When Greg Jones reaches back, way back, one of his earliest memories is of ivy-walled Wrigley Field and the Chicago Cubs.
As the youngest child in a busy Chicago family, Jones spent hours in front of the television, absorbing every word of iconic sportscaster Jack Brickhouse’s staccato color commentary.
“My mom loved WGN with Jack Brickhouse because it was three hours of free babysitting,” recalls Jones D’85, G’88. “And I loved it.”
Before he was four years old, Jones had begun memorizing the players’ stats and taken to calling them out during televised games. “That’s probably where I got my sense of the underdog—rooting for the Cubs,” he says.
Star shortstop Ernie Banks was among Jones’ favorite players, but the position that intrigued him as a youth, and still does, is catcher. He appreciates that the catcher knows all the players’ strengths and weaknesses, calls the pitches, and serves as captain on the field.
“Some of the best managers are former catchers,” Jones says. “The catcher is the only person who sees the entire field of play from his position. I’ve always been drawn to the big picture.”
During 13 years as dean of Duke Divinity School—a tenure that ends July 1 when he becomes Duke University’s vice president and vice provost for global strategy and programs—Jones focused on the big picture as few others have. Colleagues and friends from across the university and the church describe him as a deep-thinking strategist, a gifted leader who honors tradition even as he embraces innovation. They uniformly say that Jones, who became dean in 1997 at age 36, has pushed the Divinity School to the forefront of theological education.
“He’s always pulling the world in through his mind,” says Duke University President Richard Brodhead, who approached Jones about the global strategy position late last year. “He also, while being in perfect accord with all of the traditional aims of the Divinity School, is a great entrepreneur. He’s thought of things that the Divinity School could do to extend its mission that someone else would never have thought of.”
New initiatives Jones led as dean include the Institute on Care at the End of Life, Center for Reconciliation, Clergy Health Initiative, Youth Academy, and Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.
He’s strengthened ties between the Divinity School and the rest of Duke University, especially the Fuqua School of Business, Duke Corporate Education, and the university’s Global Health Institute. Outside of Durham, Jones has championed partnerships and collaboration with schools, churches, and other Christian institutions around the world.
Among them is the Renk Visiting Teachers Program, jointly sponsored by Duke Divinity School and Virginia Theological Seminary, at Renk Theological College in Southern Sudan. Ellen Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns professor of Bible and practical theology, first traveled there to teach Hebrew in the summer of 2004. When she returned, she approached Jones about a partnership to send teachers of Greek and Hebrew, the top priority identified by the Sudanese educators.
“I was presenting Greg with a whole new thing,” says Davis. “I can’t think of any other university seminary leader who would have said, ‘This is great.’ ”
For Jones, the opportunity to partner with a seminary in Southern Sudan was full of potential to advance the role of the university in international society. He has since told Davis that he learned much of what he knows about education in international settings through conversations about Sudan.
“Greg leads with a strong vision, but he’s also able to catch someone else’s vision,” says Davis. “I don’t think many people are so nimble at both leading and knowing the moment to step aside and let someone else look ahead to a larger vision.”
Increased financial support for new programs, as well as growth in the school’s endowments for financial aid and professorships, reflects Jones’ gifts for sustaining relationships with individuals, the United Methodist Church, and major foundations, including Lilly Endowment Inc. and The Duke Endowment.
Craig Dykstra, Lilly Endowment’s senior vice president for religion, describes Jones as “a public theologian and religious leader of enormous influence and consequence.
“He brings profound theological, spiritual, and practical wisdom to bear in his many efforts to strengthen local congregations, support excellence in pastoral ministry, and to imagine new and better ways by which denominations, theological schools, and other agencies can work together to do so as well.
During the seven-year Campaign for Duke, which ended in 2003, the Divinity School blew past its initial goal of $35 million, then exceeded an adjusted goal of $85 million, and eventually raised $102 million for faculty positions, student financial aid, new programs, and a host of other needs. The campaign also included fundraising for a major building addition. The $22 million project included the Westbrook Building and Goodson Chapel, which opened in 2005, adding about 50,000 square feet of space for learning and worship.
At the same time, Jones continued the work of his predecessors, building a faculty that is widely considered one of the world’s best.
“Duke is now the standard for theological education in the world,” says Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe professor of theological ethics, citing an informal 2009 ranking in First Things’ popular blog. Hauerwas, a mentor to Jones who also directed his dissertation, himself was named America’s best theologian by Time in 2001. “Greg positioned the Divinity School at Duke to represent the kind of generous orthodoxy that now seems to be the future,” says Hauerwas.
With two older siblings, Jones began honing his intellectual gifts at an early age. Before he turned 3, Jones was reading aloud the names of cities on airport signs—initially those with Major League Baseball teams—during family trips. By age 6, he had taught himself to play bridge with the rest of the family.
“I evidently was pretty decent,” says Jones, who remembers that fellow passengers on a cross-country train trip were astonished to see him holding his own in games with his parents and siblings, who were 11 and 13 at the time.
Jones’ entrepreneurial bent surfaced shortly thereafter. During the summer, he developed a two-page typed newsletter about baseball and sold it to neighbors and family friends. A straight-A student throughout elementary school, he spent his free time organizing neighborhood games with friends. The game changed seasonally, rotating among baseball, football, and basketball. Any game was fine, as long as it involved a ball.
Today, with the help of the latest communications technology, Jones thrives on what many would consider sensory overload. He has been known to simultaneously watch television, work on a manuscript, play a board game with one of his children, talk on his cell phone, and check e-mail, never missing a beat.
“I used to say that Greg has the ability to keep lots of balls in the air,” says Richard Lischer, Cleland professor of preaching and a member of the search team that recommended Jones. “But it’s more than that. He has a vision of the intellectual and spiritual architecture of things that he is able to translate into institutional realities.”
Jones is a self-described morning person who rises early, eager to begin meetings with his key staff, often before 8 a.m. Despite the hour, Jones’ resonant laugh greets his colleagues before they enter the room.
Laceye Warner, who has worked with the dean both as associate dean for academic formation and programs and as associate professor of the practice of evangelism and Methodist studies, says Jones’ laughter “lifts us all. We eagerly follow him, recognizing the difference his leadership is making for the church, the academy, and the world.”
As a scholar, professor, and administrator, Jones has the capacity for simultaneously viewing things through both wide-angle and telephoto lenses. While he prefers the wider angle, his powers of memory, evident since early childhood, help him to track details others might miss.
David Odom, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, describes Jones as a leader with “boundless energy” who has strengthened both the Divinity School and the church. “Greg reads, imagines, integrates, and executes on more ideas in a week than I can count,” he says.
Soon after Jones became dean, Constance Fraser Gray, then chair of the Rural Church Committee of The Duke Endowment, met him at an endowment dinner. Right away, she says, she noted “his signature exuberance about his faith, the Divinity School, and his vision of what’s possible in God’s world.
“He realizes that nothing exists apart from God,” says Gray, who is the current chair of the endowment’s governance committee. “He’s a catalyst for making things happen.”
But focusing his exuberance was not always easy. In Denver, Colo., where the family moved when Jameson Jones became president of Iliff School of Theology, Greg could barely sit through class.
Teachers struggled to hold the attention of this boisterous child who mastered their lessons—he had read Tolstoy’s War and Peace by fifth grade—with so little effort. His mother, Bonnie, a musician who directed the church choir and led frequent international mission trips, recognized early, Jones says, “that I am at my worst when I get bored.”
The United Methodist Youth Fellowship, where he formed close friendships and began participating in mission trips, helped develop his instincts as a fundraiser. When his youth group planned a car wash to raise funds for a mission trip, it was his idea to ask for a donation. “People were very generous,” says Jones. “We ended up getting much more than if we’d set a price.”
But sitting quietly through worship at University UMC, a neighborhood church he attended with friends, often felt like torture. Some Sundays he’d sneak out of the balcony to a nearby bowling alley until it was time to go home, hoping his parents, who attended a different church, wouldn’t ask about the sermon. He did get caught once, resulting in a weeklong grounding. Even his junior high school grades began to slip.
His parents moved him twice to different schools, hoping he’d find a better fit. By ninth grade, when Jones entered a Christian Brothers high school, he found the school’s speech and debate team a perfect match for his restless intellect.
He also discovered the writings of Flannery O’Connor, an author Jones credits with shaping his Christian imagination. His high school teachers and coaches set high standards, pushing him to think creatively, and to ask big questions.
“These were teachers who really stirred my imagination,” he says. “I wanted to be like them. And I wanted to know how to create more people like them.”
Jones’ love of sports has remained a constant, although he’s more often a spectator than a participant. When his schedule permits, he’s at Wallace Wade or Cameron Indoor Stadium, for Duke’s home games, cheering on the Blue Devils.
During the many years he played baseball, Jones’ coaches rotated him among three positions—pitcher, short-stop, and catcher. Each of these positions fit him well until his early teens, when a rapid growth spurt led to a series of knee injuries. He was diagnosed with dislocating kneecaps, and had the first of what became many surgeries. He gave up baseball and basketball for tennis and track, but by his junior year of high school, the long postoperative recoveries had forced him out of competitive athletics.
Predictably, Jones didn’t waste the time. He filled the periods of recuperation by reading books of all kinds, forming a habit that continues to serve him well. “I became more reflective and serious,” says Jones. “And I became much more aware of my own faith.”
Jones continued on the academic fast track. At 17, he graduated from high school, where his classmates voted him “most intelligent” and “most likely to succeed.” Two and a half years later, during his final semester as an undergraduate at the University of Denver, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and soon-to-be summa cum laude graduate, he enrolled in the M.B.A. program. In the first-year statistics course, he encountered a midterm exam question that changed everything: “How many tires in a shipment would have to have defects before the entire shipment should be sent back to the supplier?”
“I really didn’t care about tires,” says Jones, whose quote for his high school yearbook was “When I die, I would rather people say, ‘He lived for the betterment of others’ than, ‘He was rich.’”
His future, he realized, was not in tires.
Instead, he earned a master of public administration degree from the University of Denver, imagining that a career seeking “the betterment of others” lay in public service. But he was also struggling with a call to ministry.
His mother’s father was a United Methodist pastor, as was his father. Jameson Jones was widely known as a Methodist youth leader and editor of two national youth periodicals. Before becoming president of Iliff, he had worked on the staff of the UMC’s General Board of Education, and edited Motive magazine. His mother had always been a leader in the church as a diaconal minister, choir director, and organizer of work teams, and his older brother, Scott, was a student at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.
“I was interested,” he says, “but I thought I wanted to avoid the family business.”
He applied to several divinity schools, including Duke, where his father had been named dean early in 1981. Jameson Jones had quickly become a popular preacher in Duke Chapel, remembers Rick Lischer, who had joined the Duke Divinity faculty in 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”?
When the job offer came, the Joneses knew they should accept. From the beginning, the new dean began laying the groundwork for programs to support Christian leaders, including Courage to Serve, about pastors of rural churches, and Pulpit & Pew, a research project that focused on pastoral leadership.
He also crossed disciplinary and denominational lines. The Divinity School eventually added an Anglican Episcopal House of Studies, a Hispanic House of Studies, and a chair in Catholic theology to complement the Baptist House of Studies and Office of Black Church Studies that had been developed years earlier.
All the while, Jones both practiced and preached risk taking. When he decided to pursue an addition to the Divinity School as part of the Campaign for Duke, some worried that the bricks and mortar would come at the expense of student financial aid, another critical need.
“That was a real gut check,” says Jones, who had said support for students was a top priority. “But we were out of space.” Ultimately, the school raised enough money for the building and exceeded its goals for supporting scholarships. In retrospect, says Jones, the addition “is a crucial sign of what it means for the Divinity School to have a continued vibrant presence in the university.
Now Jones takes on a new challenge. As Duke University’s chief global strategist, his job is to advance and coordinate the university’s international engagement. That means, in part, finding common ground among faculty members, students, and administrators in dozens of schools and departments with often disparate engagements with other countries.
President Brodhead says Jones, who remains a divinity professor and a leader at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, possesses the right mix of experience and understanding to help Duke achieve more coherence.
“Greg has an almost unique ability to compute and articulate the values of the university,” Brodhead says. “He understands the interests of the different parts of Duke and how they can come together in high-level agreement.”
Just three days after presiding over the Divinity School’s 2010 Closing Convocation in April, Jones flew to Kunshan, China, to meet with municipal and educational leaders. Duke University’s China initiative includes a 200-acre campus in Kunshan, the first phase of which will be completed in December 2011, and collaborative programs with Shanghai Jiao Tong University in Shanghai.
Duke’s Fuqua School of Business will lead the first phase of the project, including an executive MBA and a master of management studies program. Fuqua Dean Blair Sheppard says that Jones brings a rare combination of gifts to the university’s global strategy. “He is driven, but wise; smart, but humble; a colleague, but a leader; trusted, but able to make the difficult decision,” says Sheppard, “and he loves Duke.”
Jones says his work with the Duke- Kunshan campus has important similarities to what he’s been doing for the last 13 years.
“As with work we’ve done in Africa, we’re still thinking about building institutions and developing new ways of teaching, learning, and research to address specific challenges and opportunities in other cultural contexts,” he says.
He is excited by the ways this work connects with his early scholarship. In fact, he’s pursuing the same end, or telos, as Jones often puts it, that captured his imagination in high school and later fueled his dissertation: pushing people to reflect deeply on their work, develop wise judgment, and hold themselves to the highest moral, ethical, and intellectual standards.
“My theological work—whether about formation and transformation, or habits of interpretation and virtue, or forgiveness, or leadership—has been about issues of education and how we form people of character and wisdom to exercise significant leadership,” he says. “I’m still thinking about the larger horizons and purposes of education and formation.”