Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

October 9, 2020
Week of Pentecost 18

Dear ULS Community:

For reasons I can’t quite explain, this week has been a very good one for me. Nothing dramatic has happened, but I have a stronger sense than ever that all the program pieces and relationships and people who make up our United Lutheran Seminary community are working together more smoothly and with greater confidence. The report to the community from the chair of the Board of Trustees that was sent out earlier this week reflects this new sense of stable calm.

Part of this is a consequence of our more frequent and regular communication. ULS has never had the luxury of time to settle into a predictable and reassuring pattern of communication, but now, with a permanent president and the help of Linda Fiore and our ULS communications office, I think we can evolve into a kind of reliability that will help restore some trust. I find people are more likely to be worried about what they don’t know about the decision-making process than they are to know that things are actually uncertain or undecided at any given time. We don’t have answers to all our (admittedly important) long-term questions about ULS and its future, but we now have a stable system for addressing them, with as much transparency as is appropriate and with regular paths for consultation and input from our various constituencies.

As I have said in other settings, we will be making some staff changes that will be announced next Tuesday, October 13. I’m taking part of that day to meet with the whole staff, and I will tell them personally, and the whole community will be informed by e-mail at the same time of some additions to our administrative structure and some shifting of duties among our staff leaders. Among those is the creation of a new VP-level position that will focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. I will also fill some gaps in the administrative structure in Admissions and Financial Aid. I am still evaluating our needs in what we used to call “student services” and will turn to that next—but I need more time and advice to figure out how best to meet those needs in a way such a small institution can afford. This week’s announcement is not the last readjustment in senior staff, but I think it is the most urgent. Tuesday’s announcements will be very happy news, and I am looking forward to working in new ways with both current colleagues and a new one.

Let me summarize some of what else is going on right now at ULS, and who is leading each aspect: we are in the process of a regular reaccreditation cycle with our two accreditors, the Association of Theological Schools and the Middle States Higher Education Council, and seeing this through will occupy some of us fairly intensely in the semester ahead. An accreditation visit is not high drama or something to be feared, but a regular opportunity for any educational institution to reassess and re-evaluate its programs and systems at every level.

When an institution has been working smoothly and efficiently and keeping good records, a reaccreditation review is very straightforward, though it (one hopes) will bring to light both positives and areas for growth. In ULS’s case this is a little more complicated, since our new Seminary has only come into existence since the last full accreditation—though there was some review by both accreditors at the time of the merger three years ago—and our systems and records have still not “jelled” as fully as they will have by the next time we do this. So, we are still learning as we go, which is not a bad thing from my personal perspective, as I am learning at the same time where we are strong and where we need to improve. Much of what the accreditors look at is very detailed information both statistical and descriptive, and it is the level of detail and record-keeping that make this so much work. Of course we are also doing this alongside and on top of our usual mission of teaching and learning, so it’s an extra burden just at the moment, but we have staff (and faculty) who are highly competent in this kind of work and can help guide it.

The second big “wild card” in this is that the pandemic has made the normal schedule and the usual kind of on-campus visits by the accreditors impossible. But doing things virtually is no surprise right now, either. We’ll get through this—we have what we need and most of what we have to show is positive—but it remains a hill for us to climb. Our team, led by Dean Sebastian, Dr. Allison deForest, and a number of faculty and staff leaders, has the matter well in hand.

Our ULS Diversity & Equity Task Force has reassembled itself, and with the new Vice President of Human Resources and Equity as its staff liaison we can embark on a review of the ways we can strive to be a more intentionally anti-racist institution. I’m particularly happy that the Board of Trustees has recommitted itself as well to the same anti-racism work that we’re going to do on campus, and that the chair of the board Diversity Committee will be part of the on-campus task force. That’s exciting and necessary, and I can’t wait to get (re-)started. You’ll hear much more on that in the weeks ahead.

Our Community Life Task Force has done some polling and assessment, and I am confident it too will soon be engaged in a focused way in guiding us in ways to grow together in community. I am encouraged by how well those leaders understand that thriving community life is not an “assignment” for the ULS administration somehow to achieve, but a challenge to the whole community to help bring about. It is within the community that life is found and nurtured, and if we are as inclusive as we aspire to be, it will be a truly collaborative and wide-ranging effort, one that sees the challenges (especially the “three campus” challenge) clearly. Dr. Crystal Hall is ably convening the group doing the groundwork, and I am glad to be part of that conversation.

I spent this week on the Gettysburg campus, and I was able to spend some time last night around the firepit with a handful of our residential students in Gettysburg. I hope to do the same in Philadelphia soon, before it gets too cold for outdoor socializing. That brought home to me the particular challenge of being a community that is only partly residential, and having that segment further divided by geography. Obviously within the pandemic restrictions there isn’t much we can do, but it’s not too early to think about how we can work at overcoming the “normal” logistical and special barriers to our spending meaningful time together to grow as a community not physically proximate. This is not a short-term goal, and I believe it will take a lot of imagination and effort to learn how to be “unifying” across our physical and cultural divisions. But this has always been one of the basic challenges facing ULS: what does it really mean to be “United”?

And let me take an opportunity to address a related question that arose in the student representatives’ presentation to the board: we learned in that report that there was sincere concern on the part of the students that ULS was not committed, in the long-term, to being a residential seminary. This is a question easily addressed: at no time during my two years on the board, nor at any point in my thinking about what it would mean for me to help lead ULS into its future, was there any mention or consideration of becoming non-residential on either campus at any point in the foreseeable future. That’s a non-starter with me, too—though I must say in full honesty that the residential component of Seminary life is and always has been a means to the end of strong and effective theological education, and not an end in itself. Being residential campuses is, in the larger financial picture, a cost and not a source of income, but I think it is still worth it. We also know we have space and built resources that far exceed our need on both campuses, and unused space costs us every year. Therefore, the conversation about space use will continue in slow and steady ways until we find solutions. But eliminating student housing is not part of that equation—though determining the kind and amount of housing we need, and finding means to provide it, remains a challenge. We can never say “never,” but I don’t see us losing the character of a residential seminary any time soon, and certainly not in my time with you. Two hundred years has been a long time, and the world and theological education have changed profoundly, but the seminary remains committed to being a learning community in every way it can.

I think that’s enough for one week. We have so much to contend with these days outside of ULS as well, with the election coming up and the ongoing conversation on racial equity in America. I am intensely engaged right now in conversations about how the ELCA will live into its rejection of the Doctrine of Discovery and its commitment to Native lives, and I am helping to push the church into greater honesty and more concrete commitment. I hope I’ll be able to report progress on that front someday soon.

In this Sunday’s challenging gospel lesson from Matthew 22, the parable tells us of a king who turns his son’s wedding feast into an event that is everything other than festive—by condemning one set of reluctant guests and then judging harshly one of the new set he has compelled to attend. I’m not quite sure what point Jesus is trying to make in this (listen carefully to your preachers this Sunday!) but I think sometimes in our lives the joyful and the frightening do come mixed together. I fear for our nation’s future in some ways, but I also rejoice in the strong commitment to justice and democracy I hear at the same time; I weep at the cruel story of our national history of racism, and at the same time I shed tears of joy at the way many have taken up racial equity as a key to our nation’s health. This is a scary, hopeful time for me, and I expect for many of you as well.

But God is above and beyond all this, and still holds us close—and the Christ who is the same yesterday and today, will be the same tomorrow. In Jesus’ birth and death and rising, God makes God’s promise real and powerful beyond our control or our imagining. That, too, is a bit scary—but it is the source of my deepest joy.

May God bless you in the week ahead!

Yours in Christ,

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

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