“Yes, and… Exhilarating”

by Martin B. Copenhaver

I am writing this from the biennial meeting of the Association of Theological Schools, which is the accrediting agency of the 250 or so theological schools in North America. There are some schools represented here that are household names and many other schools you have never heard of. But everyone here knows about Andover Newton (or so it seems).

To be sure, that name recognition comes from our excellent reputation (okay, it’s not bragging if it’s true). Then too, many are aware of our proud history. After all, we were the first theological school in the country. We established the three-year graduate degree, now known as the Master of Divinity, that is the bread-and-butter degree for most of the schools represented here.

But something else is going on here. It is clear not only that leaders of others schools are aware of the bold new direction Andover Newton is pursuing, they are also watching us with great interest.

I just came from a workshop led by Dean Sarah Drummond on the topic of assessment. Okay, so not usually considered the most gripping topic, but the room was packed. Sarah was her usual brilliant self and clearly the people in the room were with her (she could make a description of how to watch paint dry sound both interesting and fun).

Then, in the course of her presentation, Sarah briefly summarized this time of transition in the life of Andover Newton. At that moment you could sense people leaning forward. They did not want to miss a syllable of what she had to say. They went from interested to vitally interested, as if she were describing where to find fresh water to people who have been stranded on a desert island. Once again, Andover Newton is leading and others are paying attention.

In my conversations with other presidents and deans it is clear they can easily relate to the challenges we face. They know it is a sad time in important ways as beloved staff members lose their jobs and as we move from a cherished campus that has been our home for almost two hundred years. They can also readily imagine that this is a demanding time in other ways, too. There is just a lot to do. They know, without needing to be told, that it can be a bit overwhelming at times.

As the improv performers say, “Yes, and…” All of that is true and there is something wonderfully exhilarating about this time in the life of our school. And “exhilarating” is just the word I want to use here.

Emily Dickinson observed in a poem, “Believing what we don’t believe does not exhilarate.”

I would draw on Dickinson’s observation in this way (with apologies to all poets): “Believing — or trying to believe — that Andover Newton had a sustainable future without making major changes was exhausting.”

What is exhilarating is to have a future to believe in. We now see a way forward to a future that is not only sustainable, but which offers us the freedom to focus on — and advance — our mission in exciting new ways. That is nothing short of exhilarating. No wonder people here are leaning forward to catch every word. Isn’t that how people respond to hearing good news?

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