Facing the hard questions

Illustrations By Lasse Skarbovic

David Rowe, Ph.D. is a seasoned leader in higher education and theological education and serves as a consultant for the Association of Governing Boards and the In Trust Center. In Trust’s Matt Hufman asked Rowe about his thoughts on the conversations not being considered by boards and senior leaders of theological schools – and what questions aren’t being asked. Here are four points that came up in the conversation.


What’s the mission (not the mission statement)?

Mission and mission statement often get confused by boards and administrations. We write mission statements for all sorts of reasons, such as accreditation. But mission has a lot more to do with what the founders were thinking when that institution didn’t exist.

They were believing that the world was poorer because that institution didn’t exist. And they were willing to do the work to make sure that an institution like yours or the one that you’re charged with would persist. Boards have to get into the mindset of being heirs of the founders and ask themselves the question: “If this institution didn’t exist today, would we found it? And how would the world be poorer if this institution didn’t exist?”

The first confusion I encourage boards to clear up is the difference between mission statement and mission. And the best formula for mission is an adaptation of Frederick Buechner’s, where your greatest joy meets the greatest need. Think about what are you committed to doing every day and what need in the world does it meet?

There are schools whose context has changed over the decades. I think once you have clarity between mission and mission statement, and you realize that you are in a different historical context than the founders, you have to come up with something equally as compelling as what the founders came up with.

Otherwise, you’re only working one side of that equation. You’re only working what we’re committed to doing day by day, and you’re not working the greatest-need-in-the-world side of that conversation. If you haven’t located that need, then you’ve got a set of institutional commitments looking for a purpose. And the mission is a purpose in need of a specific set of institutional commitments.

If the need in the world has changed, then you need to be clear about what the need in the world is now. You need to understand what it is and then go back and ask if you have the right institutional commitments to meet that need.


What is being stewarded?

That leads me to the second confusion that boards, administrations, and faculties face. It’s the difference between being stewards of the institution and being stewards of the mission. It’s important that boards understand themselves as both stewards of the institution and the mission. But you can’t be stewards of an institution to the exclusion of the mission. And ultimately, if you want to be effective, you can’t be stewards of the mission without being a good steward of the institution. One precedes the other; stewardship of mission precedes stewardship of the institution. If you find yourself focusing, as most boards do, on being good stewards of the institution with the presumption that doing so inherently cares for the mission, then you might find yourself managing facilities, property, investments, budgets, personnel, curriculum – and be really, really good at that – but not knowing why.

So the prior question is, what does it mean to be a good steward of the mission today? And if you focus on that question, then you might engineer a different set of institutional commitments for which you should be good stewards, distinct from the ones that have developed and evolved since the founding.


Facing the hard questions
What resources are really needed?

When institutions think about strategy, they often begin with the resources that they have and think about what can we do with this set of resources. What we need to be thinking about is: What resources do we need to provide value to our students, to our religious traditions, to our society?

There’s another confusion here, where we begin with an inventory of resources and ask, “What can we do?” instead of asking, “What value does the world need from us? What value does the market need us to bring?” And then ask ourselves whether we have the right resources to deliver that value. That leads us to a harder-nosed evaluation.

They used to say, if you wanted to know what a person values, look at their checkbook register. And I would say the same thing to a lot of theological schools. What are you spending money on? Are you called to continuously fund physical plant issues? Are you called – and this one gets a little sticky – to be a stable employer over a long period of time?

It may be that your calling requires that you have stable employment of a professional faculty and staff over time. It may be that your calling requires adequate facilities, attractive grounds, and a healthy environment in which to do your work. But if we are, in some sort of reactionary way, just funding the expenses as they show up without asking the question, “Does this indeed allow us to create value for the student, value for our religious tradition partners, and value for the world?” then it’s simply just preserving and maintaining the value of the current institutional form for its own sake. At that point, we are inwardly focused and we’ve lost that externally oriented calling that is the essence of a mission.


What’s our market (who wants what we offer)?

To assume that there’s a monolithic singular market out there is part of the problem. If your mission is to educate leaders for the church or the congregation, there are multiple ways to do that.

I don’t know that there’s a market for every school to have a residential program and an experience that transports you out of the world so that you can focus on study and spiritual development. If there’s a market for that, then we have to find the market that can actually support the infrastructure and its required costs.

Somebody who’s working full time and may serve in bi-vocational ministry when they complete their program is probably going to be more open to a learning center near their home, or an online offering, or short immersive terms on campus – but not necessarily commit to a fully residential program.

Before we can be effective at helping tomorrow’s leaders discern their vocations, we must be clear about our own institutional missions. What are we called to do? To maintain institutional commitments, insisting that they must still meet a need? Or to discern what the needs actually are – here and now – and then aligning our institutional commitments to meet those needs?

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