October 23, 2019
I would first like to express my gratitude to Virginia Child, now the Past President of our Alumni/ae Association. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that Virginia and I are both transitional ministry specialists. Perhaps that’s what has been needed in a transitional time.
Those of you who know me may recall that I have been somewhat loosely affiliated with Andover Newton Theological School since I received my Master of Divinity degree in 1988. I have always felt gratitude for my time at ANTS, but I have not been what you might call a model alumnus—you know, doing alum things like attending reunions or responding to correspondence from Alma Mater.
So, why I am standing here this afternoon, elected as your President?
Believe me, I’m just as surprised as any of you.
I wanted to figure out how this happened. So, I turned to a member of my cohort from the 1980s, who has been just as exemplary as me in the “good alumnus” department. I asked him what he would say today about his Andover Newton education and formation.
He thought two points were important. The first is no surprise: he too felt grateful that he had been well prepared and grounded in church polity and the practice of ministry. The skills and practices developed in him during his time at Andover Newton have served him well in his practice of parish ministry.
The second point was more interesting, at least to me: He argued that in the past twenty years society’s shifts have left behind many of the ideas and foundational assumptions that were bundled into the degree “Master of Divinity.”
The degree we earned thirty years ago prepared us for the society in which we found ourselves…thirty years ago.
We had an inkling that this truth was already emerging. The signs of institutional erosion were becoming apparent during the 1980s. The Great Unchurching that has led to calamitous declines in worship attendance, membership, and even identification with religion at all—that exodus had begun. The shift from Sunday as a “Sabbath day of rest and worship” was in full swing. A societal shift rooted in the 1960s was evident: religious institutions, like other authoritative pillars of the community, were losing their trusted status.
Yet we were educated and formed to become the spiritual leaders of those institutions, even as their foundational mortar was crumbling. We learned about the psychosocial dynamics of the parish even as the parish itself was morphing into something else. We did field placements as cogs in the gears of well-oiled parish-based formation programs, while the machinery itself was beginning to break down.
Our path to ordination was practically unquestioned. As a United Church of Christ member, I experienced an immaculate walk along that path. Being “In Care” of many United Church of Christ Associations meant going to Andover Newton for three years and obtaining the M.Div., then coming back and offering our ordination paper to a trusting Committee on Ministry. On came the laid-on hands and Poof! we were ordained.
The crumbling mortar of the 1980s has led to a full-on collapse in the 20-teens.
Any of you who has set out to do ministry in this young century knows what you face.
If you are called to serve a “large church” you know that what this term often means is a large (and empty) church building. I served one church whose beautiful sanctuary covered a good part of a city block. The three dozen people who inhabited that sanctuary on a Sunday morning had every corner of the room staked out in a touching attempt to try to fill the space. That scenario has become much more the norm as we continue to experience the phenomenon that Phyllis Tickle called “The 500-Year Rummage Sale.”
If you are called to work in a justice or a social setting—what we used to label a bit condescendingly as a “secular ministry”—you may be selective about disclosing your degree. Being seen as a religious professional may be perceived as tarnishing your credibility. Explaining yourself may take time and energy you prefer to devote to actually doing justice.
No matter where you work, every time a religious institution—or its local district attorney—calls a press conference you may reflexively brace for the content that follows. When an ordained person is exposed for abusing and exploiting the trust placed in that person—through sexual exploitation, through financial shenanigans, through using the power of religion to justify the unjustifiable—we find our own reputations diminished just a bit more.
Even among our closest friends and our families, we find that we are often having to explain ourselves.
I performed a family wedding for my niece a couple of weeks ago up in New Hampshire. It was a lovely ceremony on the town green. My relatives assured me that all I needed to do was perform the service. But in fact, two related things were true: My relatives thought they could plan and carry out the event themselves. But, because they hadn’t set foot inside a church in many years, they overlooked the related fact that they had no idea how to do this.
So, you probably know what I did—because many of you have done the same thing. I planned the ritual myself, and conducted it with little input from the bride or groom (who had none to offer anyway). I helped my niece’s new brother-in-law set up his sound system because he had no idea what he was setting it up for. I doubled as the Master of Ceremonies for the reception, and managed to skip the Chicken Dance. (So sorry.)
And, when we were done and we were saying goodbye on a Saturday evening; when I knew I had to drive home and prepare to preach early the next morning, my siblings who have known me all their lives had a compliquestion (that would be a compliment in the form of a question): “Where did you ever learn to do that?” There were a couple of “Is that what you do for a living?” ’s scattered in there as well.
The Andover Newton degree I received in 1988 did not prepare me for this.
It prepared me to enter a profession where clergy were held in high esteem, right up there on the trust scale with pharmacists and presidents, a cornerstone of society. It prepared me to speak with authority, to proclaim God’s Word with confidence. It prepared me to be a member of the Reverend Clergy who knew how to walk in a procession, how to organize and lead a one hour worship service, how to care spiritually for people who wanted it.
It did not prepare me for having to explain my calling to my own family.
So, really, I think I could be forgiven if I put that long-ago seminary experience out of my mind as something that happened once upon a time.
And yet to my great astonishment I am standing here. Here, in a room on a genuine Ivy League campus, surrounded by colleagues and friends and portraits of Deans deceased and very much living. How do I justify that? Why am I standing here?
I’m standing here because Andover Newton has done a great and necessary thing. It has elected not to drown in the beautiful but overwhelming atmosphere of a campus that could not be sustained—even if everyone there tried gamely to fill all its corners. It has chosen to affiliate with an institution that values the Andover Newton approach to theological and parish formation.
I’m standing here for another reason. I have chaired the New Haven Association Committee on Ministry for the past several years. In my work with Members in Discernment I recognize that the institution that was Andover Newton Theological School has evolved to become a vital partner for the future of discernment work. In my conversations with students, with faculty, and with colleagues, I have recognized that my own M.Div. is not the static piece of non-photocopiable parchment that I thought it was—unless I choose to make it so.
To have a dynamic relationship with my degree, and an ongoing partnership with an evolving Andover Newton Seminary, is impossible unless I choose to participate. So, here I am.
I am hoping over this next year that our Alumni/ae Association will reach out beyond our New England home. We have Good News to share: God is working here.
I hope we will work harder to invite our fellow alumni/ae to be done lamenting the school that was, even as we continue to cherish the relationships and the memories we share.
We will definitely be inviting our colleagues and friends to support this Andover Newton Seminary @ Yale Divinity School in its mission of preparing God’s willing workers for the future.
I appreciate your support today, and I hope to serve this Association well in the coming year.