Portrait by Ellen Marello
I transitioned recently from Howard Divinity School to Vanderbilt Divinity School, and I’m learning that the challenges facing theological education are being experienced everywhere – big, small, or stand-alone.
These challenges are very real. They involve enrollment, the future of theological education, and what our graduates are going to do in terms of the decline of the numbers of people in denominations. In such a moment, I would say to the board that even with the challenges to our institutions, it is an exciting moment to rethink what it means to be people of faith, and how we educate with justice in mind.
How do we pivot in this moment? How are we training students for vocational call, particularly when those calls look so different? A generation ago, the call was usually to stand in the pulpit. Now we are training students to be nonprofit leaders. But the sense of purpose and the idea that God is still moving in the world are still present.
We need to have the spirit of welcome to change and be open to someone’s new ideas. How do you marry tradition and innovation? And it is like a marriage because it’s about compromise.
I have deep respect for tradition and the folks who have come before me, but I also know I’m trying to lead the institution for the people who will come after me.
What do we hold onto, and what do we do that is new? Vanderbilt is nicknamed a “School of Prophets.” What is it about this school of prophets that I honor and value with its traditions and when do I say, “Let’s try something new. Let’s innovate!”? The only reason to take these kinds of risks is that I believe theological education is important. We need people who will step up, so it can exist, and who will leave it better than we found it.