The work before us

February 3, 2011

Riess Potterveld's remarks delivered at his installation as the 11th president of Pacific School of Religion, January 25, 2011.

As we open this chapter together, we are gaining clarity about some of the tasks that lie ahead of us as a seminary. For five decades, we have often used the word “union,” as embedded in Graduate Theological Union—it’s in our institutional DNA, it’s part of our identity—and yet to a large extent the seminaries of the Graduate Theological Union have remained somewhat isolated and independent. To some extent, they are silos that have never fully joined themselves in the very similar missions that they have. If you look at each school, they are filled with wonderful personnel and departments and faculty, but many of them are replicas of each other. We have not learned to share deeply the best practices that each of us discover and can affirm as theological schools.  Students and faculty have crossed the boundaries and perimeters to find each other in the classroom, but the schools have still remained isolated, and unable to be the best stewards of their resources. 

We have at times put incredible time and labor into these efforts to work more closely together. But it has often been like people rising from their chairs to dance together, and reaching the middle of the room only to touch fingers and then settle back into their seats. Now appears to be the time when partnership, collaboration, a more careful look at how we can strengthen each other, share skills and competencies across these artificial boundaries—this seems to be the time when we are asked to address this, and to try to implement, wherever we can, the glories of working together.

This is going on not only here, but across the entire spectrum of theological education. I found myself last year talking to more presidents of other seminaries about joint ventures than I often did with my own staff. It was that “hot” of a topic; there was that much pressure on the system of theological education. With the added benefits now of Internet connection, that means that partnerships can take place not only in geographical proximity, but can be here and there—a new way of amalgamating the skill sets and talents that lie in another state or another school.

We are already in conversations with the Center for Progressive Renewal which is in Atlanta, Georgia. They are budding specialists in planting new churches, and in revitalizing progressive congregations. That’s just one example. There are any number of schools and organizations that we can connect with now, because we can do it electronically, and don’t have to drive a car or fly in a plane.

In addition, we will see more consortial developments or mergers among theological seminaries and colleges. For 50 years among the formerly church-related colleges, there was a gradual distancing. But the landscape is really changing, and there are some deep conversations going on between colleges and seminaries again. And you will see relationships developing, and some very interesting options—like two colleges and three seminaries in Thailand sharing a site for immersion experiences. Rather than one group popping in and popping out, there can be a year-long sustained engagement with a specific context or area of the globe we have identified as being important to work with and to learn from. 

I will say on behalf of PSR that it has tried and actually accomplished some of these consortial developments. We have developed over the years an instructional technology department that now serves the needs of eight other seminaries. But while we have that in place, the school has never really developed, in a kind of profound way, the ability to put these educational resources online. I promise you that will be a major theme going forward. We will put more things online, and feed more people the kind of information and resources that they hunger for.

This will fit nicely into one of our key values, which is attention to leadership development in marginalized communities. This is the least expensive way to reach people at a distance. It’s a way to fulfill our mission [now] when [before] we have been restrictive, providing it often times only to those who could be there on a certain day and a certain time.

A significant dimension of our role continues to be to prepare innovative leaders for congregations. And while we all know that many of our mainline denominations have withered over the last decades, there are congregations that are recovering and finding a new vibrancy, a new missional focus. We need to be better partners with those congregations that are discovering how to bring new life to themselves and the communities in which they serve. 
All of this is going to take infusion of new capital. The effect of the recession and downturn in the market, that’s one factor, but PSR has quite honestly been spending more than it should for a long period of time, and we have eroded the capital base of the school, and that must be addressed as we go forward. We will be intent on making the case to our friends and our potential donors that what we do in terms of being one of the voices of prophetic and progressive Christianity needs support, needs to be strengthened if anything, and this is one of the centers that provides those kinds of resources.   

We maintain a fundamental belief that what draws people here is not just our marketing efforts, but the call of God. And there are people coming who are not really dedicated to parish ministry, to pulpit ministries. We’re calling them the “passionaries”—those who really have in themselves their own unique deep sense of call. But they see their vocation as going out to help communities develop the resources and the opportunities to become more robustly interested in the transformation of injustice and the eradication of inequality. So they carry a deep spiritual calling, but it’s not a calling to what we traditionally served in the past. What we need is a highly flexible environment, then, that is capable of engaging and educating a broad and very diverse spectrum of students. 

This is the work before us, some of it. It is good work; it is extremely difficult work; it is sacred work. We need each person here, and those who are only here in spirit, to find their own unique ways of living into this community, and bringing it to a new chapter of health, strength, and sustainability.

Listen here for audio of the speech.