Few would disagree that in an institution of higher learning, the relationship between the president and the chair of the board is the most critical partnership for governing effectively. When a president and a chair trust and respect each other, their relationship sets the right tone for the rest of the board and for the overall governance of the entire institution. It also creates a strong foundation for the board to make good decisions.
In Trust recently had conversations with the presidents and board chairs of two seminaries. At Central Baptist Theological Seminary we spoke to Molly Marshall, the soon-to-be-retiring president, and Bruce W. Morgan, the chair of the board of trustees. At Wesley Theological Seminary we spoke to David McAllister-Wilson, the longtime president, and Tom Berlin, the chair of the board of governors.
Q The board is responsible for the school but delegates much of its authority to the president and the administrative team. Of course the faculty also has a distinct role to play. Can you reflect on how shared governance works at Wesley?
AThe healthiest human relationships are formed with gracious boundaries. Nothing serves shared governance more than boundaries that are defined, discussed, and identified.
When the faculty and administration are acting in their designated areas, they don’t need board approval all the time, but when other situations arise for which there are no existing policies, the board can act — either to create a policy or to delegate actions to the administration.
Some call this delineation of boundaries the “40-acre fence.” Once the area within the fence is defined, we don’t have to revisit the boundaries. So those gracious boundaries don’t hinder us; they serve us by showing us where we have the power to act. But if we don’t define the boundaries of the 40-acre fence, we’re going to have conflict.
Wesley’s president understands he has a 40-acre fence. Together, we’ve defined what decisions he can make without coming to the board. A good president will, of course, inform the board and others along the way. The president and board chair will work together to determine when they are at a place where the board needs to be fully informed, and when the board may need to affirm a decision.
An effective president, such as we have at Wesley, will say: “I have a difficult question in front of me, and I need the board’s input.” And even if the particular issue may be well within the 40-acre fence, they open the fence gate and welcome the board inside. Nothing serves us like good relationships. That’s where trust is built.
Q How is the 40-acre fence lived out practically in things like board meetings?
A The board chair and the president create the agenda for the meeting together. At every board meeting, we have a conversation about the roles of the board and staff in particular decisions. We define the 40-acre fence of the board, faculty, staff, and the president in an ongoing way.
When we define those boundaries well, each group becomes a resource for the seminary. We avoid unnecessary arguing about who has the right to do this and who can veto that. We already know that going into the meeting. We defined it.
Q How is trust built within the leadership structure of a seminary?
A Leadership experts offer this idea: “Organizations move at the speed of trust.” Trusting relationships are only possible when we function within clearly defined boundaries, built over time. They require definitions for roles and responsibilities, and they require respect and friendship. Relationships of trust allow us to be nimble in our decision making.
So, how do we do that? We make sure we have good descriptions of the roles of the president, faculty, staff, and board. We clearly describe the function of committees and board member involvement in them. What does it mean to serve on a committee? How often does it meet? What are the expectations for its members?
At Wesley, we offer a full day of orientation to introduce new board members to our structure, processes, and culture. We walk them around the seminary. We share how the board functions and help them understand their roles. We have a chapel service where we ask new board members to make a formal commitment to the seminary within the context of a liturgy.
We’re not trying to create a new legacy at Wesley; we are caretakers of what has been done for many years as we innovate to meet the needs of the present and future. And that comes out in numerous values that we attempt to uphold and the decisions that we make.
Q Can you describe your partnership with the president of your seminary, David McAllister-Wilson, and how you collaborate in the work of governing?
A David and I communicate a few times a week — by text, email, and phone. We speak face to face monthly, sometimes over a meal and sometimes by videoconference.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of a good relationship, a genuine relationship, between the board chair and the president. It is helpful if they enjoy each other and enjoy spending time together — which we do. We also need to have time for conversations about things other than the operational problems we’re trying to solve. We need to think together about [bigger picture issues] like, “Where is the church today?” and “What do leaders in the church need?” And I think it is wise to build time for discussions like these into board agendas so that board meetings are not just about solving problems but also about exploring possibilities. We try to make time to converse about trends in the world today, conversations the board can be a part of. That, in turn, enriches the conversations the board then has about operational management.
Also, I think board chairs and presidents have to hold each other mutually accountable for the work of good governance. We ensure we don’t sidestep the important issues but face the hard work of keeping the seminary in a place where we’re accomplishing our ministry and are financially solvent.
Q How would you describe your relationship with your board chair?
A The chair and I talk once or twice a week, sometimes for extended periods. We are careful in planning the agendas for our plenary meetings and committee meetings. We spend a lot of time thinking ahead so that when the board is in session, we can use the time well. And we’re talking about the future of the church more than half that time.
The past and current chairs and I have always been very careful to ensure the majority of the talking done at board meetings is by board members, not by us. Also, in every board meeting, we make a point to discuss matters of a deeper nature than the specific actions we need to take at that time.
We have to ensure there’s a high degree of trust between the president and the faculty, the president and the board, and particularly between the president and the board chair. Part of that trust involves transparency, but transparency can be opaque if you dump every possible piece of information on the board or any of the stakeholders. The challenge is always to determine how to explain what’s happening in a way that frames it appropriately for the chair and the board. We want to create a context where diverse voices can still be heard, and where the board and the chair can exercise leadership along with the president.
My goal is for the chair and the board to trust me — for them to believe that what I say is a truthful picture of what’s going on. I want to give them the tools to make the best possible choices, so I’m careful to present background material to them in a way that’s intelligible.
I think that what I need in a board chair is someone who helps the board and the seminary foster wisdom and courage as the virtues that guide the seminary. In fact, I usually find the board is wiser and more courageous than I am.
Q How would you describe your relationship with Bruce Morgan, your board chair?
A I try to be strategic in how I involve Bruce in crafting the board agenda, in keeping up with board members who have health or family concerns, and in big events like preparing for accrediting visits. I want the chair to be knowledgeable and effective. I’ve learned the importance of thinking out loud with him — thinking things through and seeking his wisdom.
I also keep Bruce informed about many of the events, such as conferences, that I’m going to, and the other ways in which I serve the academy and the church. I don’t want him to be surprised.
I think I am more willing, in these summative years as I near retirement, to speak more frankly with him about how I am feeling about the weight of the office or about certain projects that are going on. And this level of comfort in sharing the burden may be the result of experience — being a more seasoned leader.
Over the years I think I have learned better how to prepare the board chair for each board meeting. We have a face-to-face meeting more than a week before the board meeting. We review the agenda I have drafted and look over the action items together. He sees how I want to allocate time and then can make tweaks. That has been a very beneficial process.
I want the board chair to flourish, just as I want the seminary to flourish. I encourage the board chair to read certain articles — succession planning articles, for example, or items from In Trust — so that we can discuss them. I want to make sure that he’s well informed about good processes for the sake of due diligence.
But the most important thing is to cultivate a collegial relationship. We don’t wait for crises — our relationship is an ongoing conversation.
Q How would you describe your relationship with Molly Marshall, the president of Central?
A I speak with Molly every week. She brings me into the decision-making or direction-setting process early, so I am on the same page with her. We make sure the board is fully informed and understands what’s happening.
The board knows they are fully a part of the process, so there’s a great deal of harmony. We have as many meetings as necessary to ensure we have full sign-on before we come to final decisions.
It certainly helps to have a relationship of trust and confidence in the president’s leadership. Molly will call me up and say, “I’ve got an idea. I want to run it by you before we go any further with it.” And she’ll take 10 or 15 minutes to unfold the idea. It may go nowhere or it may require more thought.
I’m never blindsided. As chair, I’m always at the forefront of any discussion. That’s how you build trust. A board chair needs to bring a supportive spirit to the leadership of the seminary — the president and her team. The president needs to feel she has the backing of the board. I think it’s important for the board chair and the president to be of one spirit. Not necessarily of one mind — because I would hope there would be differences of opinion here and there — but definitely of one spirit in terms of having the same kind of overall goals for the direction of the school.
These interviews were conducted by Jay Blossom and edited by Karen Stiller.
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