Photo courtesy Union Theological Seminary
A fantastic moment
Serene Jones leaves a comfortable career at Yale University to take over the presidency of Union Theological Seminary at a time of change and uncertainty.
February 16, 2010 | On a recent Sunday at New York’s Riverside Church, the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones ascended the pulpit and reflected upon the last time she had preached there: It was November 2008. The country had just elected a new president, the world was reeling from the impact of the financial meltdown and Union Theological Seminary was celebrating Jones’ inauguration as the seminary’s 16th president.
As she reflected on that day a year earlier, Jones preached on the dramatic prison rescue of Peter in the Book of Acts. Even amidst chaos and trauma, God’s presence is there to lead, push or prod us along a future path, she said.
“This story tells us that God’s presence and grace comes to us regardless of how coherent we are. It doesn’t require our rational minds to grasp it. It just comes, as an angel,” Jones said.
“The hardest thing we have to do as Christians, and what Peter finally does, is awaken -- to stay awake in the midst of complex human situations and know that even though we don’t have answers, it is not impossible to say, yes, this moment in our awakening is where God comes.”
The moment of Jones’ appointment as the first woman to lead Union in its 172-year history prompted “a huge shout of joy and pride," said the Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where Jones served on the faculty for 17 years. “We always whispered that Serene would leave Yale Divinity and play some very important leadership role somewhere.”
But coming at such a transitional time -- against the backdrop of a global economic crisis, the ongoing decline of mainline church membership, and rumors of Union’s own financial frailty -- the job change raised questions among many who had been following Jones’ career: Why would a renowned scholar with a named professorship leave the security and prestige of Yale University to lead a seminary with a history of financial hardship?
Life after Yale
Jones and her family have strong ties to Yale -- she was born into that institution. Her father, Joe R. Jones -- the former dean of Phillips Theological Seminary and later president of Phillips University -- was a student there when she was born.
After growing up in Oklahoma and doing her undergraduate studies there, Jones’ interest in philosophy and social and political theory led her back to Yale, where she earned a masters of divinity degree and later a Ph.D. in theology in 1991. Her sister Verity -- editor of the soon-to-close Disciples World magazine -- did both her undergraduate and divinity studies at Yale.
Questions to consider:
- What motivates a Christian leader to make a leap from a comfortable environment into one full of risk and challenge? What support must be in place for this to happen effectively?
- Are you able to envision the decline of mainline denominations as holding the promise of a new vision? In what ways?
- What is the advantage of being a collaborative theologian? Who are unlikely people with whom you could collaborate?
- In what ways can you help craft the desires of the community you serve?
After joining the Yale Divinity faculty, Jones, 50, served as Titus Street Professor of Theology and held appointments in the law school and in the departments of African American Studies and Religious Studies. Jones also served as chair of Yale’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, a collaborative initiative exploring the relationship between women religious practitioners and political, economic and social developments.
A prolific scholar in the fields of theology, religion and gender studies, Jones is the author of books on feminist theology and Calvin, among other topics. With her latest book, “Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World,” Jones departed from scholarly writing to craft a message for the general public -- one that speaks directly to those who have suffered abuse, war, and other kinds of trauma. The book explores the question: How do people wounded by violence come to feel and know the redeeming power of God’s grace?
She described herself as “happy as a clam” at Yale, so the move to Union was not, in fact, on the career path Jones had charted. And the huge change in scale and scope of her job has also been a personal challenge: As the divorced mother of a 13-year-old, she notes that she has no “first lady” in her home to rely on.
“Coming from Yale was a huge leap,” Jones said. “I had 17 years of wholehearted support for my research and teaching interests at Yale.”
Yet when she was approached by Union’s presidential search committee to discuss the future of theological education she began to envision a new future for herself as well.
“We were several months into the search for a new president and Serene had not applied,” recalled Gary Dorrien, Union’s Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics and a member of the search committee. “The idea of asking her to consider it was just a fantasy. She had four appointments at Yale and had rejected offers to go elsewhere. What chance did we have?”
But after many hours of discussion and months of reflection, Jones gave Dorrien the response he had not dared to hope for: “‘Gary,’ she said, ‘the Union presidency is the only position in this country that could lure me from Yale.’”