Charting the Future: Advisory Committee to President Yeager

We were appointed by Diane Yeager, SCE President, to report to her and the SCE Board of Directors regarding issues the SCE is likely to or should confront in the immediate and near-term (five years) future.  Some of this charge is driven by changes in management and governance already underway and by financial exigencies.  Some of it is driven by the prospect of changes in the number and composition of our members.  Some of it is based on a periodic need to examine our practices and mission, even if the status quo is satisfactory. Finally, changes in SCE governance in the works raise both the need and the opportunity to develop an ongoing process for strategic planning. 

 This committee of six has divided our charge into tactical or technical matters that will or can be enacted immediately with no apparent strategic changes that could alter the mission and character of the Society.   Strategic considerations are more fundamental and require research and information and input from a broader cross-section of Society membership. 

Our committee divided into three groups: two of us considered governance and financing as well as a process of strategic planning for the Society; two of us considered programming with a focus on annual meetings; two of us examined membership criteria and target-groups for possible new members, marketing, and commensurate adjustments in our mission. We have attached reports from these three groups as appendices to this report.

We have reached consensus on a number of specific recommendations or suggestions that can be enacted by the Board of Directors without a strategic plan and on a possible agenda and procedures for strategic planning.   Our “consensus” does not indicate equally enthusiastic unanimity on every recommendation, but it does imply general agreement.

We favor development of a strategic planning process, if for no other reason than that the SCE should undertake periodic strategic planning.  We differ somewhat on whether there is an urgent need for strategic planning due to financial exigencies or the prospect of dramatic changes in the number of composition of members.  Dan Finn has provided two helpful graphs (attached) regarding trends in the number of members and assets.  Neither indicates a need for urgent action; however, other factors may.  These include: a) recent operating profit and loss trends (see attached Excel sheet); b) projections regarding the composition of membership and the need for subsidies for dues and annual meeting attendance for some groups (see attached Excel sheet regarding trends in which members are attending annual meetings); and c) changes in our governance that will outsource some of our accounting and other activities such as publicity and marketing that may create the need for strategic planning in the relative short-term. 

We agree that the SCE needs some better data and information through research, surveys of the membership, and focus groups regarding membership (especially its composition), programming costs and benefits, and income sources and expenses.  A strategic planning committee could also direct and guide gathering information and data that move beyond the anecdotal information and observations from others on which we have largely relied for this report.

We do have some recommendations that may be undertaken by the Board and Executive Committee prior to a strategic planning process.

First, we believe that increasing numbers of lifetime members (63 on Andrea Taylor’s last count)—some of whom continue to have a decent income from various pensions and savings—should pay modest dues based on their family income entitling them to full membership benefits.  This change requires a modification in the bylaws—and thus requires a one-year delay—although lifetime members could, in the meantime, make voluntary contributions based on a formula and recommendations.  If the Board does not wish to enact mandatory dues for this group or wishes exempt those already granted lifetime membership, it could adopt a policy of requesting a specific contribution based on levels of family income.  Our Committee offers no specific recommendations for amounts.  We understand that retired persons no longer receive funds to attend our meetings and deserve modest relief for that reason alone.

Second, we recommend that the SCE consider more aggressive personal notices for overdue dues.  We have learned that Andrea Taylor has issued three personal notices by time consuming follow-up.  Even so some members interested in maintaining membership may not be getting the message or realize the consequences of delaying dues payments.

We applaud the movement toward reducing food costs at the annual meeting, especially during the Presidential reception because most attendees eat a full meal afterward.

We support efforts to request that institutions provide some support for their graduate students, contingent faculty, and especially junior faculty to attend annual meetings.  Should we require at least an application for such funding before meeting subsidies are granted to any of these groups?

We recommend reviewing the initiative to pay the entire fare for a person from the global south each year without an increased effort for the Society to benefit from a presentation by that person and to encourage more permanent SCE members from the global south.

We also endorse the use of posters and a poster session at the annual meeting as a change in programing that does not need to await strategic planning.

Finally, while we offer no specific recommendations for contracting with an organization to manage the Society’s management and accounting operations, we endorse the plan in process for Gina Wolfe to review and revise our financial management and accounting.   We anticipate that an outside organization will provide efficiency and financial savings as well as offer ongoing expertise for organizational development.  During this transitional period without an Executive Director and Administrative Executive, we can imagine, if the SCE outsources management and accounting, enhanced efficiency and financial savings as well as ongoing expertise for organizational development.  These developments will enable the Board to review arrangements and decide how best to proceed with future management and governance.

We note that a change in administrative structure will inevitably change in administrative culture.  The Board or a Board appointed committee may want to consider how the SCE could retain personalized administrative contact of the kind the Andrea Taylor has provided so superbly.  This personalized interaction might be useful, for example, in appeals for delayed payment of dues, personalized solicitation for members, encouraging junior members to grants to attend annual meetings, special communications for the breakfast with an author program or interest-group meetings, and arranging for “memorial minutes.”  There may be some communications that a contracted firm will not be able to handle effectively.  We should do our best to retain these personalized interactions between the SCE administration and its members.

We also strongly suggest several items for the agenda of a strategic planning committee, if one should be appointed.

First, while we offer no specific recommendations for significant changes in programing, which still seems to be well received and appreciated, we strongly recommend that any strategic planning—and perhaps even tactical changes—utilize a survey of the kind Jean Porter and Dan Finn recommend and focus groups as recommended by Tim Sedgwick and Angela Sims (see appendices) to determine if the membership desires or is open to changing programming, less costly meeting venues and transportation to meeting venues, and perhaps regional or campus-based meetings.  We doubt that such meetings are desired at this time with the possible exception of a Pacific coast meeting if we have more annual meetings in the East. 

Changes might include programming focused on improving pedagogy. (Diane Yeager notes that, to her knowledge, the SCE has not collaborated with the Wabash Teaching Center, which not so incidentally is fully funded by the Lilly Foundation.)

We also believe strategic planning could explore enhanced collaboration with denominational groups, church agencies and professional associations addressing moral issues.  These groups may desire and take responsibility to plan and pay for collaborative ethical deliberations to which SCE members could contribute.  In addition, academic institutions and consortia may want to use the SCE annual meetings to consider specific moral and religious issues that they confront. The cost and planning for these supplemental meetings would not have to burden the SCE.  Some costs could covered by the collaborating groups and some could be met by foundations such as Lilly and Templeton.  (See comments in the Sedgwick/Sims appendix.)

We also recommend that strategic planning consider new categories and criteria for membership.  These efforts could both expand membership and increase income and provide for a more robust mission to promote Christian and religious ethics as a discipline informed by and relevant to the public sphere.

In some cases, we could target new groups from disciplines and professional life beyond academic Christian or religious ethics or even beyond academia.  Eligibility for membership from these groups can and should require the potential to inform Christian ethics as an academic discipline and should be informed by it.  Otherwise, we would abandon our current mission to advance our discipline. We are thinking of: social scientists, law faculty, philosophical ethicist and philosophers of religion, community organizers and activists, and professional ministers and church officials.  For these groups, at least for some of them, we might want to consider reduced dues and benefits (such as fewer opportunities to submit proposals for annual meeting presentations or mailing of the Journal) making it more likely that these persons could belong to other associations simultaneously.

The SCE could also improve its marketing for membership and participation. In addition to marketing to some or all of the groups above, the Society could target publicity and communication for groups from which we have traditionally drawn fewer members: Orthodox Christians, international scholars (especially from Canada); and bio-ethicists in medical schools.  Some ministers and church officials might better fit in these categories for which we would not need to change membership criteria or offer associate membership.

This emphasis and a greatly revised approach to marketing is a strategic matter rather than a tactical adjustment, especially since more ambitious marketing will require staff time as well as new more expensive techniques.   (See the Beckley and Miles appendix for more on membership, marketing, and the slight revision of mission it might entail.)

Grants from foundations such as, Lilly, Carnegie, Luce, and Templeton may support elements of strategic planning and/or strategic initiatives, especially those promoting Christian and religious ethics as part of discourse in the public square.

While strategic planning necessarily addresses mission, we do not propose mission as a distinct item for strategic planning. However, in addressing other matters proposed above, and committee will need to discuss how proffered new initiatives could develop and deepen the mission of the Society. It will also be necessary to consider how well the current mission description of the Society reflects and guides ongoing and developing initiatives.

We all welcome inquires.  Harlan Beckley will be present with Diana Yeager to discuss this report at Board of Directors meeting in Louisville.  Angela Sims is also a member of the Board.

 

Harlan Beckley (beckleyh@wlu.edu)

Daniel Finn (DFINN@csbsju.edu)

Rebekah Miles (rlmiles@smu.edu)

Jean Porter (jean.porter.3@nd.edu)

Tim Sedgwick (TFSedgwick@vts.edu)

Angela Sims (drangelasims@gmail.com)