Joan McGrath Set To Not Just Survive, But Thrive

Joan McGrath, chair of the Graduate Theological Union board of trustees, is fascinated by the power of groups to survive and thrive -- the first Christians whose tiny movement grew to today’s two billion; her own successful company built on teamwork and caring ethics; and the GTU, founded by people of distinct faiths committed to learning about one another and bringing a healing message to a world in need. 

McGrath, who started her two-year term in October 2007 and has served as a GTU trustee for 10 years, says she has always been interested in religion. She earned a master’s degree in theology at the University of San Francisco and then taught English literature, theology, and philosophy in high school, where she also worked as a principal. Later she entered Fordham University for doctoral studies in systematic theology.

“Questions about church origins and evolving doctrines fascinate me,” says McGrath. “My key interest is to ask how Christianity grew from this small group of people around Jesus to Christianity today, with its various denominations and movements. Why is Christianity still a living religion through all its ups and downs? And what can we learn from the history of Christian origins that can help us understand the development of other religious traditions?”

McGrath says her knowledge of how people interact to accomplish surprising results comes from her experience teaching and McGrath RentCorp, the company she and her husband launched in 1979. Named one of Forbes magazine’s 2006 “Best Small Companies,” the corporation, which rents modular buildings and electronic testing equipment, enjoys success thanks to a group culture the McGraths consciously built.

“We started with a focus on supporting one another to counter setbacks, and developing highly motivated teams whose hallmark was, and still is, integrity,” says McGrath, who served as executive vice president for 15 years.  “We also have fun and laugh a lot, and all of this leads to a long employee retention rate.” 

“There’s no doubt in my mind that imagination and creativity are needed to design the GTU’s future direction...there are new, creative paths to explore.”

From this basis she calls the “greatest factor in my leadership formation,” McGrath has set goals for the GTU. 

“My goal is developing the board into an active, enthusiastic, and committed group of people who support GTU projects because the school’s contribution to the world is so acutely needed,” she says.  “We have an outstanding group and the GTU executive team is stronger than ever.”

McGrath says the board will concentrate on preserving the uniqueness of faith traditions within the GTU while engaging them in conversation and collaboration to operate with more financial efficiency. 

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” McGrath says, “that imagination and creativity are needed to design the GTU’s future direction. We usually take the old, trodden path. I know there are new, creative paths to explore. The goal is for the conversation and collaboration to filter into churches, mosques, and synagogues, so “the other” is neither enemy nor stranger. I truly believe that ordinary people can join together to do extraordinary things.”