As mainline Protestant Christianity undergoes profound change and challenges, new Duke Divinity School Dean Elaine Heath says that Duke Divinity School is well placed to play a leading role in the changes that are needed in theological education.
“Because of Duke’s outstanding history in preparing leaders for the church and the academy, and its anchoring in one of the top research universities in the world, we have marvelous resources with which to respond to the challenges in theological education today,” she says.
As the former McCreless Professor of Evangelism at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, a co-founder of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, the author of numerous books and monographs, and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Heath has long sought to bridge the gap between the church and the academy while ultimately encouraging the renewal of both. A leading scholar of new monasticism and missional theology, she also sees the church’s struggles to recover its mission in a historical context, noting that early Methodism was itself primarily a lay new monastic movement.
“Monasticism always surfaces in new ways and flourishes when the church is struggling with an identity crisis or has lost its way because of its attraction to money and power,” she says. “New monasticism emphasizes practices that cultivate holiness of heart and life, deep and meaningful relationship-building in local neighborhoods, and engaging issues of injustice for the wellbeing of our neighbors.”
The church, Heath says, is struggling to reclaim a gospel-centered identity and to hold on to its traditions while also accounting for its multiple historical forms of violence, including abuse of power, sexual abuse of children and others, and the exclusion or subjugation of persons based on gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality.
According to Heath, the role of a divinity school is to help shape students into the leaders whom the church needs to help reclaim its identity and embrace its vocation—leaders who practice (and teach others to practice) life together for the sake of our neighbors, ensuring we engage injustice and suffering while seeing, hearing, and loving our neighbors who are not part of the church.
Duke Divinity School, she says, has the opportunity to help shape the future of theological education at this time of cultural shift. “Our grounding in the long tradition of intellectual and spiritual rigor will guide us as we pioneer new forms of theological education within and beyond our walls,” she says.
Duke Divinity School’s connection to Duke University points to one of the ways that theological education can be transformed, Heath says, as the university encourages collaboration with other entities such as Global Health Institute and the Nicholas School of the Environment that can contribute to how the school teaches Christian theology and practice.
“One of the things that attracted me to Duke is the University’s commitment to robust collaboration, not only across the school but beyond its borders to the city of Durham and around the world, and with other universities, institutions and non-profits,” she says. “Collaborative, contextualized learning is the most effective, and it is the way of the future, so Duke’s commitment to these practices is very exciting to me. “
For Heath, the process of change at Duke Divinity School will begin with listening—all while understanding Duke Divinity School’s unique character, which includes its ecumenical tradition and focus on academic rigor—and working to cultivate greater diversity within the faculty, staff, and students.
“My first six months will be spent forming relationships with the faculty, administration, staff, and students of the Divinity School, as well as with other administrative leaders across the university,” she says. “I will also be learning the narratives of the Divinity School in more depth. In the fall, we will begin a process of listening and analysis that will provide a wealth of information to help us with a strategic planning process early in 2017. Listening and learning will be primary foci for me, not only during my first six months but throughout my tenure as dean.”
Ultimately, Heath believes that theological education all comes back to the mission of the church.
“I believe that all of our efforts in Christian theological education should be to prepare women and men to lead the church to fulfill its missional vocation,” she says. “Evangelism—the holistic capacity to truly love our neighbors and our world with God’s love, and be active participants in God’s redemption of the world—is at the heart of the church’s God-given mission. If our work in theological education and our work in the local church are not enabling us to carry out God’s mission for the church, we are missing the mark.”