The following interview was adapted from an Oct. 29, 2009, conversation between Dean L. Gregory Jones and David Crabtree, a broadcast journalist with WRAL television in Raleigh, N.C., and a special student at the Divinity School.
Q Your 2009 state of the school report noted that even as the economy has shown signs of recovery, income from the school’s endowment has declined and likely won’t return to previous levels for some time. Regarding the church, you pointed out that some denominations are considering dropping the M.Div. as a requirement for ordination. Given these realities, what are the most significant challenges this divinity school is facing?
What the economic meltdown of the last year did is to accelerate issues that we would have had to face anyway. It really hasn’t been a process of just responding to economic challenges, though those are very real.
The deeper issues are the ways in which the needs of the church and the academy are changing. The Divinity School has long had a commitment to serving the church and preparing people for leadership in the church, in the academy, and in the world. The challenge is to understand as deeply as we can how those needs are presenting now and how we can build on our strength and address our weaknesses.
If it was a question of tightening our belts to deal with the budget challenges, we probably wouldn’t be able to do it very effectively. We wouldn’t only be cutting fat; we’d be cutting muscle, and probably starting a spiral downward.
Q As you face these challenges, you’re not looking at tomorrow, or a month from now. How far ahead are you looking?
The question I’ve put to our faculty and staff is: What should we be doing over the next three years to prepare for the next 25 years? We need to be thinking about both degree-based education and non-degree education for a variety of people including those right out of college. Some will be preparing for ordained pulpit ministry, but others will want to fulfill their call to Christian vocation in a variety of professions. We need to be equipping people for that kind of Christian imagination. Whether they’re ordained as clergy, or whether they serve as lay people, we want them to have a deep and rich Christian imagination.
Q The mission of this school is “to engage in spiritually disciplined and academically rigorous education and service and witness to the Triune God in the midst of the church, the academy and the world.” You’ve been talking about what you have to do to maintain this during these next three years as you look ahead a quarter of a century. That’s a lot to balance.
The strength and vitality comes in being sure we try to maintain that balance. One of the things that has marked the Divinity School as a really strong institution with very high aspirations is recognizing that we want to be both academically and spiritually focused. Sometimes I’ve talked about the link between the love of learning and the desire for God, and we want both sides of that to be really rich and important. But that means that you don’t compromise on either.
In the same way, we talk about the church, the academy, and the world. We are three overlapping communities: a community of worship, a community of learning, and a community of transformative service. When any one of those is weak, it causes the other two to suffer. Whatever we do with whatever constituency, we want it to be of very high quality.
Q One of the key concepts that you have talked about through Leadership Education at Duke Divinity is “traditioned innovation.” Define that concept for us. How does the idea come to play at this point in the school’s life?
In the church, as in business, we often put things in opposition. So there are the conservatives who want to preserve the past, and there are the liberals who want to think about change and new opportunities, and often they end up butting heads. Innovation is being stressed these days because of the need, whether it’s for revenue or for new life, but it’s often confused with making things up as you go along. If you just keep making up new things, you often end up with chaos, not creativity. Innovation without attention to practice and tradition sounds more like a middle school band concert than improvisation.
Traditioned innovation, much like a great jazz combo, draws on the richness of the past to discover genuine creativity. Jaroslav Pelikan has a wonderful distinction: he says, “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living faith of the dead.” I think holding both of those words together, traditioned innovation, enables the greatest sense of new life, whether it’s for the Divinity School, for congregations, or whatever the institution.
Q With a climate full of changes and challenges, how do you prepare students for the leadership that the future will demand?
We are blessed to have a lot of students who are fresh out of college. The median age of our entering class each year tends to be somewhere between 22 and 24. We also have a wonderful mix of second vocation people in their 30s, 40s, and older. The challenge is to go both “deep and wide,” to use the old hymn. We need young people steeped in Scripture and history so that the vibrancy of tradition informs their creative leadership.
If we try to prepare them to lead the church of 20 years ago, they’re going to vote with their feet and leave. We have to show them the connection between deep learning and appreciation of Scripture, and the cultivation of a scriptural imagination. The best organizations I know of have a habit of investing in young people, and that’s what education is about.
Q As you look to transition as society and the world are transitioning, how do you deal with the risk?
The Divinity School is a healthy enough institution, and a strong enough institution, that it wouldn’t be difficult for us to say “What’s worked for us is going to keep working for us.” It may be that the economic meltdown of the last year was a gift to us—because it presented challenges that compelled us to take risks that will help us get ahead of the curve.
For example, we’ve put strong emphasis on residential education and the formation that occurs inside and outside the classroom. I think it’s important that students engage one another over lunch about classes, or about the sermon they’ve just heard in chapel, and that they share their different sensibilities and reactions. The broader culture desperately needs people who know how to engage in what I call meaningful disagreements. That happens through residential formative education.
Some of the new initiatives we’re looking at involve “place and space” education, which combines face-to-face learning supplemented with web-based learning. [This allows] people who work during the day— and who are in positions of practice and engagement in the world—to access theological education here.
That’s a risk because our faculty is not used to teaching that way. It means engaging adult learners in a new kind of education. I’ve been really heartened to see the openness and the engagement of our faculty. They’re willing to take such risks, but it means that 10 years from now the school will be different in significant ways.
Q What will it look like five or 10 years from now?
I hope it will be an even more vibrant place, with more students in more degree programs. Lay people like you would be able to participate in degree programs focused on sustaining vocation in a distinctively Christian way. Some students would be on campus for shorter periods of time, while others would move here to pursue traditional degree programs like the three-year master of divinity.
My hope is that we’ll have far more varied ways to access the extraordinary strengths of the Divinity School faculty—through classes, through videos, through engagements—and that our faculty will help provide resources for the church, provide leadership to the academy, and help a world yearning for spiritual depth and meaning and truth discover the riches of the Christian gospel.
Q Part of your challenge is to keep the school true to its past as you move forward. You touched on that a little bit before but I would like to hear a more about that.
Duke Divinity School’s great tradition is primarily, though never exclusively, focused on preparing pastors, preparing people for ordained ministry. We don’t want in any way to diminish the significance of that. We want also to enrich education for laity through new master’s degree programs, and through ways of engaging Christians in their vocations in the world.
We hope to prepare both laity and clergy for new ways to be part of the body of Christ in and through congregations and vocations in the world. That kind of ongoing learning may be initiated through a degree program at Duke Divinity School, but we hope it will be sustained through lifelong education and formation.
Q When you are reading Scripture, do certain passages jump off the page that didn’t yesterday, or a year ago?
A verse that has become very important is from the Letter of James, the first chapter, verse 19. It says “Brothers and sisters, let us be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” We probably ought to inscribe that over the door into the dean’s office, into the faculty conference room, into the meeting rooms in churches.
We tend to be quick to speak, slow to listen, and quick to anger.
As we’ve dealt with the challenges of the last year, I’ve been drawn to two books. The first is the Book of Acts. My colleague Kavin Rowe recently published a book called World Upside Down. It’s a study of the Book of Acts that is fascinating because you are looking at a vibrant new community empowered by the Holy Spirit, but it is traditioned innovation. The Holy Spirit is making all things new in continuity with the people of Israel, except that there has been this interruption called Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is posing all sorts of new questions.
I’ve been surprised by how important the Book of Numbers has become for me. Part of the problem is the name; nobody gets too excited about reading a book called Numbers. In the Jewish tradition, it is often called “In the Wilderness.” If that’s the title, what better description is there for where American culture has been for the last year? In many ways, the foundations were shattered, and we have been trying to figure out what to do.
But the story of the Book of Numbers is about the people of God in the wilderness trying to discern where God is calling them, and how to meet the challenges that are presented. Moses sends out the 12 spies to the promised land.
Ten of them say, “We better go back to Egypt. There are obstacles up ahead. They look so large.” Only two of the 12, Joshua and Caleb, call for the people to trust God to lead them to the promised land.
Egypt was suffering … was slavery … was oppression. But Egypt was familiar. My father said every church he’d ever been a part of had a “back to Egypt” committee. Every person I know, myself included, has a back to Egypt part of our soul. So, as I looked at the challenges that we faced, I started to think about obstacles and that those obstacles look like giants. But it’s the calling of Joshua and Caleb that we had better trust that God will lead us faithfully to the future.
Q One of the great challenges we face in our vocation and in our spiritual life is about renewal. There are many times when we want to go back to Egypt. How do Christian leaders continue to bring their faith to the work of leadership?
At the heart, it is about being people of prayer—of not forgetting the end, namely, of bearing witness to the reign of God. Even pastors and seminary deans can get stuck just thinking about the daily, responding to whatever is the latest crisis.
Second, the people I admire most as leaders are those who read widely and ask big questions. I’ve developed a habit of asking really inspiring people, “What are you reading?” That led me to The Opposable Mind, a book by the dean of the business school at the University of Toronto that has rich implications for how we ought to be thinking as Christians.
It led me to the novel Cutting for Stone, which is set in a mission hospital in Ethiopia, and written by Abraham Verghese, a physician at Stanford. The vocation of healing runs as a central theme through there.
When you read things like the Book of Numbers, Cutting for Stone, and The Opposable Mind, the imagination is renewed—I hope always in ways that will keep us freshly thinking about the end.
Dean L. Gregory Jones discusses how Christian institutions can meet the changing needs of the church by drawing upon tradition even as they encourage innovation. Watch the dean’s video interview with Faith & Leadership, the online magazine of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.