Everything starts with…Governance, Part Three

In addition to serving as President of Winebrenner Theological Seminary I also have one year remaining in my time as a member of the Board of Trustees for Emmaus University located near Cap Haitien, Haiti, and this year I am concluding my term as Chair of the Board. While a member of the Board, and prior to serving as Chair, Emmaus expanded its mission  and changed names from Emmaus Biblical Seminary to Emmaus University.

Serving as a President that answers to a Board of Trustees along with service as a member and Chair of a seminary (now University) Board gives me a unique perspective about governance. As we conclude this brief introduction to governance (click here for posts one or two) I am providing a few reflections from the perspective of a Board Chair.

It’s worth noting, for other seminary leaders who are reading this, that serving as a member of another school’s Board and, eventually, as Board Chair has greatly enhanced my ability to work with Winebrenner’s Board of Trustees.  Of course, this role adds an additional layer of responsibility while serving but the long-term payoff is significant.

My experience as a Board Chair has reinforced that, typically, a Board of Trustees hires one employee, the organizational CEO, or President.  On most days I do not have great awareness of the day to day functioning of Emmaus University so my main point of contact is the President, from whom almost all information flows.

This leads to an additional item that my experiences are reinforcing: you cannot overemphasize the importance of trust between the Board Chair and organizational President.  I have to trust that the President is sharing timely and accurate information about the school.  Fortunately, this is the case with Emmaus University.  However, there are many schools that lack trust between these two key individuals and it is never a good thing for the short or long term. High levels of trust must exist for a Board Chair and President to be productive in their relationship.

In many cases Board members may had have prior relationships with the President, so the Board Chair may carry this relational familiarity into the role as Chair.  This helps when a Board member transitions into the role of Board Chair. However, this raises a pivotal question for the school – what happens when a President leaves the school and a new President is hired?  In the case of Emmaus University one of the major tasks during my time as Board Chair has been to facilitate the search for a new President.  I was (and remain) good friends with the previous President (who, incidentally, is now serving as President of Wesley Biblical Seminary, another ATS accredited seminary).

This transition tests a key aspect of what it means to be a member of a Board of Trustees for a seminary or university – a Board member must have a greater commitment to the mission of the organization than to a particular leader.  In other words, even if the President changes the Board members should fulfill their terms and obligations to a Board.  Some of the frustrations I shared in last week’s post about the need to contact Board members the week of the meeting emerged from the fact that they had a greater commitment to my predecessor than to the organizational mission of Winebrenner Seminary. While we did have a few resignations on the Emmaus University Board, overall the Board is mostly intact from what it was prior the hiring of a new President.  This is a tremendous blessing for a new President and one way to offer some continuity and stability for the organization.

Finally, and this challenge is emerging as we seek to expand and grow the Board of Emmaus University, the requirements for Board members need to be considered in light of the unique culture of the organization.  (This is assuming that there are requirements for Board membership…if not, stop right now and create them!) Emmaus currently utilizes the requirements suggested by the Association for Governing Boards (AGB) but we are working through how to contextualize those for a unique context in northern Haiti.

Whether approaching governance from the perspective of an organizational President or Board Chair, everything starts with governance.

– Dr. Brent C. Sleasman, President