In l836, a small group of unconventional pastors set out on an unusual mission – to start a “theological university” that would revolutionize seminary education by taking it back to its original urban roots. Inspired by the early church apostles, they believed that the essentials of Christian faith were best taught not in the quietude of the rural manor house but in the teeming flux of city life. Like their earlier counter‐parts, they also believed that the Gospel should be preached not just in communities of wealth and tradition but on the margins of power and in the midst of poverty and discontent, and that doing ministry in such places was not only important to the church, but that it held the singular key to its future. Without such an educational venue, they argued, the worldwide communion of Christians risked stumbling from lack of focus and meaning, its pastors irrelevant and dull. Pledging to resist such failure, they set their sights on the most captivating city of their age – New York – and with remarkably few resources, pitched a theological tent in its midst.
Since those days, this uncommon zeal for Gospel truth and city ministry has directed and strengthened the work of Union time and again. In each new generation, its students have embraced a vibrant, urban faith cultivated in classrooms where theological classics are studied alongside the brass‐tacks of cosmopolitan erudition. Over the years, this commitment has formed habits of heart and mind that are distinctive in the world of theological education – and well worth preserving. At Union, piety is most alive when it is restless, most focused when it’s world‐engaged, most intellectually rigorous when it’s prophetic and edgy, and most pure when it’s gritty, diverse, and service oriented. The challenge before us now is to take up once again that vision and, like our predecessors, pitch our tent in the midst of the flow and flux that surrounds us.
To do so in our present moment, however, is particularly challenging. Today the landscape of religion (not just in North America, but globally) is changing so rapidly and radically that most churches and their schools are struggling (and often failing) to keep pace with its demands. Not since the Reformation has Christianity witnessed such momentous shifts in its ecclesial demographics as well as in its changing relation to nation‐states, the texture of technology, the allure of market aesthetics, and the overwhelming force of global migration and diversity. The world is in the midst of earth‐quaking flux, and the face of the Christianity that will emerge on the other side of this upheaval is, at present, hard, if not impossible, to imagine. While the need for spirited, agile religious leaders has never been stronger, the church’s ability to deliver them has never been more confounded.
This confounded moment offers Union the unique opportunity to strike a course that creatively and intelligently positions us as the leading, innovative theological educators of this new reality, a place where the world’s most able religious leaders are smartly and faithfully trained for public service. We are better poised to do so than perhaps any other globally engaged theological school because the challenges faced by all are the same challenges that originally (and uniquely) brought our founders to New York and have stirred us ever since. We nurture a piety content to be restless and a faith eager to be learned, world‐engaged, and ever service‐minded. The vitality we draw from our New York location is exemplary of the vitality needed in a global church that is increasingly urban, immigrant, and poor. That such a task is daunting goes without saying; becoming a newer, even better version of what we have always been is probably harder than any other form of change we might imagine, partly because of the demanding complexity of diversity, and partly because we dramatically lack the material resources we need to rise to this mission. It is also a challenge filled with enormous promise because, at its heart, our task has always been humbly to become the school we need to be in order to serve a world in need. The time has never been riper for this responsibility.
In the pages ahead, I offer a rough map of how we might take up this challenge – and become the feisty urban start‐up school we’ve always been. I ask that you treat these reflections as a map‐in‐process: not a solid frame but a playful proposal. In the following pages you’ll find familiar road signs and old‐style highways and byways. You’ll also find a few new paths drawn in pencil and a few freshly hewn site‐lines for new construction. These reflections identify, as well, uncharted territory we need to navigate together, the most exciting part of all. Hopefully, in all these parts, you’ll find your own experience reflected, for it is crafted out of the things you’ve told me you value most about your work here and the commitments I see you enacting everyday with power and dedication. It’s an old map, a new map, a local map, a global map, and hopefully in it all, a very, very “Union” map. Read More>>