March 5, 2021
Week of Lent 2
Dear ULS Community:
I hope this finds you well, and if you live relatively near the seminary campuses, enjoying the foretaste of spring we have been getting since the last snowstorms. Though the winter snowfall was welcome to me, I will be happy if we can just slide into a mild spring now. I have flashbacks to snowstorms in Holy Week when I lived in Connecticut two decades ago. I can live with dampness and mud—they promise verdancy to come. My sore arms (I am still feeling the aftereffects of shoveling snow with more enthusiasm than skill) need the rest.
Rob and I are packing up Echo again this weekend and heading to Gettysburg. From the ULS perspective, it doesn’t seem to matter much where we are—business is done electronically and remotely no matter which campus we’re on—but we are really enjoying being there and we’re trying to make it easy to go back and forth without really having to pack each time. This time it’s a big cage for Echo that we’re transporting, so Lewars House will be as parrot-friendly for Echo as it is comfortable for us. She doesn’t seem to care much where she is as long as one of us is close by, and she has been quite calm about the ride in the car in her small carrier.
This week’s improvement project in Lewars House is blinds for the front windows. It hasn’t been too problematic for our other short visits, as we do have blinds upstairs, but it is a bit like living in a fishbowl to sit in the living room or at the dining room table and watch the tourists driving by very slowly, looking at the buildings and probably wondering who we are in there. If you happen to pass by at suppertime, wave to us in the dining room! We’d invite you in if it weren’t for the pandemic!
If you’re an old Gettysburg hand, it may mean something to you that I have now finished reading my first Elsie Singmaster novel, and I have to say it exceeded my expectations. It reminded me of the books I used to read in grade school—vivid descriptive tales of life long ago. I was always the kid who used the school library, and delighted to find the oldest books. I’m not sure anyone does that nowadays, but it was a big deal to me growing up. It will be fun to live in the house that her writing built.
One of the big parts of this week at ULS was saying our gradual and ceremonial goodbye to Pastor Angela Zimmann, who has served ULS wonderfully well as its VP for Advancement, and also as interim president before me. I am a great admirer of hers, and am grateful both for ULS’s and for my own sake for her excellent, faithful work, and her encouragement and support for me. Luckily for us she’s not going very far away—to Wilson College, one county over, to continue her vocation as Advancement VP there. Her husband Martin will be staying with us in his position at ULS, and we still expect to see her at campus events. Rob and I are going to honor Angela with—what else?—a gift to the ULS annual fund, and if you know her and value her as we do, that’s something you could do as well!
We’ve had a few promotions and new hires to the staff recently. The most recent batch were on the Philadelphia campus, but there will be more announcements this week about some on the Gettysburg campus too. At that time, we’ll post this exciting news on our website. There is always coming and going in an institution such as ours, and we are grateful both for those who have worked with us in the past and those who are willing to come and be a part of our community as staff members now. We build and we advance, and we always keep our mission in mind.
On the topic of mission, we are planning to do a comprehensive survey of deferred maintenance on our physical campuses in the months ahead, to consider needs and future uses. As we come out of the pandemic, I’d like us to be ready to think seriously about what our size should be, what our needs really are, and how to sustain the irreplaceable asset of our two beautiful and historic campuses. But this means also thinking hard about what use or need we have for each part, and how best to get the best from the buildings that have been entrusted to us. I care a lot about this, because our community is shaped in part by our physical surroundings, and in part by the identity that being heirs to their traditions gives us—but we, like the church itself, are more than just architecture, bricks, and mortar. I think the post-pandemic reassessment will be a very significant and wide-ranging one, and I want us to do it well.
There is a lot in the air about changes and challenges in theological education these days. If you are a reader of The Christian Century, you will have seen some interesting articles on the topic recently, and there are blogs and video interviews with church leaders and prominent teachers that are getting attention at the moment. Our sponsoring denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is also engaged in a re-visioning process to consider how its structures and systems connect to and promote its mission of bringing Christ to the people we are called to serve, and in such a time as this. ULS and every seminary is engaged in this same reflection. Every month or so I meet with the heads of the other ELCA seminaries to talk about the trends. I am hoping to draw closer to some of the ecumenical peer institutions closest to us geographically as well. The year ahead will see us engage our future in every way, and I will share with you my thinking as it develops.
I’ve mentioned before that we are cautiously hopeful that in-person, on-campus classes and events will be possible in the coming fall semester, but that to be safe, we will keep on with an all-virtual program through the summer and until then. We are also planning a set of inauguration events centering on the weekend of October 15-17, with the inauguration service itself on October 16. We’ll send out a “save the date” message soon—this is the advance notice for that! Details will be forthcoming as they develop, but it is certain that there will be events on both physical campuses, and that some parts will likely be livestreamed for those who still won’t want to travel. I am very excited, and hope to finally be able to see you all face-to-face.
On a day-to-day basis, I am now fully experiencing the complexity of serving in a place that is still coming out of traumatic experiences: the consolidation; the conflicts; the rebuilding—and we continue to heal as a community. There are still bruises, and sometimes we bump them and there’s fresh pain. But we’re getting there. Time is helping. People are being careful and trying to learn—as I am listening and trying to learn, too. We’re outgrowing some prejudices, and building new narratives together to—I hope—replace unhelpful old ones. Sometimes I feel like I bob on the surface of an unruly sea, like the apostles in the boat with Jesus—but I know that in fact we are all in the boat together, and Jesus is with us, however fiercely the winds may blow.
For blow they do: around us at ULS and all our peer institutions; in the life of the nation, as new political alliances are formed and new policies hammered out; in the nations of the world which struggle with poverty and political oppression; in our precious earth, our fragile home; and even in our own hearts full of both love and anxiety. But the winds will not overcome us; the waves will not swamp the boat. God is with us.
Each day brings me greater reassurance that there is light ahead, and hope after the pandemic, and that that future is drawing more clearly into sight. Until then, we’ll get ready for Easter, and for spring, and prepare for renewal at ULS, in the nation and the world, and in our own lives.
May God bless you and keep you safe in these still-Lenten days, and open your hearts to the warmth of brighter days ahead!
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary