Author’s Note: This article builds on ideas shared at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary Board meeting in September 2023, where I was asked to reflect on the relationship between the board and the executive leader. I’m grateful for interactions with the board members and with Scholar Leaders Vital Sustainability Initiative team members, who have helped shape these thoughts further.

Abstract

Strong boards are essential for a theological school’s success. In addition to good governance, financial oversight, and leadership accountability, a healthy working relationship between the board and the president can lead to greater missional effectiveness. To be most effective, boards need to embrace the importance of clearly understanding their role, proactively caring for the executive leader, and engaging in succession planning.

Introduction

Institutional boards carry significant responsibility related to governance, financial oversight, and particular duties associated with fulfilling the mission of the institution. The board and the CEO must work well together to that end. In business, this success often relates to various measures of profitability. For theological education, this success looks like fulfilling the school’s mission. Several articles in this journal have outlined that mission broadly in two categories: training leaders for Christian service and cultivating prophetic voice that speaks to the church and society within the school’s context (see Smith, 2018 and Hunter, 2018 and 2019). In each case, the board is, or should be, an important component contributing to the success of the school.

Boards come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations depending on the nature of the institution, its history, denominational structure, and how it has grown, developed, and adapted over the years. The board and the school president ought to work together to achieve that mission. (The term “President” will be used in this article, but schools have a variety of titles for the senior executive leader, including: Principal, Rector, Doyen, Vice-Chancellor, CEO, and others.) Therefore, developing a functioning relationship between the President and board is not just beneficial but a responsibility that should be upheld. This relationship should lead to a more effective school. To encourage theological institutions in this direction, this article will outline three steps that can pave the way for an effective working relationship between the board and the president.

This article will draw on experiences from Scholar Leaders’ Vital Sustainability Initiative (VSI), which has worked with over 45 theological schools across Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. (The author has had the privilege to work personally with more than three dozen of the schools in the program.) Our work engages each school and its stakeholders in a holistic way to set strategic priorities that will help the school sustain its mission. Every VSI engagement includes collecting survey data from faculty, staff, students, alumni, and others and holding sessions with members of the board. Our experience has shown that the relationship between the president and the board in many schools does not contribute substantially to the school’s success and vitality. Often, schools flourish despite, not because of, the relationship between the board and the school leader. Some schools have effective relationships, but most have benign relationships at best in which the board does not interfere with the school’s work. Troublingly, at a small but noticeable subset of institutions, this relationship actually undermines the school’s work.

Having seen this pattern, Scholar Leaders undertook an extensive set of interviews and conversations with school presidents about their experiences with their boards to develop materials for board training. Those interviews, along with dozens of onsite visits, inform the example and three specific suggestions below.

Example: Why a Healthy Board-President Relationship?

To underpin the importance of its three suggestions, this article will begin by describing an anonymous example from SL’s experience that illustrates how a board-president relationship can go awry. Thankfully, not all schools have such an intense experience, but some of the sentiments expressed by the board in this situation can be found in varying degrees in many theological schools worldwide.

During an initial onsite VSI meeting, the SL team meets with faculty, administration, students, alumni, church leaders, and the board. With the board members, questions relate to the board’s understanding of the school’s mission, the institution’s strengths and weaknesses, and their role in achieving the mission, including oversight and financial support. We also ask about the relationship between the board and the president, including support for the leader and succession plans.

In this instance, we had spent multiple days with the president, whom some of us had known for several years. We knew he was leading valiantly in a challenging context but doing so with little support, and he felt the strain of the job on his health and his family. However, our conversation with the board revealed that they thought the president should be doing more for the school. They appreciated his timely reports but wanted better results in fundraising, campus development, faculty hiring, and enrollment. When asked how they cared for the president, they said that they did not know of any problems and that he should care for himself. When asked if they had a succession plan, they said that the president should choose his successor.

This example reveals several gaps in the relationship between the board and school leadership. The board had many demands for the president but offered little support or help. They abdicated responsibility related to care and succession planning. Although this instance is extreme, our work has revealed that high-functioning boards and positive board-president relationships are sadly not normative in theological education.

Certainly, our experience has shown that a strong executive is a more determinative factor in an institution’s success than the board, and that simply having an effective board has not made most theological institutions successful. Even so, an effective board can improve a strong institution, helping the institution go from “Good to Great,” to borrow Jim Collins’ language. Conversely, the board can be a drag on missional effectiveness. So a positive board-president relationship is not just beneficial but crucial for the institution’s success. This fact highlights the need for effective collaboration and communication between the two parties.

In Serving Communities: Governance and the Potential of Theological Schools, Jason Ferenczi explores characteristics in boards that lead to effective schools (2015). He also reiterates that a strong enabling CEO makes the difference in every successful case. Larry Smith summarizes this idea, stating that in every prospering school, “effective leaders are indispensable” (2018, 20). If effective school leaders matter (and both common sense and our VSI experience reinforce the idea that they do), then the relationship between the leadership and the board is vital for a school to flourish. As in all relationships, both parties must do their part to make things effective.

Now we will turn to the three principles for the board-president relationship in which the emphasis is on the board’s work: establishing clear roles, caring for the institutional executive, and helping to plan for succession.

Clarify Roles, Especially the Board’s Role

To be most effective, the board and executive leader should clearly understand their roles. Most basically, the president ought to carry out the mission of the school and serve as a liaison between the board and the rest of the institution – and vice versa. (For the purposes of this article, I will emphasize the role of the board in its relationship to the president, not so much the board’s duties of governance or oversight.) For a healthy institution, the board must exert effort to cultivate a positive and productive relationship between the board and the president – a relationship that will be greatly furthered by clarity of roles.

From the board’s perspective, this relationship follows an arc, beginning with hiring the right individual for the executive role, continuing through collaborating to fulfill the school’s mission during that executive’s career, and finally planning for succession to a new executive. The literature and data both emphasize the importance of finding the best person to lead the school for the current phase of its ministry. Schools sometimes have limitations and required qualifications they must address in hiring a new executive. However, regardless of the parameters, the board must own this responsibility to hire the right person. They must see that hiring a new president marks the beginning of the relationship cycle between the board and the leader.

Clarifying roles from the beginning of a president’s time will set the president, the board, and the school up for success. Many books remind us of the importance of clarifying the roles between the board and the executive. When those roles are not clear, frustration between the two escalates. Our survey of school presidents found that when leaders expressed frustration with their boards, it most often came because the board erred in one of two directions: becoming too involved and micromanaging or remaining unaware of or indifferent to the school’s work. Furthermore, clarifying the roles can lead to greater institutional effectiveness.

So what distinguishes the board’s role from the president’s? Most basically, the board exists to provide governance, while the leadership – including the president, faculty, and staff – operates the school. Many books and training materials build on Carver (2006) in promoting the distinction between governance and management.

However, effective boards do more than govern well. As well as setting policies, approving budgets, and holding the president accountable to the mission, boards also have a variety of gifts that can serve as resources for the executive leader and, indeed, the whole institution. A strong board will include a variety of individuals, from pastors to professionals to parishioners, who deploy their backgrounds, professional skills, and wisdom for the school’s and executive’s benefit. For example, one school where we worked redesigned its board due to the VSI process. In this instance, the denomination required that a pastor from each of the nine districts in the country serve on the board. Likely intended to provide representation for churches, this structure created significant redundancy in gifts and perspectives on the board. As a result of VSI, the school was able to recognize that redundancy and restructure its board to serve the school’s needs better while still maintaining relationships with churches.

In addition to their intellectual gifts and professional talents, board members can provide connections across their social circles or among church members. One school we worked with in Africa at first had a board that included a Christian judge and another public figure; these positions were intended to increase credibility with the community. Decades later, their reputation in the community was such that they did not need the same public recognition, so they could consider different intellectual and social gifts that fit their new context. Overall, board members do well to consider how they can promote the school’s mission in their spheres of influence in ways that help people value theological education and its role in the church.

This positive, friendly promotion of the school might help the president to fulfill one task within his own role – seeking new financial partners to support the school’s mission. While all board members should give to the school as a matter of personal generosity, they may also provide access to additional funding sources or support communities. While not a part of “governance” per se, these connections can further the mission of the school and open doors for the president and advancement team as they seek funding to support the school’s ministry.

Once these roles are established, how do the president and board relate to one another? In one VSI survey, presidents expressed the importance of their respective boards for ensuring their success as leaders. However, this relationship must remain in a healthy balance. Presidents need the board not to be so distant that they cannot offer their gifts to further the mission, nor should the board be so close that they interfere with operations. In its governance role, the board should strive to listen well, ask questions, and draw on its intellectual resources to offer advice, provide feedback, and encourage the executive as he or she sets strategy and executes the school’s vision.

Several authors offer language to describe the most effective relationships. In an article in the Journal for Non-Profit Management, Mary Hiland identified three kinds of board-CEO relationships in effective organizations. Good organizations had “managing pairs”; better organizations had “planning pairs,” but the best organizations had “leading pairs.” The Leading Pairs exhibited frequent contact and high levels of trust between the board and the CEO that focused on mission, vision, and strategy (i.e., not micromanagement). The CEO saw the board as a resource that could help develop, refine, and execute strategy. Through frequent conversation, the board sought to understand proposed strategies and engage with leadership to implement plans. The CEO worked to leverage those intellectual, social, and financial gifts in the board for the mission of the institution (Hiland 2008, 7).

Hiland also found that boards that engaged in this way had first-hand knowledge of the organization. They had access to and interacted with other staff beyond the executive, perhaps through projects, task forces, or program involvement. In seminaries, we have seen that presidents believe that the most effective boards understand the school’s work and know the institution’s community life. For example, at a school in Africa, board members regularly attend the annual pastors’ conference each summer, which increases their interaction with faculty, students, and alums. At a school in Asia, the annual theology conference brings together a similar cross-section of stakeholders, providing board members an opportunity to see the mission in action and gain a sense of the sights, sounds, and flavors of the school that cannot be conveyed by the president’s regular reports. By contrast, at some institutions, some board members only set foot on campus, if ever, for an annual board meeting (or perhaps never if the meetings take place off-site). Those board members remain removed from the work of the school in ways that make it difficult for them to help advance the mission.

Increasing engagement also builds trust between the board and the executive. Of course, accountability remains important. However, Ferenczi (2015) found that trust between the board and executive is one of the highest predictors of success in governance. Trust is built through the steps outlined above – clarifying and maintaining appropriate roles, focusing together on the school’s mission, vision, and strategy, and finding ways to engage beyond the board meeting.

The following are some practical ways a board can strengthen its relationship with the executive:

  • Deploy board members’ expertise, relationships, and resources. By recognizing and mobilizing these unique contributions, the board can effectively advise, make introductions, and provide essential support for the school.
  • A common question on funding applications for foundations reads, “What percentage of your board gives annually to your organization?” The board can help the executive by ensuring that he or she can write 100% every year on that form – in other words, by ensuring that each member does, in fact, donate something annually to the school. Foundation boards often look to board support as one indicator of the school’s effectiveness. Note that the question does not ask how much each board member gives, but only if they give. Even if it is only a small amount, board members should give to the school.
  • Help with fundraising. The social and intellectual gifts of the board help in fundraising as well. For many VSI schools, the reluctance of boards to participate in fundraising creates frustration for executives. While not all board members can be significant donors, they can help make introductions and develop creative ideas with school leaders as they raise money for the mission.
  • Make introductions. Board members can use social capital to strengthen the work of the executive. Board introductions help with donors, of course. They can also build credibility and establish new partnerships. Connecting the leader to other good people helps the executive succeed.
  • Stay informed and engaged. Presidents in our survey pointed to an obvious frustration when board members do not read provided reports. Reading those reports constitutes a foundational way for board members to build trust with the executive. Furthermore, board members should consider how to become more directly aware of the school’s activities. This action can be challenging for a distributed board that includes several members who are not in proximity to the campus. However, attending online events, reading blogs, or visiting alumni can provide ways to engage the school community.
  • Theological education must keep faith at its center. As such, it should be rooted in prayer – including prayer for the president and the leadership team as they advance the school’s mission.

Developing a strong, constructive relationship between the president and the board leads to an institution that can more effectively pursue its mission. Building this relationship requires that the board see its role not just as governance and oversight but in a relationship with the president in which they understand their roles and can offer gifts, abilities, and resources to pursue the common goal found in the institutional mission.

Provide Care for the Leader

When working with schools, we often emphasize that the faculty are the school’s most important asset because they carry out the mission of forming students and speaking prophetically to the church and society. From the board’s perspective, though, the effective executive leader cares for all aspects of the institution, including the work of the faculty. Therefore, ensuring the health and well-being of the leader is mission-critical. When the school has an effective leader, the board should work hard to ensure their success and longevity.

Caring for the leader of a theological school requires a different approach than in the business or secular world because some of the same incentives are not available. Most theological schools cannot provide higher salaries, increased stock options, or better perks. Theological education is motivated by the growth of the church and the advancement of the kingdom of God.

Boards can provide care in ways that fit the motivations of a seminary president. Most leaders long to continue their academic work and value opportunities to write, publish, and teach. They also have a strong commitment to the institution and often see its success as validation and reward in ways that monetary compensation cannot match. The board can motivate the president by helping him make space for theological reflection and simply by serving alongside him well to achieve the school’s mission.

Measuring against missional effectiveness also affects the board’s assessment of the leader’s performance. Of course, schools must make the budget and maintain a “bottom line,” but ending the year in the black does not inherently mean that the leader was effective or that the school has furthered its mission. For example, cutting faculty salaries may balance the budget but lead to burnout and faculty departures. Cutting library funding can help reduce expenses, but schools that wish to serve the church effectively must find ways to increase resources. In the same way, we have seen a president successful in fundraising but ineffective in leading the school to pursue its mission. The point is that executive assessment and compensation have missional components that operate beyond the bottom line and monetary reward.

Boards find themselves in a unique role that requires providing both accountability and encouragement. Strong executives are driven by a commitment to their institution’s cause. (If they are not, then it is time to return to the responsibility of the board to identify and hire the right people). But good leaders still need guidance from those around them – including the board. They need a place to explore ideas and dream about the institution’s mission – those high-level activities that create the most effective pairing between the board and the president.

Therefore, regular communication with the school leader has missional importance. The board chair often undertakes this role for the rest of the board, serving as the executive’s advisor, mentor, and strategic planning partner. These meetings allow the chair to check in with the leader holistically, asking about family and other aspects of life that do not often appear in the monthly reports. Doing so enables the board to provide encouragement where needed. In turn, the executive can analyze new ideas, raise questions, and discuss potential roadblocks.

As a mentor and advisor, the board chair can help alleviate some of the loneliness inherent in leadership. Several years ago, Scholar Leaders created a program called the Peer Leader Forum (PLF) through which a small group of school presidents can come together, share, and offer counsel to each other. During PLF retreats, the theme of loneliness frequently emerges as executives carry the weight of the many challenges of their work – often intensified by contextual issues such as the economic situation in Lebanon, the shifting political landscape of India, interreligious violence in Nigeria, or the war in Ukraine. Not surprisingly, but still disappointingly, we have found that few presidents believe that the board has an interest in their personal well-being. In the opening story, the board took little to no initiative to understand the challenges the president faced. They believed that the president should tell them if he had a problem, and absent that, they assumed all was well. While the president must communicate to the board, the board has the responsibility to find ways to inquire about the leader. If executive leaders are indispensable to the school’s mission, then intentionally caring for leaders falls under the board’s responsibility to safeguard that mission.

The following are some ways that boards can care for leaders:

  • Maintain regular communication. As discussed above, this duty will often fall to the board chair, but others may participate. The board and leader should have regular communication rhythms beyond official reporting. Doing so helps build trust and creates opportunities for mentoring beyond governance.
  • Develop a holistic view of the leader. Driven and passionate leaders often focus on the mission, accomplishing objectives, and ensuring the school’s success. Board accountability cares about these areas as well. But how is the leader doing personally – physically, emotionally, spiritually? How are things going for her as a leader, a spouse, parent, church member, or scholar? Consider how the board can encourage the leader in these areas as well.
  • Help the leader keep passion alive. Regularly check in about what excites the executive about the future and what keeps her up at night. Where does she spend her emotional energy, and how can the board help her consider threats and opportunities as she plans for the future?
  • Recognize that care cascades. When a leader does not get enough support for personal matters, those things impact their work, the faculty, staff, and students. Similarly, when leaders feel cared for, supported, and trusted, they often do a better job of providing the same things for those they lead. Caring for the leaders is essential for mission success in the entire institution.
  • Pray together. People feel cared for when they know others genuinely pray for and with them. In prayer, we also recognize that all we do belongs before the throne of grace and in the hands of our heavenly Father.

Because the president is an indispensable part of the school’s mission, the board is wise to make significant relational investments in that individual. School leaders in the Majority World operate in intense environments, so they welcome those who look after their well-being and are concerned for their family, academic interests, and dreams for the school. Such care extends beyond traditional governance and can prove invaluable so that the school retains a good leader.

Plan for Succession

Our experience has shown that few boards work on succession planning. For some, planning for the leader’s departure feels awkward while she is still leading well. Others only engage in the matter when term limits dictate that they should. However, if identifying and hiring the right leader and supporting her well safeguards the school’s mission, then succession planning is a crucial board activity. Ferenczi writes, “[W]hile it is clear that a strong, enabling CEO is essential to governance effectiveness, it is equally clear that the board must take seriously what might happen in the absence of such a leader” (2015, 161). The missional impact of a good executive places an even higher degree of importance on succession planning.

Through VSI, we have seen that awkward and unplanned transitions hinder the school’s work. Of course, boards cannot plan for every eventuality. However, too few have plans in place for when a president leaves, fails, or passes away. Schools can take years to regain their footing after a disruptive transition. Several schools on multiple continents have unexpectedly lost presidents through death, departure, or dismissal. In each case, the school felt the impact through funding decreases, faculty departures, and enrollment struggles that lasted for years. A succession plan, even one that accounts for a temporary situation, can prove helpful.

On the positive side, we have seen several effective presidents who have led for decades now spend years working with their boards to prepare for succession. These leaders have developed strong administrative and fundraising teams that can operate in their absence. Whether or not the next leader comes from the existing school community, these institutions are planning to handle an unplanned transition while their boards look for the next full-time leader.

On the less positive side, at one school, a highly effective leader appointed a successor who has proven quite different from their predecessor. The fact that the school’s board trusted the previous leader to determine the successor, and that the successor then turned out to be so different, has created challenges for the school community, partners, and governance. At another school, the board’s relationship with the president meant that the leader’s tenure outlasted their effectiveness. This board has yet to take full responsibility for a complete transition of leadership. As a final case: The board of the school described in the first section is content to have the current leader pass the mantle when the time for transition occurs – maintaining their hands-off posture.

In contrast to these less healthy situations, succession planning is a primary task for the board, and they should not abdicate this responsibility or let it default to the current executive leader. Of course, the current leader has a vital perspective and may know many of the best candidates who can advance the school’s vision. However, the board holds responsibility for succession. They also bring an important perspective on the needs of the institution and the kinds of gifts required for the next phase of its ministry. Each time succession happens, the institution finds itself in a new place, potentially with new and different needs. The board must seek a leader whose unique gifts, talents, and abilities fit those institutional needs. Therefore, while succession planning should definitely include the current leader, the board must lead the process of finding and hiring a new executive as they look ahead to the institution’s future.

The following are some steps the board can take in response to this role:

  • Engage the process continually. If succession plans are not in place, then start the process. Even when a plan is in place, the board must revisit, revise, and update the plan regularly. Most strategic plans last 3-6 years and should address succession. The school’s needs may change, the availability of personnel may shift, and the time horizons may need adjustment. Succession planning is an iterative process that requires regular attention.
  • Consider both emergency and planned succession. In the “What do we do if our leader is hit by a bus?” category, consider how the school will move forward after an executive’s unplanned departure. Most often, internal candidates would step into an interim role, but the board should consider who those individuals might be, what support they might need, and how that process might occur.
  • Revise plans and intensify actions as transition horizons draw near. Whether dictated by term limits or by the expressed intentions of the current leader, the board needs to increase the planning activity as the transition nears. Committees will need to develop leadership profiles, describe traits of desirable candidates, and begin interviewing possible leaders. Good leadership transitions require time, and the board must ensure adequate time for the task.
  • Seek input from a variety of stakeholders. The outgoing leader knows the job better than anyone, and his perspectives carry significant weight. But other stakeholders may also have important contributions that can help the board understand the needs of the school and the profile that may guide the board to the next effective executive. Board members should consider meeting with faculty, staff, students, and alumni as they plan for an executive transition.
  • Commit to hiring the right person. Theological schools often have various entities (denominations, missions organizations, churches, alumni) to whom they are accountable. These perspectives may be important, but they can sometimes limit the search for the best candidate. The board must commit to finding the right person (within whatever constraints exist) who can continue to carry out the school’s mission.
  • Develop a clear process to hand over leadership from the current to the future leader. Outgoing leaders often want to help new leaders understand and navigate the new role. New leaders, especially outsiders, may benefit from insights into the inner workings of the new organization. They will also need introductions to key partners outside the institution, such as donors, governing bodies, or other stakeholders. At the same time, the former executive needs to give space for the new leader to lead. The board can help in this process by carrying some of the weight of the former executive, making space for the new executive to act. They can also establish the rhythms of communication with the new executive that will build relational trust. Together, these activities will help ensure the next leader’s effectiveness and longevity.
  • Pray for guidance. As a mission-critical part of the job, succession requires seeking God’s guidance. In addition to praying for wisdom to discern the right future leader, board members should pray that interactions between the board and the former and future executives contribute to an effective leadership transition.

In our work with VSI, we have found that many boards overlook the responsibility of succession planning, sometimes for fear of intruding on their relationship with the school leader. Yet, when succession planning happens as a dialogical process, it can strengthen that board-executive relationship. In the same way that a good executive welcomes creative partners for new ideas, the board should solicit the executive’s input about succession planning but not rely entirely on her to appoint the next president.

Conclusion

The most effective theological schools have strong working relationships between the board and the president. This relationship begins with hiring the right leader and continues through the leadership arc to succession. Good leaders are essential to missional effectiveness. Therefore, each board should build a relationship with their school’s president that supports and sustains the leader. This enriched role for the board extends beyond simple traditional governance and will allow the board to contribute more robustly to the school’s health.


References

Aleshire, Daniel. “Governance and the Future of Theological Education.” Theological Education 44 (2) (2009): 11-20.

Carver, J. Boards that Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2006.

Ferenczi, Jason. Serving Communities: Governance and the Potential of Theological Schools.      Langham Global Library: 2015. Kindle Edition

Hiland, Mary. “The Board Chair – Executive Director Relationship: Dynamics that Create Value for Nonprofit Organizations.” Journal for Nonprofit Management, 12(1) (2008): 1–10.

Hunter, Evan. “Faculty Development in Service to the Mission of the School.” InSights Journal for Global Theological Education 4(1): 2018.

–. “Defining Prophetic Voice as a Calling for the Theological School.” InSights Journal for Global Theological Education 5(1): 2019.

Smith, Larry. “In Pursuit of Sustainability: Strategy and Planning for Theological Education.” InSights Journal for Global Theological Education 4(1): 2018.

Evan Hunter

Evan Hunter has worked with ScholarLeaders International since 2004. He is currently Vice President for Integration and Executive Editor for the InSights Journal. Through SL, he has had the opportunity to serve hundreds of theological leaders across the Majority World. He holds a PhD in Educational Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He and his family live near Minneapolis, Minnesota.