Principles of CBTE: Collective Governance

March 15, 2021

by Greg Henson, President

As children we are taught to share. We share toys, time with loved ones, and take turns on things like swings and playground equipment. Learning to share is often a very difficult process because we struggle to fully understand the concept. Take, for example, an experience I had with my two little girls when they were four and two. The four-year-old girl received a pen for Christmas. It was a fun little pen that could change colors if you pressed the right buttons, and the mechanical features of it added a little intrigue beyond the normal pens she used when doodling at home.

A few months later, she was drawing with the pen and my two-year-old daughter asked her if she could use it. In prototypical fashion, the four-year-old responded quickly with “No! It’s mine!” I responded in the moment like most parents would, I asked the four-year-old to share her pen. The four-year-old did and the two-year-old began to color delightfully on the paper in front of her. All was good with the world – until the next day.

The following day, the four-year-old was again drawing with her pen and the two-year-old came to ask if she could use it. Having “learned” to share the pen the day before, the four-year-old politely said “Sure! You can do use it.” I was pleased with the interaction and the four-year-old was so happy to know she had shared. This time, however, two-year-old chose to use the pen as a percussion instrument! Rather than coloring nicely on the paper in front of her, my two-year-old daughter began pounding out a groovy beat on the table!

Obviously, this mortified my four-year-old who abruptly reached over, forcibly removed the pen from her two-year-old sister’s hand, and shouted “No! You can’t do that with it. It’s mine!” It seemed the four-year-old was perfectly fine with sharing so long as the two-year-old did exactly what the four-year-old thought she should be doing.

I might suggest this is how shared governance works in most seminaries. This concept of governance is ingrained in the structures and accreditation standards that shape institutions. Unfortunately, the way we have approached it has fostered power struggles, infighting, turf wars, institutional silos, and disconnection from those we claim to serve. It seems that in most instances shared governance is structured around the idea that the work of the institution is divided amongst the board, faculty, and administration. This is how we “share” the institution’s governance: I control this, you control that. The problem, however, is that by structuring it in this way we create a situation wherein true collaboration is nearly impossible. Each year, the lines between the three areas get more clearly defined and the space between the groups grows over time.

While we talk about how the work of the institution (e.g., assessment, strategic planning, program development, etc.) must include voices from each group, the reality is that schools often fight over who has “ultimate” power or control of some particular aspect or another. This kind of collaboration devolves into something like the conversation between my girls. The administration may allow some input into strategic planning from the faculty until the faculty decides to do it in a way the administration believes it wasn’t intended – at which point the administration says, “No! You can’t do that with it! It’s mine.” The faculty may share program development with the board and administration until they see it isn’t being done “correctly” – at which point they also say, “No! You can’t do that with it. It’s mine!”

Perhaps the worst part of all of this is the fact that the common approach to shared governance disempowers voices outside of the institution. By fighting with each other over power, control, or strategy, we lose the opportunity to fully engage those we claim to serve. These never-ending power struggles take our attention away from real collaboration which, in turn, brings a misalignment between our practices and values. The misalignment multiplies institutional costs, disconnects our education from the communities we are trying to serve and, all too often, creates toxic contexts that make it impossible to provide education that is affordable, accessible, relevant and faithful. Competency-based theological education (CBTE) offers, perhaps requires, a fresh expression of governance. It invites schools to think of governance as something to steward collaboratively and not something to divide and conquer (i.e., share). Put simply, the way we operate in community is in sync with the way we learn and steward those God places in our care. We do not espouse or teach one thing and then practice another. As a collective body of Christ-followers who have been entrusted with resources and a mission, we should engage in a trust-based collaborative approach to governance. In this approach, power and prestige are released by every person and group within an institution in order to get the best insights around the table. Systems and structures need to be as flat as possible, allowing diverse voices to speak with power into the work of an institution in order to see how best to reduce costs, increase accessibility, maintain relevance, and remain faithful.

In doing so, we will not only give away internal power but also welcome the Body of Christ as our primary collaborator. When we begin to trust each other and see governance as a collaborative process, we are more able to let go of not only individual power but also institutional power. For example, we move from inviting voices outside the “walls” of the institution to consult with us or give input and toward giving them the power to make decisions on what can and should be done. This release of power opens doors to conversations that are currently closed (allowing us to see what we could not see otherwise) and empowers the church to be fully invested in the development of disciples – which is a key aspect of competency-based theological education.

In this way, collaborative governance can be very disruptive in that it upends a more traditional model of governance. The elevation of different concerns and other voices can be perceived as a diminishing of the concerns and voices of those given power in the traditional model. This can be unsettling at the beginning of the change process. It is also disruptive because once the trust-based collaborative culture and governance structure has been created, the traditional processes for including voices become antiquated and harmful. New processes for including voices must be developed, and these new processes will, in turn, liberate the institution from the bondage of silo-thinking.

Competency-based theological education requires us to intentionally draw on the wealth of wisdom that exists outside of the academy and to embrace perspectives from new voices within the institution. In doing so, we create a space where best practices for business operations and strategy can be developed by people other than CEOs, CFOs, and board members and new approaches to education can be developed by people who are not faculty members. Over time, as voices that were once on the margin are empowered to fully and collaboratively engage in all aspects of governance, the principle of collaborative mission is reinforced and strengthened. In short, collaborative governance is only possible when a shared mission and shared values are aligned with shared and empowering practices.

It is in the work of alignment that the greatest challenge actually resides. Many of us have not done the hard work of aligning our espoused values and mission with our daily practices as an organization. We struggle with collaboration because the various segments of shared governance within the institution are often not trying to accomplish the same things. While we speak the same mission, our practices end up fragmenting the organization’s understanding of that mission. By practicing collaborative governance, we are more able to align our mission with those we serve because the release of power sheds light on where our organizational practices do not align with our espoused values and mission.

For Sioux Falls Seminary, this distribution of power opened our eyes to the fact that while we claimed to be “student-centered,” the reality was that our “institution-centric” practices were putting or keeping students in poverty through the burden of student debt. By giving away power once reserved for particular voices within our institution, we were able to better align practices and values. As a result, less than 1% of students our students borrow funds to attend seminary – and even then, they accumulate less debt, on average, than any of their peers at similar schools.

When that happens – when we see that our shared governance practices are pushing against the very thing we say is our mission – we must respond with humility and grace rather than power and prestige. Competency-based theological education fosters this type of conversation in a way that traditional models of education have struggled to produce. The result is a collaborative governance culture that is responsive, rooted in trust, and embraces the movement of the Spirit as it works in the lives of those who call Jesus Lord.

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