May 7, 2021
Week of Easter 5
Dear ULS Community:
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
Last week’s “Reflections” were a little longer than usual; perhaps today’s will be a little shorter—I am also preparing my regular report to the Board of Trustees today, and I don’t want to be too repetitive. But this more informal message also allows me to be a little more personal about the things I am discussing than my board report would be, so what I’ll tell you today is less “what I’m doing” than “how I feel about it.” This week, I’m feeling anticipation, excitement, hope, connectedness, and inspiration. And all these good feelings are rooted to some degree in this week’s relatively good pandemic news, at least around us here in the United States. I continue to hold our friends in India in prayer—I received word yesterday of the first death of someone there I know personally, and that makes me very sad indeed.
It is a great relief to see the rising vaccination rates in some US localities—that gives me hope for all of us, and even for those places that are lagging behind. My old home, Los Angeles, is doing wonderfully well in approaching “herd immunity” vaccination levels, and went from being far behind to being way ahead of most other cities. Cities in general are doing well—it’s hard to mobilize them, but once they get in their groove they’re efficient because people are easy to reach. Philadelphia is still struggling a bit, but it will get there if people are willing to be vaccinated. Our ULS Philadelphia campus is still possibly going to be the host of a vaccination clinic, and we’ll keep you informed about that. The Gettysburg area continues to have ups and downs, as does the rest of the state.
In my own household, Rob and I will reach the two-week mark since our final vaccination shot this week, and that’s an exciting reality. There are many little things involved in getting settled in here that we have postponed until we can go out and do them in person, and we’ll enjoy catching up on those this summer. We’ve already had one overnight house guest (one of Rob’s sisters) and we’re looking forward to more relatives and friends coming eventually. Though our setup is not complete in either house, we’re getting there, and things are no longer embarrassingly makeshift. One small hitch—we bought a nice dining room table in Philadelphia for the house in Gettysburg, and are temporarily stalled on finding an easy and inexpensive way to get it there. It’s only the tabletop that’s the real problem, as it’s too big for our vehicles, but one piece hardly seems worth renting a truck for—as it wasn’t that expensive to begin with. But we’ll figure it out somehow—maybe we’ll just save up enough stuff to move to eventually make a rental truck worthwhile.
I’m really excited about Commencement, strange though that may seem. Even the fact we can’t meet in person can’t fully ruin for me the anticipation of the first Commencement ceremony in my time as president of ULS. I love Commencements, and always have—and one of my jobs in an earlier life was to help with the management of Yale University’s Commencement ceremonies. I have a lot of happy memories of those large and unwieldy but impressive events. Our ULS version will be small and tidy in comparison, even when we are able to be in-person again next year. I hope that we can make these ULS events more and more special as we grow together, and that ULS can develop new traditions to go along with the legacy of the predecessor seminaries.
I am making all kinds of plans for the summer—in fact the temptation will be to take on too much all at once. We have a pent-up demand for me to visit synods and congregations, friends and donors, and we’re filling up the calendar gradually, trying not to overbook. I don’t yet have any plans to get on an airplane again before November, but there is plenty to do around here. The spring-like weather, and the vaccination, both make me a little itchy to finally get out and about. In addition to visits and some preaching, I’m looking forward to doing a little teaching in our summer adult education programs. We’re working on those plans right now, and it will be nice to teach programs I love and get to meet our wider ULS constituency.
It is a bit of a relief not to have to go (physically) to so many Synod Assemblies this year, but I do enjoy those, and in this, too, next year will bring more than enough. This year most of my appearances at assemblies will be pre-recorded. I am excited about an upcoming bishop’s installation I will be attending (Northeastern Pennsylvania), and look forward to the election of some new bishop colleagues in the next couple of months. Someday we’ll look back on this “pandemic time” as having been a time of stimulation and creativity—but right now I’m more focused on getting through it as best we can.
On campus we’ve had a lot of excitement surrounding the (virtual) campus visits of candidates for two open faculty positions. It’s too early to say anything about that, but I’ve been happy to see fascinating candidates, and to work with our current faculty in doing the hard thinking about what filling these positions means for us as a teaching body. Faculty hires are not matters of convenience but of strategic planning, as the faculty is the most enduring and stable component of our ULS community. It’s like planting an orchard a tree at a time—each new member brings something special, but also becomes part of a whole, a collective entity. It is worth choosing with the utmost care, and the long view in mind.
Apropos to strategic thinking, the board and I will be putting together a plan this summer to begin a broad new strategic planning effort across ULS, that will lead us through the next five years. It may seem like we just did this, but our accreditors reminded us that our most recent strategic plan—though very helpful—is not quite as “strategic” as it could be, and that much has changed even since it was recently put together. Not the least of those things is my arrival—and though it will not be “my” strategic plan but ULS’s, I do bear a special responsibility to ensure that it is a plan I feel I can lead us into for the years to come. I enjoy this kind of long-range thinking and feel like I know enough about ULS now to profitably begin this effort again later this summer and through the fall. It’s an exciting prospect to have a plan to take us into the seminary’s third century of existence.
I am already thinking about the fall semester and the good things it will bring. Each component of the ULS community is engaged in imagining a post-pandemic ULS, and even if the virus has not been eliminated, we’re all ready to take responsible steps toward a restoration of in-person teaching and work on campus. We’ll take our time making plans, and we will communicate each step, but we do expect to have in-person classes in the fall. More specific information about these plans will be sent to the immediate ULS community early next week. There is quite a bit of thinking and planning (and maybe even some physical remodeling) to be done before that, but we’ve already started thinking about what we’ve learned, and how to “build back better,” to use a now-common locution.
I’m excited about the Board meeting next week, which will be a virtual one again. We’ve learned that we can indeed do our work that way, even if it’s not as much fun as being on campus, and we’ve tentatively resolved to have the January meetings on-line from here on—it will save us some money and eliminate the challenges of winter weather—and just have the fall and spring meetings on the two campuses as before: Gettysburg in the fall; Philadelphia in the spring. (I suppose one could say that the winter meeting will be on the “third,” DL campus.) As before, I am committed to keeping the regular sessions of the Board meetings open to the ULS community’s view as much as possible, realizing that the people who actually want to watch a regular board meeting in normal times are probably not numerous. But transparency is important to me, and it is a guiding principle of the ELCA of which we are a part.
One last personal word, about the disappointment many will feel at not being able to gather physically for Commencement again this year: it is very unsatisfying and feels incomplete, I know. But we are called first to care for one another’s safety, and among the loss and sacrifice the pandemic has brought us this is not the most painful part. We have gathered for two Easters now, and many, many Sundays, in ways that are not the ones we prefer, and we have lost many hours of what normally would have been companionable time together. We won’t get that back. But we are called by God to persevere, and to strengthen one another for the running of this race. We will do what we can do to send our graduates forth in joy this year, with our blessings and our love, but also as safely as we can. I know that we can do that. One day soon, we will rejoice together and join hands “for real” in affection and care.
An in the meanwhile, Rob and I are going to explore the possibility of attending a baseball game later this summer. Each month brings a brief window in which our LA Dodgers will be visiting relatively nearby—the Pirates, Nationals, and Phillies each host them at some point in the next three months—and I will feel more complete when we can go to a game again. I know we have other baseball fans at ULS, and maybe we can get together on this.
There is so much to look forward to and to hope for around us. Be of good hope; be good to each other; and get vaccinated if you can. Easter joy to all!
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary