A Reflection on the Recent Board of Trustees Meeting October 23-24

P_Downing_1024The Rev. Patricia S. Downing ’95
Rector, Trinity Episcopal Parish, Wilmington, Delaware
Member, Board of Trustees of The General Theological Seminary

“Alacrity” is the word for this season in life at The General Theological Seminary. We now need to move deliberately and strategically if we are to fulfill our mission in a changing landscape. Each morning the Board of Trustees began with bible study which set the tone for the day, grounding the meeting in the word of Jesus.

I was surprised and excited to hear about the two trips that are currently being planned for January, 2016, to South Africa and to Jerusalem. I hope these journeys will be a chance for students, alumni, professors, and friends of the Seminary to explore the historic roots of the church and the current growing edges of the body of Christ. In addition, this could strengthen our relationships and broaden our horizons.

The challenges and opportunities which are facing the Board have been clearly articulated and squarely approached. The issues of aligning our financial, missional, and cultural areas are being addressed. The Dean identified four pillars of focus to achieve that stability and alignment.

The first is the complete implementation of The Wisdom Year and the integrated curriculum. Seminary staff are continuing to develop placement sites. The second is the development of a professionally focused M.A. program that will provide a degree that allows for graduates to obtain licensure for that work. This focus on educational opportunities for lay leaders in the church will create an exciting broadening of our mission field. The third is collaboration and alliances with other institutions which will provide opportunities for leveraging our buying power, academic offerings, and other areas which could benefit all parties. The final pillar is a focus on the Chapel and its place in our corporate life. This will include a necessary capital campaign to attend to the significant deferred maintenance, as well as the need for an increase in our endowment total. These are not small tweaks to our life.

Thursday afternoon was spent with the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center (LMPC) exploring the work of Dr. Murray Bowen and Dr. Edwin Friedman as it relates to Humor, Playfulness and Paradox in leadership within the seminary system. I found the conversations that the Board members and faculty shared very refreshing. We identified issues and events of the past that are still having reverberations in our present.

An example is the sale of the Gutenberg Bible 40-plus years ago. The lore of that decision is that the Trustees rushed through the decision, sold it for too little, did not honor the justification for the sale which was “Bibles for books” that would endow the library, and gave away the symbol of our excellence and uniqueness. None of the current members of the Board of Trustees were a part of that decision. Yet, the action of that Board of Trustees at that time continues to define the relationship and attitude of many alumni toward the Seminary.

We need to remind ourselves that we carry the positive and negative legacies of every Board of Trustees and every Dean of General Seminary. These legacies color how we are perceived and received. The recent conflict with the faculty, the failures of communication by the Board of Trustees with the wider community, and the struggles with fiscal alignment and curriculum changes are still elements of our life to which we must attend as we move forward. The Board of Trustees acknowledges all of this and is trying to address these issues with transparency, different approaches, and humility.

The audit report and the financial report were approved. The Board understands the seriousness of the financial realities of the Seminary. We need to increase our endowment to fund operating expenses. Our current unbalance is not sustainable, and resources will run out in four years if we do not tend to our financial situation and find generous souls to give to the mission and ministry of the Seminary. Clarity and transparency on this issue, coupled with clear and concise communication, will assist us in making this reality known and the opportunities to give easy.