Text size:


Trustees as Ambassadors of Episcopal Identity

The Rev. Peter G. Cheney
» Back to Library Search Results
Last Updated: Jun 22, 2017, 10:17 AM
Date Posted: Mar 23, 2012, 09:32 AM
What is the role of the Episcopal school trustee? To select a new head of school? Absolutely. To oversee the school’s finances, resources and property? Certainly. To partner with the school head and leadership in vision casting and planning? Obviously. To evaluate the performances of the head of school and board? Always. To act as a sounding board and liaison for the head of school and members of the school community? Often. Each of these roles is vital to the trustee’s work. All good schools have procedures and manuals to support and guide trustees in these functions. But there is another ingredient of Episcopal trusteeship that is essential to the health and prosperity of Episcopal schools. More than anything else a trustee does, he or she is called to be an ambassador for the core Episcopal identity of the school.

NAES staff members are frequently asked to lead workshops and retreats for Episcopal school leaders and trustees that focus on Episcopal identity; how we define it, how it is embodied in the ethos and daily life of our schools, and the trustee’s role in guarding and representing that identity. We often break the retreat participants into small groups and then ask them to share their perceptions and understandings about Episcopal identity in a plenary session. As we listen at these gatherings, we are usually struck by the openness and thoughtfulness of people’s responses. Many trustees report that they have never been asked to reckon with matters of Episcopal identity, nor have they understood their roles to include being “ambassadors” for the religious and spiritual heritages of their schools.

  • “Isn’t that the head of school’s or chaplain’s role?”
  • “I wouldn’t know what to say?”
  • “This is the first time I’ve been asked to consider this aspect of trustee work.”

Why Be an Ambassador?

Questions and comments like those just listed lead us to consider the following: Why should trustees be ambassadors of Episcopal identity? The answer to this question is really quite simple and pragmatic. Trustees routinely act as representatives, formally and informally, for their schools—extolling the virtues of their institutions to others, including prospective students and families. As the mission and character of their schools are vitally connected to matters of spiritual development and religious identity, the trustees need both to be conversant with these dynamics and to accept their role as spokespeople about them. Trustees should not feel hesitant about this role. They are not being asked to adopt a narrow, sectarian perspective about religious ideology. They are simply called to be mutually responsible—with heads of school, chaplains and parish school rectors—to represent the Episcopal identity of our schools.

How to Be an Ambassador

This leads us to a second question. How can trustees fulfill the Episcopal ambassador role? There are important specific behaviors that trustees can follow.

Board Presence

How board members relate to each other and the head of school speaks volumes to the school and wider communities about their wisdom and maturity as stewards of the school’s identity. The leadership of a board must assist fellow trustees in comprehending the “big picture,” and in bonding as a group. It is all too tempting for trustees to over-identify with the particular tasks associated with their committee assignments, and to develop relationships with board peers and school leaders exclusively in these areas. The more consistently that trustees are encouraged and empowered to see themselves as ambassadors, the more likely it is that they will represent the school’s mission successfully. By always remembering that they are first and foremost ambassadors for the school, trustees will avoid the temptation either to micromanage or to form unhealthy alliances with others on the board or in the school community. They will also recall that by virtue of their identities as board members, anything they say to another person or group about any school matter must be understood as public in nature.

School Presence

Trustees can do enormous good by their presence at key school community events. It is customary to see them at sporting events, special annual celebrations and graduations, but trustees also need to be present whenever possible at school worship services. They should be encouraged to speak in chapel, and with students in other settings, about their work as trustees and community leaders. It is also the practice in many of our schools to have trustee participation on the school’s religious life committee. Trusteeship, after all, is a ministry, and board members are important role models for both students and faculty. They can also assist students with community service projects and internships that reflect in compelling ways the Episcopal identity of the school; and hence, the school’s commitment to service and outreach.

Community Presence

Many outside a school community know of it most directly through friendships and relationships with its board members. As mentioned earlier, trustees will often have the opportunity to speak for or about the school to others, including prospective students and families. It is vitally important that board members be able to present a consistent, holistic picture of the school’s life and character, and that the basic identity of the school be represented. It is not adequate for them simply to boast about the new buildings, sports teams, arts programs or success rates in placing students in future schools and colleges. They ought to be able to speak articulately and with genuine conviction about that for which the school was founded and stands.

Finally, it is not enough to say that trustees ought to be ambassadors for their schools’ Episcopal identities. A capacity for this broad role of servant ministry must be discerned in prospective board members by the “committee on trustees,” or whatever group is responsible for recruiting and nominating trustees. At the same time, that capacity must be underscored during the orientation program for new trustees and then sustained for all board members both through continuing education and the board’s annual self-evaluation process.

Recognition of and support for each trustee’s critical work as an ambassador will go a long way toward assuring that the entire board is successful in its ministry.

The Rev. Peter G. Cheney was executive director of NAES from 1998 to 2007.