Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R . Guy Erwin

May 14, 2021
Week of Easter 6

Dear ULS Community:

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

We are coming to the end: of the Easter season; of the spring semester and the academic year; and maybe—God willing (and more slowly)—to the end of the pandemic. I’m reminded of all those cartoons in The New Yorker through the years, of the bearded man with the sign warning of the “end of days.” But all these endings are good ones, though bittersweet in the case of our 2021 graduates, whom we will miss.

Let me try (as briefly as I can) to summarize what’s swirling around me in this busy time, and I’ll do it in reverse chronological order, beginning with the “newest” news: the CDC’s new (and rather sudden) alteration in its advice on wearing masks. I’ve been hearing all kinds of dismay from pastors about how awkward it is to have such an announcement at the end of a week, when plans for the Sunday to come have already been firmly laid. It catches us at ULS by surprise as well, and will be a central topic for the next meeting in-house task force that has been working on COVID-19 policies for ULS all through the pandemic.

Until then and further announcements, ULS’s internal policies and recommendations remain the same: wear masks when indoors and with other people, and certainly for those who are unvaccinated, mask-wearing keeps both you and those around you much safer. As changes come to ULS policies, we will announce them in all the normal ways; for right now, nothing has changed. We still plan to return to in-person classes and other gatherings in September, and not until then. But we are going to be assessing the situation from month to month, and our website will always have the latest information.

Next newest (moving backward in time) are the preparations for our Commencement and the Farewell & Godspeed service next week: these go forward in an orderly way, and I am looking forward to them very much. We were able to videotape (in a careful, distanced way and only with vaccinated people) the hooding of one of our honorary degree candidates and our two PhD graduates, both of whom are relatively local to our campuses. Everything else we’re doing more remotely. The Faculty Secretary and I (who have the largest speaking parts) are both vaccinated, and most of the rest of the pieces are being recorded remotely. The one bright spot in having a virtual Commencement is that the entire service will be available afterwards as a YouTube video as a keepsake. We’re also providing a nice printed commemorative program which is sent to graduating students along with their diploma. The digital version will be posted on our website.

The Farewell & Godspeed service will be “live” and it (and the social time that follows it) will be more immediate to you. I urge you to take part, as for now, it is our “together time” to offer greetings and best wishes. We will invite 2020 and 2021 graduates to our 2022 Commencement exercises as well, and those who are able to come will receive some recognition there, too. I look forward to finally greeting some of you with a handshake!

Then the third big thing that happened this week at ULS was our spring Board of Trustees meeting. As it was a Zoom meeting, it was streamlined somewhat, and we discovered that we had allowed more time than we really needed for a meeting that had (mostly) routine matters to consider. The spring meeting always has more formalities to observe, because it is the time for approving degrees for our graduates, and “closing the books” in a sense on the academic year. But we did other important things too—we moved forward on filling the open academic positions—and we have sent the Board chair’s report out to everyone. Expect further announcements about faculty appointments in the next couple of weeks as the agreements are finalized and we can make a public splash. The news is exciting! In other matters, we focused most on long-range planning. The waters in which ULS sails are not entirely smooth, but they are calm enough now to do some thoughtful long-term strategic planning, and the board will lead us in that this fall.

We will also return to in-person Board meetings in the fall, which will make that process easier, and we may devote more than the usual amount of time to being together then. We’ve also decided to settle into a Board meeting pattern of two larger and one smaller meeting each year: fall in Gettysburg; spring in Philadelphia, and the mid-winter meeting by Zoom—in a sense, on that “third campus.” Some things we’ve learned in the pandemic have been useful, and an important one is that not all meetings need to require travel.

We celebrated the festival of the Ascension yesterday, and we remembered how, by departing from the disciples, Jesus left them to “be the church” on their own—at least without his direct personal leadership. That was, we know, disorienting and challenging for them. And we are still, though almost 20 centuries of human history have passed, still in that church of amazed followers, looking heavenward and seeking direction in our onward journey. We are still that assembly of believers remembering the Jesus who walked among us then and who still lives among us in the Word preached and heard, in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the holy meal.

At ULS we are not “a church” but we are part of “the church,” and we exist primarily for its service—to prepare leaders for each new generation, as we have done for almost 200 years now. We are part of the historical structure that Christians have created to sustain the public ministry and witness of the church, with all the complication that that brings, and so—in an extended sense—our existence as an institution is one of the many human answers to the question of “what to do” after Jesus’ ascension. Our context has changed but the challenge has not—how do we remain—how do we “abide in Christ”—and keep Jesus in and with us and our descendants?

I think those we send out to service at the end of this academic year, whether into calls in parishes, into new (or renewed) careers, or into internship or further education, are like those disciples gathered on the hill whom Jesus has left to “be the church.” And may Christ’s spirit be with you as you live out your vocations in the world.

You go forth with our blessings and our love, and the prayers of all!

Yours faithfully,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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