, spoke recently with In Trust Center Vice President for Communication and In Trust Publisher Matt Hufman on Episode 41 of the Center’s Good Governance podcast about burnout, the need for focus and adaptability, renewed ownership of mission – and what governing boards can do to help.

Yamada had combed the data and found that between 2017 and 2022 ATS member schools experienced 406 transitions among CEOs (presidents and executive deans at embedded schools) and CAOs (academic deans and associate deans who oversee the academic mission of a school). Those numbers set a highwater mark in ATS’s 105-year history, with 76 percent of schools reporting at least one change in leadership. Yamada also observed that the pace of change was quickening: “Prior to the pandemic, schools had announced, on average, about 55 new leaders per year. Schools are reporting 107 CEO or CAO transitions per year since the pandemic — an unbelievable pace of change for ATS member schools.”

In addition, ATS reported in 2021 that the tenure of these executive and academic leaders is now just under six years for a president and around five years for a chief academic officer. The following are highlights from the podcast conversation.


You’ve been a president and an accreditor, and now, as head of ATS, you have a broad perspective on the leadership situation at theological schools. What was your first thought when you saw these numbers?

There really wasn’t any other word that came to my mind but unprecedented. Even before the pandemic, we were on track to see a record number of changes in these top two positions at ATS member schools. COVID-19, as it did in many ways, accelerated those changes. We saw the number of changes double in a single year.

Every year, ATS publishes an article in Colloquy Online about changes among the CEOs and CAOs at member schools. Some two decades ago, when I started reading Colloquy, an average year would include 12 to 24 changes per year, and the articles included short biographies and photos of the presidents and the deans. When I started at ATS in 2017, I noticed these articles had grown so long that we could no longer include bios. Then, in the summer 2021 issue, there were 100 new CEOs and CAOs at 84 schools. The following year, 2022, there were 83 new CEOs and CAOs at 74 schools — so things slowed down, but not by much. For the last few years, this annual article was basically just pages of names and titles and headshots of new CEOs and CAOs. That prompted us to investigate these transitions further, and that’s what led to the article.

The kinds of changes we saw during COVID-19 created a lot of churn at schools, especially in executive leadership. It brought a lot of uncertainty and, at the same time, intense creativity for schools. We see this in the Pathways for Tomorrow Initiative through the Lilly Endowment, for example.

Schools are doing remarkable things in the middle of changes imposed by external forces. Leading an institution that’s undergoing both that intense creativity and these massive changes can be extremely stressful, and I think that that’s where we’re seeing the tenure of these positions diminishing. It’s driving some executives to consider returning to the faculty or to retirement or to another form of employment, because these past several years have been a really taxing time for them.


Your article points out that the Great Resignation could really be called the “Great Discernment.” When you talk with leaders in the field, do you hear them talking more about discerning their calling? Because the reality is, when you become president or dean, it may not be what you expect.

Once the pandemic hit, every employed individual was thinking about things such as “Is this really the kind of work I want to do? Is this really where I want to live?” It was a time of massive discernment. Higher education was one of the industries most affected by the Great Resignation. That makes sense, because all the changes that the pandemic brought to higher ed, and education in general, created a lot of stress for the people who saw education as their primary vocation.

Theological schools in particular are locations and communities of discernment, and not just for students. These are places where faculty and administrators are living out their vocations on a daily basis. So we saw a lot of people, a lot of presidents and deans, rethinking what they were doing, how they were spending their time, how much they wanted to have responsibility for the organization they served. We have yet to see if the data bear out these anecdotes, or if these stories followed certain patterns. That’s for further investigation. But certainly, this has been a time of significant discernment.


Are we asking too much of presidents and deans and other executive leaders right now?

There is a lot on an executive’s plate that was not there in previous years. Schools were changing dramatically before 2020, and everything just got accelerated or exacerbated by the pandemic. The big change during COVID-19, of course, was that 100 percent of ATS schools were online or doing some form of distance education during the pandemic. Most schools are continuing that. But there are also cultural changes going on in our society – stresses on the donor base, on enrollment, on finances. One thing we began to hear from executives and academic teams is that they needed more change management and change leadership skills and competencies rather than the skills to move an institution through its existing mission.

Based on my perspective, it’s best for leaders to not try to do all of it. Executives seem more effective when they shift their focus to helping manage an institution through change. There is always going to be too much for leaders to do in a theological school. But focusing on that classic type of Peter Drucker question, “What is the work of the executive? What is the work of the academic dean?” within the current context and changes will make for a more manageable portfolio. You can at least begin to understand where your emphasis should be at this moment, and then perhaps as you pro-ject out for goals in the five-to-seven-year range. I do think that focusing on what’s essential can help with this feeling of being asked to do too much.


Under pressure

From your perspective, how can today’s boards better serve their presidents?

My first answer would be for the board to ask itself that same type of Drucker question, “What is the work of the board?” and to have that conversation in conjunction with an executive. That answer will be different depending on whether a school has an advisory board or a governing board, but it is critical to building strategy.

Other questions can help a board focus. How does a board understand its fiduciary responsibilities? What priorities does our school need to address? How can we position ourselves to be effective for the sake of the school’s mission and for the sake of the work that God’s trying to do? Those questions don’t change in stressful or unprecedented times.

Another way boards can serve their president is to assess what particular skill set or relationship or resource the board needs. Some boards don’t have much of a say about who gets to join them, but they can identify types of members who will help the board make better strategic decisions. Maybe that’s a business leader who’s an expert in change management, to attend to the dynamics affecting the staff, faculty, and students. Or maybe it’s an expert in digital technologies, if that’s part of the school’s strategic priorities. Or maybe it’s a member of an underserved constituency that the school is seeking to serve.

Finally, I can’t emphasize enough the high rate of burnout executives are feeling. The one thing that we hear from them right now is that they need collegial support from boards. I’m not talking about a rubber stamp, where a board just agrees with whatever the president says. Nor am I talking about a board being overly involved in a president’s health and self-care. While conversations between an executive and a board chair, for instance, must be about the school and the executive’s performance, they can also attend to the humanity of that executive. We noticed this at ATS during COVID-19, just needing to spend more time with our team and with individuals on our team. It can be as simple as opening a meeting by just letting people talk.

I can’t emphasize enough the high rate of burnout...


What would you tell someone going into leadership today? What kind of skills will they need?

The skills for leadership are not exactly the same as the ones you’ve developed in your current role. Academics, for instance, are trained to be disciplinary experts. Their focus is research excellence. Those skills will slow you down in a leadership role. Being a leader still requires good critical thinking skills in order to evaluate things and make decisions. But you have to re-orient your skills to serve the role.

Leaders today need two key skills. The first is adaptability. You need to be able to view a situation, see what is required of you to change, and see what’s required of your work and those who work for you to change from an organizational level.

The second skill is learning, and the need to cultivate a posture of learning within your organization. Schools need consistent and ongoing learning, assessment learning – what those in business would call pilots.

With a pilot, you’re not trying to seek perfection. You’re looking for a minimally viable product to test your assumptions about a particular way of doing things. You engage the intended audience and ask: What is the value of this? What are people trying to do with this? Then you use that learning to develop and enhance the product or process.

Both adaptation and learning are under the larger umbrella of creativity. That’s what’s required: to creatively engage this moment to produce things that may be completely new, or may be new adaptations of something very old and yet still valuable.


Finally, what advice would you have for someone thinking about going into a leadership position?

Take deeper ownership of the school’s mission. Anybody at any place in the organization can do this, whether you are aspiring to be a leader or not. Take seriously how to be a better steward of the mission of your school. That’s a mindset shift from, for instance, if you’re a member of the faculty and you ask “How am I going to teach this next course?” Or in finance, “How are we going make our budget.” Or if you’re a development office asking “How are we going to improve our next capital campaign?” In all these positions, you can begin to ask those deeper questions of how to invest in the school’s mission so that it can be stewarded for future generations.

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