Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

October 23, 2020
Week of Pentecost 20

Dear ULS Community:

This was a big week, and a busy one. Let me begin with an apology to our ecumenical friends and alumni: today’s reflections are fairly ELCA-specific, because (just incidentally) my work this week was largely within the ELCA network for the sake of ULS’s core mission of preparing leaders for public ministry in the ELCA. I spend a lot of time with ecumenical partners, but not so much this week.

In normal, pre-COVID-19 times, we would have hosted several of our ELCA bishops on our two campuses this week, to show them our beautiful facilities, introduce them to our staff and faculty, and give them an opportunity to engage in casual and social ways with our students and our whole community. These familiarization meetings (sponsored by the ELCA domestic mission unit) were among the meetings that I, as a synod bishop, enjoyed the most, and I regret very much that we weren’t able to host this one in the usual ways, and this year we had to content ourselves with a series of Zoom conversations instead.

But the conversations we were able to have were very good ones indeed: we were able to present to the bishops our current advancement, enrollment and financial aid capacity, our overall financial health, our degree programs and the progress of our accreditation review. The bishops were very interested to hear our faculty’s account of teaching in the pandemic year, and in the conversation they had with a representative selection of students, they learned about the student experience at ULS as it is right now. It wasn’t enough time together, but it was something and as much Zoom as most could endure—and it gave the bishops a chance to have a picture of our life at the “extended” seminary today. I am grateful to all who participated, and I look forward to our being able to do much more for the next visit.

One of the topics that naturally arose during the bishops’ conversation with students was about the upcoming change to the ELCA process by which approved candidates have been assigned to regions and synods of the church. These processes are established by the national church years ago to ensure that all regions of the church receive the candidates they need to fill available calls in congregations. The current system involves two meetings a year in which bishops, seminary leaders, and ELCA managers sit together in Chicago (or last time, met by Zoom) and divided all the available candidates among regions, which then would assign candidates to synods for placement.

Though rational in principle, this process was never fully satisfactory either to bishops or to candidates and has long needed overhaul, so a new process has now been endorsed by the bishops to be considered by the ELCA for implementation next fall. Change in such an important part of the path to public ministry is naturally going to create uncertainty and anxiety for candidates in the short term, and not all the details of the new plan have been fully worked out. What seems clear enough is that there will no longer be an assignment “draft” but that candidates will work with their home synods and regions to find assignments outside that region (if they desire that) or if there are no appropriate calls available locally.

I think this approach has promise, but I predict some stumbling at the start as people wrestle with new ways of doing things. What does seem clear to me, is that we need a careful explanation of the new process to come from the national church, and to have forums in which all of us who work to prepare candidates for ministry in the ELCA can have a clear understanding of what will happen under the new system. I am committed to our doing this at ULS for our students as soon as we can, and I believe we should include bishops and candidacy committees in that conversation so that we have a shared understanding.

All that, and it was only Monday! The rest of the week has flown by: I spent much of Tuesday videotaping Reformation Sunday sermons that will be aired in three congregations this Sunday (and one of which will be posted to the ULS YouTube channel, in case anyone is interested). It is a great joy to be able—for the first time in my life—to preach in more than one congregation on Reformation Sunday, one of my favorite observances in the church. Jesus' words about truth and freedom that are at the heart of Sunday’s gospel reading are particularly pertinent right now, I think.

Wednesday brought a good conversation with the President’s Cabinet about questions of security on campus surrounding the upcoming election. I do not believe there are serious reasons to be anxious about public protests or civil disruption occurring on either of our campuses, but I want those who are residents on them to know that we will be taking extra measures to monitor the situation with additional ULS Public Safety staff on both campuses during the election week. I’ll say more about all that in my pre-election message next Friday, but there is no reason for worry. Our Germantown campus will be a busy place on Election Day because it is a polling place (Rob and I will be voting there!) and ULS folks who don’t need to be there that day should stay away.

Wednesday also brought another powerful worship service at ULS, this one dedicated to the anniversary of the ordination of women of color in the ELCA and its predecessor churches. Bishop Leila Ortiz of the Metropolitan Washington DC Synod was our preacher, and Bishop Patricia Davenport and former Bishop Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld helped lead the service. I found it very moving, and congratulate the organizers and—especially—the musicians.

On Thursday, I met with the board of the ELCA’s Eastern Cluster of Seminaries, which consists of ULS and the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in South Carolina. In its many years of existence, the Cluster has been a vehicle for the East Coast seminaries to collaborate and develop joint programs. It provided the inspiration (and the means) for the integration of three (now, of course, two) library systems and catalogs. It has developed ways of working with other non-ELCA seminaries in providing opportunities for our students to study at other institutions, and supported ways for ELCA students at other seminaries to study at ULS. The best-known of these arrangements is one with the Yale Divinity School that is now being renewed; other alignments and agreements may be made with other divinity schools. It’s nice to work together within the ELCA network, but it is great to have strong institutional connections to ecumenical partners and theological schools as well. One possible new initiative would be for us to coordinate our international immersion and overseas study programs and make them available to all our students.

And, of course, I have had many meetings with staff and others this week about particular projects or aspects of our seminary’s work. Each day and each meeting has brought me to a fuller understanding of our opportunities and challenges at ULS, has made me more aware of the great loyalty and love of our alumni, donors, and collaborators, and has made clearer to me how well positioned ULS is to move into the future with confidence. Three things still occupy the front of my mind: keeping us strong and focused as we ride out the storm of the pandemic; moving forward on anti-racism work; and strengthening our financial situation through wise use of resources and the cultivation of donors.

On a lighter note, Rob and I have enjoyed settling in a little more in Gettysburg this week; we will be closing on our Philadelphia home a week from today, and—God willing!—our household goods will arrive from California soon after that. The next few weeks will be filled with work for us, and we’re both excited and apprehensive about all the change that lies ahead for us as we settle in put down roots. It has gotten very real that we are here to stay, and casting our first Pennsylvania votes on November 3 will be another milestone in that process. Maybe by Thanksgiving we’ll be reasonably comfortable in both houses and the going back and forth between Philadelphia and Gettysburg will be simpler.

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” Jesus tells his listeners in the lesson from John 8 that is appointed for Reformation Sunday. There aren’t many concepts more important to us than truth and freedom, and yet none are more contested right now in our common life as a nation. You’ll hear more thoughts from me on that in Sunday’s sermon. The truth Jesus brings us about God and our lives, and the freedom that faith in God creates, are at the heart of our ability to lead Christian lives in a broken world. Even in challenging times, we have the assurance of God’s love, which has come among us in Jesus.

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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