Serene Jones: I did not anticipate how fast change would come

The president of Union Theological Seminary reflects on her six years in office and the rapid pace of change both in her institution and in the church as a whole.

In 2008, Serene Jones became the first female president of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, one of the nation’s leading centers of liberal Christianity. A scholar in the fields of theology, religion and gender studies, Jones is the author of books on feminist theology and Calvin, among other topics. She took over the helm of the institution as it worked to secure its financial footing amid the meltdown of 2008.

During her tenure, the seminary has continued to take a leading role in the issues of the day. In June, the board of trustees voted unanimously to begin divesting fossil fuels from the school’s entire $108.4 million endowment. Since August, Union students and faculty, including scholar Cornel West, have been active in protesting police actions in Ferguson, Missouri.

Jones was at Duke to give the Jill Raitt Lecture sponsored by the Duke Divinity School Women’s Center and spoke with Faith & Leadership about what she has learned as the leader of Union. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: When you took over at Union, you wrote a vision statement. How do you assess where you are now in terms of your original vision?

It has been interesting, in the years that I’ve been there, to see the evolution of Union and of my understanding of what leadership is. Let me first talk about Union. When I wrote my presidential vision statement, I was too new to have a vision statement of Union really grounded in deep knowledge of the school. I built it on the call for Union to engage these huge demographic shifts that are taking place in the church. So I outlined some ways the school might begin to respond, which means rethinking theological education in a deep way.

What I did not anticipate was how fast that change would come. These are not demographic shifts that we have time to gracefully and slowly and thoughtfully consider. These changes are on us now, and the shifts that they require are coming organically from the very questions that our students raise. Four years ago in our entering class at Union, the largest single denomination -- if it was a denomination -- was the “spiritual but not religious.”

We have lots of these millennial students who have not grown up in any faith tradition but are coming to seminary, for the most part, because they’re engaged in social change. They want social justice, and they’re tying that to questions about the meaning of life and spiritual questions. There’s a yearning there. Similarly, I did not anticipate the degree to which we would begin to see the racial demographics at Union shift. Union’s always had a large number of African-American students, in part because of our faculty and our location in Harlem, but in the last five years we’ve seen that grow even more. In our degree programs, it’s almost 47 percent students of color, the predominant number African-American. So we have a school that’s very racially diverse.

Across the street from Union is Jewish Theological Seminary, so the Christian/Jewish [interfaith] part has always been in our bones, but in 2010, through the support of the Luce Foundation, we hired a professor of Islamic ministry who’s a Muslim woman, and we have more and more students who come with interests in Buddhism. We have a new faculty member who teaches Christianity and Hinduism. Two years ago, we created a new field at Union. We created an interreligious engagement field, and it’s now the biggest field with the most number of students in our master of arts program. Most of those students are Christian and planning on Christian vocations, but the interest in interfaith studies is just phenomenal.

Q: What are the challenges of a Christian seminary in having students who identify as spiritual but not religious?

It is funny that they’re coming to seminary -- but great -- and it makes a certain amount of sense. I think the demographics show that many of these spiritual-but-not-religious millennials come from families who are part of the demographic shift away from mainline Protestantism. So they have some kind of deep connection to those traditions, even though they haven’t experienced it institutionally. But think about it: you’re graduating from NYU, and you thought you might want to go into business, but you ended up taking a course in philosophy, and then you took another one in religious studies, and your English class, in which you did a reread of American history, sparked your interest, and you get involved in Occupy Wall Street -- it’s just happening six blocks away -- and you get more and more excited about the changes that are happening. You’re getting ready to graduate, and you want to know, “Where can I go and think about these deep questions?”

Our seminaries are the place in our country that historically we have done that. So in a sense, these students are reminding us of who we are and who we can be again. It’s very interesting. Students get to Union and by their second year have discovered that the church is actually an interesting place, and it’s actually a place where they can do the kind of social engagement that they dream of. There’s a network of people there, and there are deep faith commitments driving that goodness. It’s an essential part of what happens.

Many of them end up in churches, to their great surprise.

Q: So your observation is that people circle back to Christian institutions they had rejected. What value do those institutions have in this rapidly changing world?

One of the biggest challenges of being the president of Union is I’m the president of a school where 90 percent of the students hate institutions, and I’m the head of the institution. I am “the man.” I share a sense, along with the faculty, that part of teaching them how to be leaders -- when you learn to be leaders, you learn what it means to be responsible for communities.

Which means being responsible for institutions. So part of the process is recognizing that being anti-institutional is in large part being naive about what communities need to thrive -- indeed, what a community is. Many of these “spiritual but not religious,” because they have been so isolated, don’t have a communal sense of the change that they seek. I also think it helps to give them models, in the administration and in the faculty, of institutional leadership that they respect. And that’s no small thing.

Q: To be a good institutional leader yourself.

Yes, yes. The institutional leadership does not have to fall in 10 steps behind where the people are going. In fact, it can walk abreast with them.

Q: Is some of that tension inherent in Union itself, as the flagship progressive, liberal seminary?

With that much diversity at Union, it’s understandable that the tensions that that can produce could be, you know -- the centrifugal forces could pull it apart. But it’s not. It’s a miracle; it’s not. In being the flagship progressive school, it has in its own history deep wounds of divides between faculty members, between causes, between varying levels of “political correctness.” In that environment, you learn to cut your teeth on what you oppose, and you spend far less time figuring out what it is you love, what it is you want to bring about in the world and what you seek.

In the near past, we’ve been focusing a lot of the curriculum, as well as mentoring the student body leadership and working with the faculty, around love and around what it means to have real diversity that’s not divisive and judgmental. You’re starting to see that happen, and it’s quite exciting. The student body this year chose “Love in Action” as their theme. Learning to love deeply, not just to critique passionately, is the challenge for an institution like Union.

Q: What has been your biggest surprise in that leadership role? Positive or negative.

Until I became a president and hence a leader, as a faculty member I never had the experience of building a team of people that you work with closely. That leadership happens because of that really deep partnership. As an academic, you sit alone in your office and write your book. You sit alone in your office and do your course prep. You meet with students one-on-one, and you don’t have to think about the challenge of moving whole communities of people forward in practical ways. So I love working with a team. How do I say this? Becoming a president has made me much less interested in my own leadership and more interested in a team. It’s fascinating. I didn’t anticipate that.

Q: You’ve been a single mother during this period. How do you manage work/life balance?

I don’t know. I never figured it out. I never figured it out. It’s just hard. Now that [my daughter] has gone to college, for first time in 18 years I’m experiencing having time to myself. I didn’t even know I didn’t have it until I finally got it.

For the last 18 years, I worked and I was a mother, and that’s about all I had time for. I know men struggle with it, too, but women in particular get vexed by the idea that somehow if they could just do it right it would be easier, and there’s no way to make it easier. We have to hope that our institutions change more and more so that parenting is truly a shared endeavor.

Q: Do you think it’s important that your students go on to practice in the church institution?

That’s a complicated question, because Union has been committed since its beginning -- and still -- to preparing leaders for the church. And by that I mean pulpit ministers, preachers, pastors. That’s still the vast majority of our students. About 60 percent go into parish ministry. It’s only very recently in Christian history that we’ve decided that a seminary education was something that you should get a [professional] degree for doing, and that it’s a profession primarily for the management and leadership of churches.

When Union was founded, to get a seminary education was to get a very good liberal arts education, to learn theology and Bible so that, first and foremost, you could be a responsible citizen and a good Christian. There’s a long history in the United States of people getting seminary education so they can be leaders in the civic sphere. I come from a Calvinist tradition, and Calvin has a profound sense of the multiple ways in which Christians can witness, and so to limit or to even make sacrosanct the work of a seminary with respect to pulpits, I think, is to limit the power of that education. It’s also the case that people now go into the ministry and then cycle in and out of the ministry.

I like to think that at Union they’re getting prepared in ways that allow them to go in and out of ministry and do different things in their life, but to see those things as ministry. I mean, given the shrinking size of the church, if you don’t prepare them to do multiple things, they could drift away, and we might also lose even our own reverends and M.Divs.

Q: Has administrative leadership influenced your theology?

Yes, it’s changed my theology. I have a much deeper respect myself for the way that the Christian message is embodied, not just in individual lives and not just in groups of people’s lives, but in institutions, the actual bodies of institutions and how they run themselves. And that that’s a theological endeavor is so clear to me -- that to run a seminary is to run a school that tries to, in its infrastructure, embody its values.

We’re not just any kind of higher education.We’re Christian higher education. If we can’t show the students what it means to be faithful and good stewards of the institution, if we can’t show them that while they’re there, we can’t expect them to go out and be good caretakers of the institutions they find themselves in.

Q: Are you thinking along the lines of Union’s recent vote to divest itself of fossil fuels? Or are you thinking about something more day-to-day?

I’m thinking about both kinds. So when we decided to divest our endowment from fossil fuels, that was a board decision. It was a unanimous decision. It wasn’t even a difficult decision. So there’s that kind of work. But also if students in seminary don’t experience an administration and a faculty that take them very seriously as co-workers and co-learners, they are not going to go out into their parishes and treat their congregation members as if they’re in shared ministry together.

I work very hard at Union to develop an administrative team and a faculty that doesn’t just see our students as kids that need an education but as people learning about the shared ministry of the church and the world. So I think it matters at that level, too. It’s the attitude you have toward the community of people you’re leading.

Q: The Christian Century noted recently three major pulpits getting female pastors -- Riverside, Fourth Presbyterian and Foundry -- and I wondered whether you saw that as a hopeful trend?

I think it’s very hopeful. Many of the most effective women church leaders that I know, like Amy Butler [at Riverside], and like Ginger Gaines-Cirelli [at Foundry] -- I do not know the person at Fourth Presbyterian, but I know the first two very well -- they have a very collaborative leadership style like what I was just describing, in terms of institutions being spaces of collaboration.

Q: And do you think that makes a difference?

Yes. The decline in the numbers of people going to church in this country in mainline Protestant communities is in part a symptom of the ways in which capitalism has gutted our value systems so that people no longer even imagine the need for communities of moral formation and faith. But it’s also partly due to how destructively focused our churches got on doctrine and correctness and shoring up their identities at a very time in which a more radical openness to the world was needed.

I think that the churches can be faulted for that. The way that denominations and churches responded to change was defensively: “We just need to teach them how to be good Methodists. We just need to teach them how to be good Baptists and UCCs.” That’s not going to make the churches stronger. We will be known by our openness. We’ll be known by our love.