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Successful Seminary Presidents Impose Fiscal Discipline

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The biggest challenge a president faces is meeting the needs of the institution. These days, those are often financial.

Imagine being named president of a theological school only to find out on the first day of work that the institution is on the verge of financial collapse.

That’s what happened to two seminary presidents recently, according to a new report, Leadership That Works: A Study of Theological School Presidents, from Auburn Seminary. The study, written by Barbara Wheeler and a team of researchers, examines some of the qualities that make for good seminary leadership.

Presidents who were able to impose fiscal discipline were the most successful.

“Responsible fiscal practices create an environment in which people can stop worrying and focus on the real business of education,” says Wheeler.

Having restored financial order, the best presidents then focused their attention on raising money, even if they felt ill-prepared to do that when they first took the job.

The leadership study is based on a 2008 survey of 275 seminary presidents. Wheeler and her associates then followed 10 new seminary presidents for three years, and visited six additional schools with reputations as well-run institutions. Neither the presidents nor the institutions are named.

The 32-page report suggests that “willpower goes a long way towards fundraising success,” and that only those presidents willing to personally engage potential donors will see results. The report was co-written by G. Douglass Lewis, Sharon L. Miller, Anthony T. Ruger and David L. Tiede. Successful seminary presidents, however, defy conventional wisdom on a number of counts:

• A sterling resume is not required. Personal qualities, rather than experience or training, were the best predictors of success.

• Successful presidents did not supply their own vision for the school; rather, they championed the institution’s vision.

“The presidents who are remembered had high standards and were highly disciplined to do the things the school needed,” says Wheeler.

For many, that meant dealing with personnel issues head-on by forging strong teams with the best staff they inherited and choice new appointments. It also meant spending time with those most resistant to their leadership as a way of easing tensions and building support.

Presidents who kept their egos in check and were able to consult widely, listen carefully and invite criticism did better than others.

“If you can resist the temptation to curry favor with friends and punish your opponents you’ll be a lot better off,” Wheeler says.

The report’s most startling finding was that many seminaries are hobbled by weak oversight from boards of trustees or university administrators.

“More often,” the report says, “boards are passive or even derelict in their duties. Some restrict their roles to cheerleading and rubber stamping.”

As a result, two-thirds of the presidents surveyed said they received no direction from those boards. Most new presidents did not even have a substantive review at the end of the first year.

Wheeler speculates that religious institutions may no longer have the high social cachet they once did, and, as a result, they may not be able to attract the people with the most relevant experience. Boards made up of aging members or heavily weighted with alumni may not have the financial or political resources boards require.

But Rebekah Burch Basinger, a governance mentor with the Association of Boards in Theological Education, says that in her experience boards know about the school’s financial woes. They may not, however, know what to do about it.

“I don’t know how many times I go in and the board says, ‘If we could just raise more money,’” Basinger says.

Good boards, she says, work with presidents to examine the kind of resources a school needs and then map out a plan to find the money.

Seminaries, these days, can no longer afford to have a president who is simply a wise pastoral exemplar. They need a leader who can befriend board members and build trusting working relations with them.

“A president,” Basinger says, “will be no stronger in the long term than his or her board.”

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