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Nonprofit Provides Seminary Boards With Tools For Success

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In today’s economy, a well-trained and properly focused governing board can mean the difference between a seminary staying afloat – thriving, even – and having a dire fate. Theological schools throughout North America have turned for help on this to In Trust.

Seminaries navigating through the current economy may feel a bit like the Titanic. But in the waters they chart, the icebergs today are more numerous.

Endowments – for those fortunate enough to have them – have plummeted. Denominational support is down. Full-time enrollments have slipped. Credit is tighter. Expenses are up. And needs are greater, especially for student financial aid.

In this environment, a well-trained and properly focused governing board can mean the difference between a seminary staying afloat – thriving, even – and failing. Theological schools throughout North America have turned for help on this to In Trust, a Delaware-based nonprofit that provides timely information on governance, assessments, mentoring and other tools to strengthen seminaries’ governance and leadership systems.

Despite their key role, boards often neglect their own development, says Rebekah Burch Basinger, In Trust’s program developer. She likens it to mothers who are so busy taking care of their families that they ignore their own needs.

“Boards are so busy worrying about the faculty and the students and finances that to pay attention to themselves seems sort of selfish,” Basinger says. “And what we keep trying to say to them is that over the long haul the institution will be no stronger than its board.

“When times of trouble come, a strong board steps up to the challenge. A weak board just fractures, becomes frightened, overreacts.”

One key to good governance is making sure board members pay attention to the right things, says Christa R. Klein, In Trust’s president and executive director. “A board’s focus should be on trends—making sure that they’re comparing where they are with where they’ve been over the past five years, and then projecting those trends forward,” Klein says. “Where, if this trend continues, are they going to be in the future? Because it’s the big picture—a mission fulfilled with economic vitality—that the board must always have in its sights.”

Also particularly important, says Klein, is shared governance – the interaction of board, administration and faculty in decision-making. At In Trust, David Tiede, a governance mentor, specializes in this work, which Klein calls “some of the toughest stuff in the field.”

Tiede, a former seminary president who now holds an endowed chair in the religion department at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, says shared governance helps ensure that when difficult actions must be taken, the various institutional powers will understand and support them. “When the administration and the board and the faculty are having a sustained and meaningful conversation about their educational mission, that doesn’t mean it’s easy, because they’ve got to make hard decisions,” he says. “But they’re making them in a way that you can sense that the vocation of the school isn’t at risk.”

As with other aspects of good governance, he adds, seminaries can’t wait until a crisis to develop a shared vision among the stakeholders. “If you have to do that in a time in which you feel like there’s a gun at your head, then the polarization of faculty vs. board vs. staff vs. students vs. constituents is very intense.”

In Trust works with schools from a wide spectrum of traditions – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, mainline and evangelical Protestant – and with that comes a tremendous variety of governance structures. “We don’t think there’s any one way to have or be a board,” Klein says, noting for example that sometimes trustees actually own the school, while in other situations the board advises a bishop or other religious leaders. “But we think it’s very important for boards to know thoroughly what the nature and extent of their own authority is so that they can leverage it effectively, especially in times of crisis.”

One constant among seminaries, regardless of denomination, is the need for fully engaged board members. “There may have been a day when there could be just seat-fillers, but that day is long gone,” says Basinger. If a trustee tells her “I’m only here because my synod sent me here,”  she helps that person understand “then you need to go back to your synod and say, ‘This school is too important, and I’m not able or willing to do what needs to be done to make sure this school survives or thrives.’”

Harsh words, perhaps. But that’s because In Trust takes seriously its mission. “We feel such an urgency because seminaries are so crucial to the future of the church,” Basinger says. “At In Trust, we really are committed to the future of the church. … We really do believe this work has eternal consequences.”

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