Why Seminary Leadership Matters

I have attended the same seminary graduation every year for three decades, and every year the same thing happens: After the graduating students are in their places, the faculty enters. There is a roar of applause and acclaim from the soon-to-be graduates. It goes on for several minutes, often until the president, whose entrance has gone unnoticed, urges everyone to be quiet and sit down.

This spontaneous ovation signals a fact of seminary life: For students, the faculty is the school. The designated leaders -- the president and senior administrators -- are, in most cases, part of the barely noticed backdrop against which the drama of teaching, learning, and leadership development is played out. There are exceptions, of course. In seminaries that stand in liturgical traditions, the president might preside at worship on a regular basis, and the model of community life owes something to a monastic chapter with a prominent dean. And a small number of presidents are so widely known outside the school, as speakers and writers, that they have major impact on their schools' students as well as a broad public.

In research conducted by Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education, however, presidents and other senior leaders are rarely mentioned when students are interviewed about the features of seminary life that shape them and set their vocational direction. Their models for leadership are faculty members, pastors in field settings, and well-known figures in their denomination or religious circle.

If students are oblivious to their schools' administrators, does it make any difference whether these persons have gifts for leadership? Is administration merely a functional matter, reducible to management and technical skill? A recent Auburn study of seminary presidents and their teams, "Leadership that Works," suggests that seminary presidents and senior leaders can have profound impact as leaders on the church and world, even if the students in their schools are only dimly aware of them. In fact, unless they bring leadership qualities to their roles, presidents and their associates are unlikely to succeed in creating stable, durable institutions that are adaptable and open to the future. The leadership of a president and senior team reaches well beyond the seminary walls through relationships with faculty, board members, and friends of the school.

The most effective chief executives, often in partnership with an able academic dean, teach the faculty dimensions of leadership that they may not have learned in graduate school -- how to think institutionally, and how to work together as a body rather than as brilliant individual contributors to the work of the school. In order to play this role, leaders must first earn the faculty’s respect by proving themselves trustworthy: They exercise good judgment, listen carefully, and uphold the faculty’s legitimate prerogatives; they do not play favorites, bully, or lie. Mutual respect does not necessarily mean complete agreement. In fact, the most skillful presidents often demonstrate what it means to think and act institutionally when their sense of what the school needs and the faculty’s views come into conflict. Sometimes a compromise is reached; occasionally, presidents have to overrule the faculty. Whatever the outcome, over time the faculty may become aware of dimensions of the school's situation that had not figured in their decision-making before.

The best presidents also model, in their work with their teams and with the faculty itself, collegial styles of leadership that can infect the whole school. Here is what one faculty member told our research team about one such president and administrative team:

I think that for me a key piece of leadership is to be able to draw the gifts from within the group that you're serving and I think all of those that are in leadership right now are quite good at that. They’re good at allowing people to do things and not sort of squeezing the life out of the place but rather letting it grow and develop ... they’re people that can mentor. They have their own gifts and they’re happy to use them ... but they really let people do their jobs well.

In the very best situations, faculty members who work productively and well with each other and the administration may carry that collegial spirit into their teaching and provide a model for students by their patterns of shared leadership. Students take those models with them into the church and the world -- effective leadership is passed on by example.

Seminary leaders also directly model leadership in the church and world. The majority may not become famous as writers or leaders of their religious movement, but they interact with their boards, graduates, and a wide network of friends for the school, thousands of persons who learn from their example as they teach the public about the seminary and the values it embodies. Here is a board member's description of components of the president's leadership:

She's the leader, but she doesn’t have to do it all. She has the strength of character to be firm in the school's mission. What centers the president is her deep faith, her confidence in God’s providence ... She does what she thinks is right, without fear, but with a sense of humility. She can and does say no.

Humility. Steadiness. Discipline. A commitment to doing the right thing. Faith in God's leading and help. The ablest seminary presidents have these qualities and the ability to demonstrate this model of leadership, which works not only in seminaries, but also in churches and in any organization that seeks human flourishing and the welfare of all.

Barbara G. Wheeler, director of the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education, was president of Auburn Seminary for 30 years. You can find a link to the "Leadership that Works" report at www.auburnseminary.org/CSTE.

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