In places of worship we often think about the importance of lay leadership. No matter how powerful the spiritual leader, how driven by God, how adroit at understanding the business of the organization, how gifted in dealing with people helping them address the concerns of the day, lay leaders are an invaluable part of the enterprise.
No place of worship will be better than its lay leadership.
So too it is in the case of a public research university. The alumni association, the development foundation, the athletics boosters, and countless other groups of lay leaders and workers play a role in moving the institution forward and have a dramatic impact on what our university is and what it can be.
On July 1, 2008 I marked my seventh year with Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Seven interesting years with just about every aspect of university mission and purpose under discussion. We have made progress and continue to make progress on many fronts, but there are many needs we have yet to address.
I recall the interview process and the importance of it. The first night in town I met board members – lay leaders. They talked about the importance of academic excellence. I met alumni association members – lay leaders – who talked about how powerful the institution was in their lives, and what it meant to so many graduates. I met development foundation board members – lay leaders – and talked about the rising costs of higher education and the value of private support in meeting the ever-growing demands that a public university provide excellence opportunities to its students.
Before I met anyone on the payroll I met lay leaders, people committed to Southern because they loved it, and they wanted to see it continue to flourish in the future.
I bump into these lay leaders around town and their desires do not change. Their aspirations for the university remain steadfastly the same. They want to see Southern prosper; they want to see it grow; they want to see it become better than it is.
In short, they hold high aspirations for it.
I tried, in my limited view of the world, to appreciate the kinds of organizations that have lay leadership. Can you imagine Exxon with lay leadership, or General Motors? Now, someone could argue that the stockholders are lay leaders, after all they cast votes on corporate matters, they weigh-in. But I would not venture there.
The idea of voting for something, up or down, is not at all the same thing as participating in leadership. Vesting your energy in making the organization work rather than saying how you think it has worked or not worked through the casting of a vote. Even though capital is at stake, stockholder voting is spectator sport… not leadership.
Lay leadership in a university is different. It demands an investment and consequently needs attention so that the whole will benefit from the leadership of the laity.
John Bartlett may have had it just right: “I have gathered a posie of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own”.
Maybe the most powerful leadership of our university lies in the hands of our lay leaders, when they are deftly choreographed and bound together to best serve the needs of Southern.