"Everything about the wasp, except why." I've never forgotten that line from Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales," in which the boy narrator bemoans the limits of the educational books he receives as gifts. For him, for me, and for everyone, it's helpful to remember that the most important question is usually "why?"
Summer is a good "why" time for those who govern and lead theological schools. You've almost recovered from the "everything"--the year's cycle of budgeting and board meetings, the certifying of graduates and filing of grade reports, the updating of admissions and development records, and the launching of audits.
In this brief moment of respite, you could be asking "why." Why do you do all these things? It can't simply be because you must--because the accreditors, IRS, denomination, or funders require them. Why did you shoulder all this for yet another academic year? A natural question for those who labor for modestly sized institutions with big purposes, limited resources, and little margin for missteps.
I think we tend to avoid the "why" question. Mission statements attempt to hold it, like a glass tumbler plopped down over the wasp. But all the ineffables--from the fullness of God's call to serve in the midst of seething change to the irresolution and inadequacy of our response--bubble up when we let ourselves think about them. It's far easier to tend the store than to think about why we do it. It's easier to rest on the framework of reputation, even platitudes of hope, than to reckon with purpose. Why should our institutions even exist?
Who should press this question? Richard Chait, the Harvard researcher on boards and governance, recently said that the great progress in professionalizing nonprofit boards is marred by their tendency to focus on "board architecture" rather than "board culture." Research demonstrates that it's not the size of a board, its committee structure, its term lengths, or even its frequency of meetings that sets high-performing institutions apart. Rather, it's the cultivated capacity of their boards for inquiry--especially vigorous and disciplined debate about the critical questions surrounding institutional purposes.
Chait describes that discipline as "a relentless focus on a limited number of symbolically and strategically significant issues." Vigor is characterized by an interactive board culture open to dialog and debate. This level of engagement makes a demonstrable difference when we turn to theological education, it's fair to ask why a busy president and board should invest in building the board's culture--especially when so many other matters beg for attention. But the reason is simple: Without it, a theological school does not have sufficient access to the wisdom, perspective, and experience that exist beyond institutional walls. Without nurture, the board itself cannot consider the "why" questions productively. The wasp under the glass flaps its wings to ruin and suffocates.
It may be that summertime--"ordinary time" in the church year and the season of preparation for a new academic year--is when we should ponder "why the wasp?" At least, it can be the occasion to find and cultivate those new and continuing board members who appreciate the question. It offers the opportunity to sketch out a year's worth of board meetings with time set aside to engage those questions of institutional meaning that provide focus for the "everything." Without realizing the opportunities for building board culture, the promise of governance is wasted on the structure of the tumbler--not the fearfully wondrous wasp.
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