1979. “He was blessed with an amazing memory and the gift of engaging his listeners with timely insights.”
In the spring of 1982, Greg chose divinity school over public administration. He accepted the Divinity School’s offer of a merit scholarship and began a summer pre-enrollment internship at Bethesda United Methodist Church in Welcome, N.C. In this small community south of Winston-Salem, he preached, helped with youth ministry and Vacation Bible School, and visited church members in the hospital. The demanding schedule gave him a new appreciation for the realities of a pastor’s life.
On a Sunday afternoon midway through the summer, Jones got a call from Paula Gilbert, the Divinity School’s director of admissions. Jameson Jones had suffered a heart attack, and Gilbert urged him to get to Duke Hospital as soon as possible. His father had rarely been sick, and had no previous indication of heart disease. When Greg arrived at the hospital, Gilbert was waiting outside. “I got out of my car and she said, ‘He didn’t make it.’”
The loss of Dean Jameson Jones, 53, stunned the Duke community, but it was devastating for his family, particularly for 21-year-old Greg.
The next few months both tested and tempered his faith. The two memorial services—one at Duke Chapel and another in Denver—were excruciating. “At the service in Denver I was struggling with whether there was a God,” Jones says. “If there was, this didn’t seem like a good God.”
Kevin Armstrong, Jones’ seminary roommate and now senior pastor at North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, recalls the aftermath of Jameson Jones’ death.
“Opening Convocation was especially difficult for Greg—to have anticipated his father, as dean, welcoming us and that not being the case,” says Armstrong, who remains one of Jones’ closest friends and is a member of the Divinity School’s Board of Visitors. “In the context of such deep grief, it was a difficult time for Greg to study ministry.”
At the Divinity School, Jones was surrounded by those, like Armstrong, who stepped in to support him through his grief and anger. Among them was Susan (Pendleton Jones), a fellow student in the master of divinity program who would become his wife and partner in ministry. The two quickly became a team, says Armstrong. “Susan helped Greg to see some of the beauty and hope of life that most of us, in the midst of grief, assume will never return.”
Jones, who earned his M.Div. summa cum laude in 1985 and won the preaching award named for his father, was eager to continue his study of theology. He completed his Ph.D. in just three years, working with esteemed faculty members including Hauerwas, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Thomas Langford, who also had served as dean and later became Duke University’s provost.
His dissertation, Transformed Judgment: Toward a Trinitarian Account of the Moral Life (University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), grew out of Jones’ lifelong interest in understanding the formation of those mentors he had so admired in high school, people who model high moral character and judgment.
The doctoral work also moved Jones into a deep inquiry of the nature of forgiveness, which became the subject of his second book. Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis (Eerdmans, 1995), published while Jones was an associate professor of theology at Loyola College (now Loyola University Maryland), won outstanding book awards from both Christianity Today and the Academy of Parish Clergy. The book includes insights from film and fiction, including the Flannery O’Connor short story “Revelation,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov , and Toni Morrison’s Beloved .
Late in 1996, Jones received an unexpected call. Professor Richard Heitzenrater, a member of the search team for the Divinity School’s 11th dean, explained that Jones was a finalist.
Despite his love for Duke, Jones still associated the leadership of the school with his father’s death. Susan had begun a new position that she loved as senior pastor of the 1,000-member Arbutus United Methodist Church.
The Joneses and their three young children were settled and thriving in Baltimore.
Yet it was hard to turn down an opportunity from Duke, which had played such a large role in both Susan’s and Greg’s formation.
As dean, he would be living into the questions that had long interested him, and which guided his teaching, writing, and leadership: How do organizations move forward in constructive and lifegiving ways? What practices support the formation of people capable of leading others in what 1 Timothy calls “the life that really is life”?