Principal’s 2017 Address to Convocation

Welcome to the 46th annual convocation of the Vancouver School of Theology. Chancellor Clarke, Chair of the Board, Michael Francis, distinguished guests, faculty, alumni, graduates and friends, what a pleasure to report to you on this happy occasion.

Thank you to Christ Church Cathedral, especially to Dean Peter Elliott, The Rev. Marnie Peterson and Rupert Lang for your welcome and support.

I want to congratulate the 24 graduates today. We are proud of you. Your teachability and endurance and sense of call have brought you to this moment and made all the faculty look good.

Congratulations to your families, your loved ones, since they partnered with you to achieve this great result. I hope you will thank those who encouraged you to complete the program when you doubted yourself; you know those people whose expectations that you would succeed drew more out of you than you thought you had in you. Bless them and bless you for making the most of the gifts God has given you for the sake of the church and the world. Remember your gifts are not for you – they are for the church and the world that God loves. Roll up your sleeves and go to work knowing, in this Easter season, that Jesus is all already out there ahead of you . . .

I want to report to this convocation that for the second year in a row, the Vancouver School of Theology achieved a balanced budget, while moving forward our mission, while expanding our programs and student support and providing cost of living increases to faculty and staff.

The vision of a thriving theological school, that listens to its stake-holders and partners in ministry and forms students who are thoughtful, engaged and generous Christian leaders for this time is coming to be. Yes, there is much work still to be done. Yes, we have challenges. Yes, there are exciting and enticing matters beyond imagination yet to do. However, what was envisioned when we sold our building and moved out to a place we couldn’t yet see, has become a reality to build on, to cherish and to use for the good of God’s world. We continue to owe a debt of gratitude to the visionary ‘turning point team’, who just five and six years ago, imagined what could be and stepped out to help provide a future for theological education that cultivates practical skill born of deep theological scholarship.
We also owe a debt of gratitude to our continuing and new supporters whose generosity, commitment and encouragement weekly leaves me awestruck and frankly, ‘schooled’ in the meaning of generosity. Thank you.

Our core work continues to be preparing candidates entrusted to us for ministry now, in the 21st century on the left coast of Canada (that’s not meant to give you any direction whatever for voting tomorrow).

In the book of Hebrews, the 11th chapter, we get a long list of faithful servants of God, who did what was needed – the faithful thing – in their time. Noah built an ark, Abraham left where he was and went to a country he’d never seen before, a woman called Rahab protected spies. I find this chapter interesting. It is about faithfulness to God and yet no two people do the same thing. Abraham didn’t build an ark, he walked. Noah didn’t immigrate on foot, he sailed with a zoo. The simple lesson here is that repeating what other people did in their time in your time isn’t faithfulness. Keeping faith with God has to do with the work that needs to be done now, not yesterday.

The same is true of theological education. We do theological education that prepares Christian clergy for ministry in conversation with Indigenous friends (thank you, Ray Aldred), and friends from other faith traditions (thank you, Rabbi Laura); and we do this not in spite of but because we want to keep faith with the God who loves the world in Christ Jesus here and now.

We are also doing other things that are attempts to keep faith with God and the gospel of Jesus Christ just now. A partnership is underway right now between VST and the Sauder School for Executive Leadership at UBC. We now have ten students in a pilot project where they are learning management excellence alongside leaders in the business community. While theological education is at the heart of what we do, excellence in leadership skill is also compulsory. Christian leaders from the business, accounting, legal and political worlds helped us craft this proposal, and they support it so that it is available to our students at a very modest cost. We will have our first graduates with a certificate in effective leadership at convocation 2018!

Our accrediting agency, the Association of Theological Schools, has recognized this project as an important innovation, and VST has won a competitive innovation grant of 47k US, just this past week, to support it into the future. Moreover, we will be involved in a circle of innovation, where we will share our work with others who also won grants. They, in turn, will introduce us to their significant innovations for effective and faithful leadership formation for this moment in the life of Christ’s church.

Another recent development at the school comes through the initiative and generosity of our current Chancellor, Dr. Heather Clarke. Heather took up conversations with former Chancellors of our School, including Dean Peter Elliott, Dr. Louise Rolston and Archbishop Douglas Hambidge, to make provision for a scholarship to an outstanding student in the final year of studies at VST. Heather will make a gift over the next few years that together with other legacy donations, that will endow this scholarship in perpetuity.

VST out of its student support resources will match this 7 thousand-dollar annual scholarship, so that the school will award two seven-thousand-dollar Chancellor’s scholarships to students who show academic excellence and promise for ministry. Strategically these scholarships are crucial now. They help us retain students. They enable students to have a fuller-time formative experience of community at the school. They mean students graduate with less debt. We are hoping that our Chancellor’s initiative will spark the imaginations of others. Thank you, Chancellor and former Chancellors, for your generosity and leadership.

2021 marks the 50th anniversary of our school. We want it to be a significant, game-changing event, in the life of our school and beyond. Over this summer, I will assemble a celebration committee to prepare for 2021 at the Board’s request. Already ideas are circulating – wouldn’t it be great if our endowment of 36 million dollars could reach 50 million for the sake of long-term robust support of theological education. And what about an incoming class of 50 students in 2021 – we have great programs and we want to populate them and our classrooms with vibrant learning and students gifted to serve God and the world. We are thinking about a history of the school that shows VST’s place in our city and country, we are looking at a larger investment in resourcing congregations for renewal and vitality, we have yet to deeply engage with Asian Christianity here on the pacific rim and we want to, must, do that; and what about an undergraduate degree that could compress BA and MDiv into 5 years in partnership with others in our neighbourhood?

I can already feel, you have ideas you’d like to add, and we’d be glad to receive them. We can’t promise that we get to them all, but I can promise we will listen to your ideas.

Just before I finish, I want to ask for your help. VST faces two important challenges right now. The first is this: we need more people to know our story. While our support is increasing, our constituency is aging and shrinking. You might request an extra copy of Perspectives, our newsletter, or share the one you have with someone you believe would be interested in the work we do at VST. Your help matters. If there is a person you think that I should meet, I would be delighted to do so.

The second challenge we face is this recruitment. It is interesting that in the New Testament, leaders in the church didn’t self-select, for the most part. The book of Acts records that the Holy Spirit said to the church in Antioch ‘set aside Paul and Barnabas’ for the work to which I have called them. It may be through your church that the Holy Spirit says, ‘set aside Paula and Betty and Jae Ho’ for the work to which I have called them. What kind of leaders do you think we need for the church to have a future? I guarantee God has gifted some people in your congregation to be those kinds of leaders. Will Willimon tells the story of a woman who almost didn’t go to divinity school. When asked why she wasn’t coming she said to the admissions person, ‘I’m really impatient so I don’t sit very long and I get angry at stuff. I stay up all night bothered by injustice.’ Thankfully the admissions person answered her: ‘I beg you to come to divinity school. Do you know what God can do with impatience like that in a time like this?’

Finally, I want to say thank you. Thank you to the Board for coaching and mentoring me in my role as principal, under the cheerful and hopeful leadership of Michael Francis. Thank you for your patience and great ideas and commitment to an excellent and sustainable future. For your heart, always, always accompanied by the beautiful necessity of tough-mindedness.

Thank you to the Faculty and Staff of our school, who are deeply committed to the work of theological education – who manage to hold in tender balance cultivation of wise practice and formation with the nurture and demand of thick and deep research and scholarship. You all ensure that a degree from VST is a significant achievement.

Thank you to the Board of our Foundation, who over the course of the year have managed our assets with wisdom, justice and to the significant increase of capital. And finally, thank you to our church partners and friends of the school who share the work of theological education. We are blest to have each other in the good work of bearing witness to the reconciliation of the world to God in Christ.

One of our outgoing members of the Board is The Rev. Dr John Pentland. John has served on the VST board for 9 years with distinction. We are so pleased that John has agreed to be our convocation speaker for today and to lead our revitalizing the church event tomorrow at VST – you can still register!

John has been a UCC minister for 28 years in urban and rural settings. He is the minister at Hillhurst United Church, which under his leadership has experienced transformation that is simply incredible. He is passionate about exploring creativity, playfulness and curiosity as resources to create meaningful Christian community. John is a difference maker – in his own humble, thoughtful, interrogative and friendly way. John is somehow able to hold together what falls apart in the hands of others. He is a blurrer of boundaries, a student of what works, a truth-teller, a person who does not think patience is always a virtue and a man full of compassion for all God’s children. His book Fishing Tips: How Curiosity Transformed a Community of Faith tells the story of Hillhurst, and this book is about to be followed by a second on Good Religion – which will be the topic featured in tomorrow’s workshop. We are glad you are here to speak to us John.