A Dynamic Equilibrium

By Sarah B. Drummond

“You should have changed if you wanted to remain yourself, but you were afraid to change.” -Sartre, to Camus quoted in Joy Williams’ Ninety-Nine Stories of God

In The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddhartha Mukherjee describes the difference between a “static” and a “dynamic” equilibrium. A substance achieves equilibrium when it maintains its shape or level over time. Sometimes, equilibrium reflects an underlying sameness, in which case it is considered static. Other times, the surface level stays the same because everything underneath is dynamic: changing, but in ways that balance each other out.

The distinction between a static and a dynamic equilibrium helped me make sense of enrollment patterns at Andover Newton over the past two generations. Membership in UCC and American Baptist congregations began to drop in the early 1970s, but enrollment at Andover Newton only started to decline quickly beginning in 2005. Why? Because the equilibrium was never static, even before 2005, but it was then that the balance came out of whack.

At first, Andover Newton responded to changing enrollment patterns by changing itself. When younger adult enrollment began to fall, Andover Newton adjusted its culture and curriculum to serve older adults entering a second or third career. When some denominations pulled away from Andover Newton over theological differences, others were attracted due to the same stances that drove others elsewhere.

But then — and who knows why that year? That moment? — change started to come too fast for Andover Newton to adjust to it. When the United Methodist’s University Senate chose to remove Andover Newton from its list of approved seminaries, offering no recommendations for changes or appeal process, Andover Newton lost its connection with the largest mainline denomination overnight. The United Church of Christ’s decision to approve multiple paths to ordination, and the advent of UCC and UU online programs that do not require relocation, weakened the School’s magnetic power.

Regional research university divinity schools’ capacity for full-tuition scholarships for some candidates created an ethical dilemma: we could not offer full scholarships, and we couldn’t in good conscience advise students to take on more debt, no matter how convinced we were that Andover Newton would be right for them, and they for us. A further ethical dilemma emerged as the ministry job market began to soften, with fewer full-time positions available to graduates, raising concerns about the morality of seeking a return to our former student body size.

Occasionally, I’ll share with someone close to Andover Newton that our enrollment had declined from about 500 to 250 during my years at the School, and they’ll respond in shock. “How could we not have seen this?” The previous dynamic equilibrium had created a smokescreen through which all but those with access to hard data’s views were clouded. Even I — who had access to these data at my very fingertips — couldn’t see what was happening at the surface level because of all the change underlying it. Call it distraction by chaos. Call it wishful thinking.

Now that Andover Newton has selected and is pursuing a new, sustainable path to the future, I can see a different kind of equilibrium reasserting itself: the dynamic equilibrium of our fulfilling our mission to educate religious leaders for historically-congregational, locally governed faith communities. The changes Andover Newton is making now are the kind we make when our mission — we we love and celebrate — remains the same.

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