Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

May 21, 2021
Commencement Week ​

Dear ULS Community:

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

It’s hard to believe that Commencement is today! This is not at all what I would have predicted when I arrived at ULS last August—I confidently thought we’d be able to celebrate together in person this spring. But that was not in the cards—though pandemic restrictions have been lifted to some degree (and somewhat suddenly) in the last two weeks, it came too late for us to alter our plans for a virtual Commencement. In the cosmic scheme of things, it might seem somewhat appropriate that after three semesters “on the third campus” we hold our Commencement exercises there too. I know this is far from perfect, and the disappointment of some is quite intense, but we really have no choice. I will look for suggestions for how we can recognize and celebrate the classes of 2020 and 2021 going forward—I don’t want the “pandemic classes” to miss out altogether. One of the chat comments on yesterday’s Farewell & Godspeed Service was that this class of 2021 was “Pandemic tested; Holy Spirit approved!” (thank you, Brian Dunlop) and that was how it felt to me. It’s hard to say goodbye.

I love Commencements, so I am having to manage my own disappointment at not getting to shake every hand and give over every diploma in person. In my distant past life in academia, I almost always had a hand in Commencement planning: at Yale I was part of the university’s planning and execution group and had special duties as a marshal on Commencement day itself. It was a treat to be part of something so big and festive and meaningful, and I have lots of anecdotes about eccentric participants and behind-the-scenes mishaps—and the occasional downpour (it was held outdoors, rain or shine). It makes me smile just to think about it.

That brings me to ruminate for a moment on our two ULS honorary degree recipients this year: Pastor Gladys Moore of New Jersey, and Dr. Stephen Ray, president of Chicago Theological Seminary, both of whom will be receiving the degree of Doctor of Divinity. They are both wonderful people who have a deep love for ULS: Pastor Moore is an alum and faithful supporter of the Seminary’s work and people, and Dr. Ray was on our faculty and first executive director of the Urban Theological Institute. It’s wonderful to be able to recognize such distinguished people and “welcome home” some old friends. I’m glad you’ll be able to hear some words from each of them in the Commencement service and grateful that Dr. Ray is offering us a formal address.

In the course of the year to come we will have both Dr. Moore and Dr. Ray with us on campus again, so we can greet them in person. Dr. Ray will be the lecturer at the Preaching with Power event next March. I’m hoping I can talk Dr. Moore into coming for my inauguration at least; she is a great resource for students who need some insight into ELCA ministry by BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ folk, and women.

It’s my hope to revive the custom of awarding honorary degrees each year at Commencement. An institution of our size needs to keep such awards “special” by limiting their number, but I think that two or three a year is a good number. It is always possible to use another big ULS event besides Commencement to award one at a different time of year, or if an honoree is unable to come to us, to go to them. What I think we should be looking for are people who represent ULS’s aspirations, have accomplished much in church or society, and are people with whom the Seminary can be proud to be associated. It helps when they have some connection to us already, or that the awarding of the degree will link them to us in an ongoing way.

Our predecessor seminaries had differing customs in this regard: LTSP used to give honorary degrees occasionally, and mostly to people closely connected to the Seminary’s work; LTSG, in contrast, never gave any at all—though that is a little misleading, because for many years the relationship between that Seminary and Gettysburg College was so close that it was the College that gave the Doctor of Divinity degrees to distinguished Lutherans like bishops and seminary presidents.

Today ULS can re-think this whole thing, and use honorary degrees to say who we are, what we aspire to become, and to build up a network of accomplished and valuable friends. And I think we should also recognize especially distinguished alums, though the TULSAA board also has its own set of alumni awards. I also think it is important to reflect diversity in our honorary degree recipients and recognize our ecumenical commitments. If anyone wishes to nominate an individual for an honorary degree, all it takes is to write me a letter describing the person’s accomplishments and how we might learn more—that will then go into a pool of possible names to be reviewed by me and a select committee of faculty, board, and staff members. We want them to be carefully vetted (and the number will be limited) so not everyone nominated will probably get the degree. The process and timeline will be confidential once the nomination is submitted. The chosen names will also be reviewed by the faculty’s executive council and the Board’s executive committee, and once approved, be part of a pool from which each year’s recipients can be selected.

A note on these “Reflections”: I will continue to write them through the summer, but plan to cut back to every second Friday. Then, when the fall semester begins, I’ll make a decision about whether, or how, to keep these messages going. They seemed essential to me during the pandemic, but I do see a lot of change coming this summer, and other duties may take up the time. I want to say now how grateful I am for your feedback. You have allowed me to come to you in a relaxed way and to expand on my thinking (perhaps too extensively for a few of you) in ways that we don’t get to do too often in today’s rapid information world.

But back, for a moment, to all our graduates: Between our two virtual events, one live and one prerecorded (due to its complexity and the many people involved), we hope to have worthily honored the achievements of our graduates, and—like them—to have learned that even in this pandemic we can rejoice together at all God has wrought in our midst through them. They are varied and fascinating in their differences, and each has something unique to offer the church and the world. I am proud of them all, and happy to send them forth to serve, with my blessing and that of their teachers. I know that they will bring God’s love to those they serve.

Class of 2021: 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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