Regular readers of In Trust know that the editors frequently endeavor to enhance an article’s value to board members by posing questions trustees might ask themselves as they read the piece. While it was only partly intended, I now realize as I look over this issue as a whole that a number of articles point at least obliquely toward the theme of institution-building.

The challenge to establish and shape the institutional character of the school it serves lies right at the heart of the responsibilities of a governing board. And central to a school’s institutional character is the relationship that exists between the governing board and the faculty.

In Trust espouses no view on whether it is desirable to extend tenure protection to a school’s faculty. Depending on the culture in which they operate, seminaries appear to flourish relying on tenured faculties, on faculties with multiyear contracts, and on faculties that have no guarantee of continued employment beyond the operation of mutual good faith.

However—and this is an important “however” for trustees whose previous board experience is on corporate boards—faculty members, regardless of their employment arrangements with their schools, rarely see themselves as the equivalent of corporate employees, serving at the pleasure of the administration and the board. They almost always see themselves as stakeholders in the institution, entitled to voice, often definitive voice, on curricular matters and frequently on a wide range of other matters as well. Indeed, “shared governance” of the faculty with the board and other seminary constituencies is a key principle embodied in the accreditation standards of the Association of Theological Schools.

“Governance is based on a bond of trust among boards, administration, faculty, students, and ecclesial bodies,” declare the standards. “Each institution should articulate its own theologically informed understanding of how this bond of trust becomes operational as a form of shared governance.”

This articulation may become a formal part of a school’s self-study when it is preparing for ATS accreditation or renewal of accreditation. But there’s no particular reason for it to be limited to that. Boards can make a part of their continuing self-examination reflection on what specifically they are doing to build up the bond of trust that links them to administration, faculty, students, and ecclesial bodies. All too often boards fail to see or to nurture links beyond their tie to the school’s president or at most the “administration.”

The studied remoteness cultivated by some boards leaves the rest of the seminary community in the dark about the issues that most concern the board at any particular time. It can even breed a certain hostility in the wider community, fearful that the board—an unknown quantity in the community—may be about to make ill-advised decisions on issues it doesn’t have enough information about or is ill-informed on.

A board commitment to institution-building implies a relationship with the community that is precisely the reverse of remoteness. It implies a commitment to relatedness.

The related, “plugged-in” board knows and draws on the home-front sages Melinda Heppe urges us to be on the lookout for. It seeks ways to encourage churches to do more recruitment of prospective ministers. It makes a point of knowing and appreciating the faculty. It understands the distinctive character of its school. And knowing the school as well as it does, it makes a committed, continuing effort to raise funds around the school’s distinctiveness, a quality always more appealing to givers than a school’s ordinariness.

That’s institution-building.


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