Most theological schools have boards that make the big decisions: to close, merge, or reorganize; to hire or fire a president; to make major financial or curricular changes.

But in some seminaries and theological schools, the board is subject to another authority, such as a bishop or council of church leaders. This situation has advantages but also challenges. How can boards that do not have the final word on some very important matters operate effectively?

Heidi Schlumpf, in her Autumn 2012 In Trust article, “When the board is not the final word,” explores issues related to theological school boards that operate in an advisory capacity.

For example, most Catholic seminary boards are advisory, with a few notable exception including Catholic Theological Union (CTU). But even at CTU, final authority rests with the heads of the religious communities that jointly own the school.

Bishop Donald Hying, currently bishop of Gary, Indiana, was rector of St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when Archbishop Timothy Dolan (head of the Milwaukee Archdiocese at the time) announced that St. Francis would enter into a collaboration with the nearby Sacred Heart School of Theology. Seminarians would continue to live at St. Francis, receiving spiritual and pastoral formation there, but would receive their academic formation at Sacred Heart.

Bishop Hying noted that although the board weighed in on this decision, their role was more along the lines of deciding how to implement the decision. “The Catholic church is not a democracy. But the goal is to work with consensus, so advisory bodies do have a voice,” he explained.

A somewhat similar situation occurs in some Protestant denominations like the Church of the Nazarene. “We probably have considerable affinity with Roman Catholics in our theological understanding of authority,” says Dr. Jeren Rowell, president and professor of pastoral ministry at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. Prior to taking on these roles, he served as board chair of the school.

In schools where denominational leaders have authority, it is possible to encounter tension, especially when denominations and schools change over time. Continual attention to trust and relationship building are essential.

Controversies at Erskine College and Theological Seminary in South Carolina highlight the potential for tension. Concerns about the school’s doctrinal purity, financial management, and cronyism had roiled discussions at the annual synod meeting of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, with which the school is affiliated. In 2010, a special commission to oversee the school was formed, eventually resulting in a vote to dissolve the college and seminary board, replacing it with an interim board. This controversial decision was never implemented, in part because of a lawsuit brought by some trustees and alumni (later dropped).

Schlumpf goes into much more detail about schools with advisory boards, some of which have faced tension. The takeaway is that even when boards have an advisory rather than authoritative role, their influence is critical. Boards with an advisory role inevitably work with church authorities to carve out roles that typically include sharing wisdom, functioning with a designated sphere of authority, providing continuity of leadership, and offering stability during crisis.

Read Schlumpf's article for further insights.