Reflections from President R. Guy Erwin

January 21, 2022
Week of Epiphany 2

Dear ULS Community:

It always seems a little strange to start a new semester in mid-winter, but there you have it: after three weeks of intensive courses, we are ready to start the spring semester this week. I will be preaching at the first official midweek ULS worship service on Wednesday to kick things off. But before that, we have the January Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday. The January meeting, we have decided, will now normally be an online meeting—that mitigates the challenges the weather can bring, saves ULS a bit on lodging and food, and encourages a brief and focused meeting. We’ll still meet in person in the fall and spring, in Gettysburg and Philadelphia respectively.

I plan to tell the board that things are going as well as could be expected at ULS in this ongoing time of pandemic: we still have some uncertainty about enrollment trends, but the other financial main indicators (donor generosity and market performance) are quite strong, and we are in a good position to face the year ahead. Our main financial challenge is not a new one: that a very large proportion of our endowment income can only be used for the replacement of the tuition and fees we charge our students. The intentions of the donors and those who set up the restrictions were good, but they never envisioned a time in which ULS “scholarship” funds available would so exceed the tuition and fees we charge our students. We constantly re-examine how we spend what we receive, in order to maximize the funds we can use and still be fully faithful to the intentions of the donors.

I am greatly reassured by the skill and dedication of our financial managers and our CFO, and an important part of the Board meeting will be a report on our financial situation. We are solvent and stable and have resources greater than we’d ever imagined, but what we have doesn’t align perfectly with what we need in the long term, which includes the maintenance of a strong faculty and two campuses. More work lies ahead on that.

The COVID-19 pandemic, though still dangerous and deadly, has now receded a bit into the background of our thinking. The start this week of a downturn in infection rates and hospitalizations is encouraging, and we have very high vaccination rates among our ULS community. Our decision to keep classes and meetings online and encourage work from home during January and February now seems wise, and though we may extend that through March, it is my hope that we can soon loosen some of our expectations and return to cautious in-person gathering. I am especially hopeful that we can have our Spring Convocation in person (as well as online) in April in Gettysburg. Watch for announcements about that!

An important part of the Board meeting next week will be my report on our strategic planning process. We have asked for (and are receiving now) proposals from consultants experienced in guiding the strategic planning of seminaries, to help us bring together the information and consultation we need to move forward into the next phase of ULS’s history—a third century of providing theological education for Lutherans and others in North America and beyond. I have spoken with the five consultants who are preparing proposals, and we hope to make a choice by mid-February. At that point the consultants will help us roll out an inclusive plan for the ULS community as a whole to participate in the process. I am very committed to hearing all the voices who need to be heard.

I’m looking forward to that discussion, and there are many questions still open about our path forward as a seminary—not all of which can be answered from within. I would like us to be very open-minded about what the future might bring. There is certainly enough change in the air for the ELCA and other mainline denominations, for higher education generally, and in our methods and patterns of teaching and learning, to know that the future may look quite different from the past. But our core purpose remains the same: to prepare able leadership for the church in full commitment to a gospel of grace, love, and mercy—and to use the resources of our past (including our two historic campuses) in the best way we can to fulfill that mission.

This month and next are also times for us to focus particularly on our nation’s (and our church’s, and our seminary’s) problematic relationship to issues of racism and race. I mentioned this week in one of my daily Facebook posts that I feel like we are entering into a renewal of the civil rights movement of my childhood in the 1960s, and I think that is a good thing.

I rejoice that we are now constantly being asked to think about the national legacy of racism that led to the erasure of Natives and the enslavement of Africans as building blocks of the wealth and power of the United States. As a historian, I find hope in the growing recognition that our national history is not a dead letter, but in fact shapes our daily existence and frames our current attitudes.

As an institution of higher learning, with a special emphasis on the Christian witness to God’s work in and with humankind through Jesus Christ as reflected in the faith and theology of the church, it is natural and right for ULS to be deeply involved in this broader conversation about the kind of society and nation we are and should become. It connects even to the question of what kind of seminary we are and should be in the future. I’m encouraged by the openness I see in the ULS community to engage in these discussions—but I am not surprised.

For this is not a new thing at ULS; our predecessor seminaries in Gettysburg and Philadelphia were both born in times of national turmoil and shaped by the ways they responded to the society around them. Lutherans are not as insulated by language and ethnicity from the rest of English-speaking America as they were two hundred years ago, and they cannot sit on the sidelines of the great national discussion we are called upon to have right now. Together with Christians of many traditions, and especially with the accompaniment of our friends in the Black Church tradition, ULS is well placed to make a difference in the discussion.

Mid-winter may not normally be a time of hope and optimism, but I am very hopeful right now—hopeful for a spring of renewed life and energy, hopeful for a reviving of fellowship within a pandemic-weary community, and hopeful for the message of the Incarnation to be heard anew as the church year leads us to Easter and its loving promise of new life.

Yours faithfully,

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

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