March 26, 2021
Week of Lent 5
Dear ULS Community:
First, let me thank you for your many kind responses to last week’s Reflections. Your feedback is precious to me, and I want you to know that you are heard. I have to use whatever means I have available to me to help bind us together in this time we are separated physically. Last week’s letter to you was written almost exactly one year after my first weekly pastoral letter to the rostered ministers of my synod about the pandemic, and now, almost fifty letters later, I am still writing them—albeit now for ULS and not my synod. It has been a blessing to me to feel that we still have ways to listen to each other in spite of everything that divides us.
Whether you live on one of our campuses or are in our wider ULS community, for most of us the signs of spring are unmistakable; certainly here in Philadelphia and Gettysburg the lengthening days and milder temperatures, and sprouting crocuses, daffodils, and tulips are harbingers of warmth and sun to come. It will be my first spring here at ULS, and my first in the Northeast in twenty years, so the gentle, kindly change in the seasons fills me with joy and anticipation.
Though settling in well, Rob and I still feel a little like nomads—though with nice homes and not tents—and because of the pandemic we have not found a regular Sunday-morning church home. For ELCA roster purposes, I’ll retain my Los Angeles congregational membership until at least mid-summer, as I want to participate in my old synod’s virtual synod assembly and assist in the election of my successor as bishop. And I don’t expect in-person worship to become general again until mid-summer at the earliest.
But when the time comes, we’ll start exploring the options: a primary church home somewhere not too far from our eastern house in Elkins Park, and a secondary one near Gettysburg for the Sundays we spend there. I know there are lots of congregations we would enjoy. In the meanwhile, we have visited a few different congregations online, and it’s been kind of fun to be able to go to church anywhere in the world through the wonders of technology.
When I became a bishop in the summer of 2013, the strangest part of it for me was losing my every-Sunday parish work. Alongside full-time teaching and administration, I had held some kind of part-time position in a congregation as an associate or interim pastor for about 20 years, and was accustomed to preaching at least twice a month—and for the final few years, every week. Of course, I continued preaching almost every week as bishop, but in a different congregation every time, which as those of you who do that know, is a different kind of thing.
Entering into Holy Week now for the second time without physically being able to hold a palm, or kneel for communion at an altar rail, or sing “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” with a church full of people, is rather sad. Last year it still seemed like an emergency; this year it is more like a penance. And I will miss the chill in the air cut by the warmth of the new fire at the Easter Vigil. Some of you will be having socially-distanced worship in person in various ways—but as a newcomer, being there in person but at a distance can be almost harder than being on Zoom or watching a livestream. You’re closer to people to be sure, but still so far from being part of a community.
This week was a good week for ULS, in that many of us participated in the “on site” visit by our Association of Theological Schools committee charged with making a recommendation on the renewal of ULS’s accreditation. What would normally be a three-day physical visit to both campuses became a series of Zoom calls between the five “visitors” (four volunteer peer colleagues from other schools and one staff member of ATS) and groups or individuals from ULS’s board, faculty, students, and staff. I participated in several of these conversations, and they were very encouraging. Though the final decision of ATS won’t be given until sometime in June, the preliminary report of the committee was very positive and helpful, and we have every reason to trust that our reaccreditation will occur in due course. This is a great relief, and welcome news after the months of work that went into preparation for the visit.
The massive amount of work done for this process was already more than half done before I arrived on campus last fall, and I should acknowledge (among the many people who did so much work) the two steering committee co-chairs, Dr. John Hoffmeyer and Dr. Allison deForest. Nobody will be happier than they to have this all successfully completed, and they and the rest of the steering committee deserve our hearty thanks. We can do that more emphatically later this summer when the final words have been spoken by ATS and MSCHE and we as a ULS community can take the time to review everything the process has taught us. In the meanwhile we can be satisfied and say “so far, so good.”
This satisfying outcome also makes it easier to face “round two”: the next visit (in two weeks!) by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. We’ll go through much the same process with a different committee: I expect the questions to be similar and the outcome also to be much the same. Then we’ll be over this hump, and with the helpful recommendations of both agencies, we can move into the summer ready to reassess and make the kind of new, longer-range plans for ULS that such evaluations (and now new, permanent leadership) can make possible. I find this all very exciting. Maybe that’s another reason it feels like spring to me right now.
We stand on the threshold of ULS’s longer-term future. Of course, it might always be possible to say that, but I think in significant ways this moment in our history is different, and new. We never anticipated that we’d have a pandemic to contend with after years of institutional turmoil, but in some ways the forced slowing-down of our work together has been helpful in giving us some space to think about what’s really central and important in our collective mission and in our own lives. At least for me, it has been helpful to enter this new call at a trot and not a gallop. Together, and with God’s help, the reaccreditation accomplished and the pandemic receding, we should be able to develop a roadmap for ULS’s future in the course of the year to come.
I don’t underestimate the work and time that will be involved in shaping that future. I don’t minimize the disruption and pain and loss that the very rapid consolidation of two old seminaries caused in two communities in the last five years. I don’t want to overlook or minimize the institutional and systemic challenges we still face as a community wanting to be at the same time diverse, intentionally inclusive, and broadly ecumenical—and the difficulty of negotiating significant differences. But above all, I don’t want to overlook the power of the Spirit to lead and guide a community that is united—most deeply of all—by its Christian commitments and its common call to discipleship.
In observance of Good Friday, I will not be writing you next week, but will return to you on the first Friday in Eastertide. I hope your Holy Week and Easter will be richly meaningful, and will re-center you in your faith in the Risen Christ and strengthen you in your commitment to love and serve your neighbor.
May God bless you and keep you safe.
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary