Reviving theological schools (and other sagging nonprofits) the McDonald’s way

A Wall Street Journal article titled “How to Revive McDonald’s” is an unexpected source of wise words for leaders in theological education, but that’s what I found there. Okay, so having just spent two days with a seminary board likely influenced the way I read the piece. However, I think I would have picked up on the cross-sector application without a campus visit just behind me.

drive thru

Granted, it’s a leap from the Golden Arches to the hallowed halls of North America’s seminaries, but jump with me, please. I think you’ll agree that advice directed to the leadership team of McDonald’s is useful for presidents and boards of theological schools. Other organizations as well, as there’s no shortage of nonprofits — organizations, institutions, and/or entire sectors — in need of re-vitalization. Feel free to substitute your personal favorite as you read.


Consultant Larry Light, author of the WSJ piece, suggests ten “immediate actions that would reignite McDonald’s.” I’ve pick five from his list which, if taken, will make a swift and lasting difference for theological schools in North America.

Stop the hemorrhaging. Seminary school leaders have responded to the big bleed that’s hit the sector with year after year of across-the-board budget cuts, to disastrous results. The Association of Theological Schools reports that fully a third of accredited schools are hovering near death and another third aren’t far behind. The only surprise here is that so many smart people have failed to get the obvious: Indiscriminate hacking at the body institutional, while hurting like heck, won’t stem blood loss from a gaping wound.

Across-the-board cutting is the cowardly solution to financial woes. Courageous boards and presidents identify the source of institutional bleeding and apply pressure directly to the problem area.

Focus on the direct competition. Despite what boards and presidents tell each other, the seminary down the road, across the country, or somewhere in cyberspace isn’t the competition. What leaders in traditional settings should watch is the burgeoning cottage industry of non-degree ministry training programs. While theological schools duke it out for the biggest possible share of the prospect pool, the fish are moving on to fresher water.

Competition for seminary students isn’t what it once was, despite the stories that continue to circulate. Wise boards and presidents put solid market research ahead of hunches, assumptions, or anecdotes when charting a new way forward.

Restore relevance. Radical shifts in the religious landscapes of Canada and the United States have profoundly changed how people think (or worse, don’t) about theological education. Churches no longer hold the sway in national and community life they once did. In turn, the value ascribed to institutions that support church life has diminished.

Wise boards and presidents don’t simply assume relevance. They work to create it, nurture it, track it, and trumpet it.

Focus on the fundamentals. Everywhere I go, presidents, boards, and other leaders in theological education are on the hunt for the/a/any way to breathe new life into the enterprise. Degree programs have proliferated, even as enrollment continues to plummet. There’s talk, talk, talk about innovation and re-visioning seminary education, but as yet no great break-through. Nor does there need be. In theological education, as in fast-food, quality trumps glitzy.Think Five Guys, Shake Shack, and Smashburger.

More doesn’t necessarily equate to better. Wise boards and presidents understand the power of menu focus and product control.

Rebuild trust. Similar to McDonald’s, theological education’s “trust bank needs trust deposits.” The historic customer base for seminaries and theological schools has lost confidence in what the sector produces. Theological education is accused of stressing credentials over competence and the buying public isn’t lovin’ it.

Wise boards and presidents fulfill their role as trust re-builders by listening, responding, and listening again until they’re certain their schools are dishing up what constituents want.

In a white paper on the future of theological education, longtime seminary president Richard Mouw and religion writer Andy Crouch predict that “the seminary of the future – and by God’s grace we trust that will be a flourishing reality – will be the result of bold choices today.” The five choices listed here are a great place to start.

For more on organizational change and the board’s part in it, see:

Re-visioning nonprofit boards as innovators and change-agents

Innovation without (much) change

The board’s role in strategic change

What's your take on this topic?

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