The inauguration of Bethany Seminary’s tenth president, Jeff Carter, was the central event of the Seminary’s spring 2014 board of trustees meeting, held March 27-30. In addition to several action items and reports from departmental committees, the board also devoted time to discussing issues presented by each committee pertaining to the operation of a seminary like Bethany in today’s social and cultural climate.
On the morning of Saturday, March 29, nearly 170 people attended the presidential inauguration service in Nicarry Chapel. The theme chosen by Carter was “Can I Get a Witness?” a reference to 1 John 1:1-2: “The Word that gives life was from the beginning, and this is the one our message is about. . . . The one who gives life appeared! We saw it happen, and we are witnesses to what we have seen.” Guest speaker Thomas G. Long, Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, spoke to this theme with an address entitled “Faithful Witness: Engaging the Senses.”
Long is widely known and respected in the field of homiletics, having also taught preaching at Princeton, Columbia, and Erskine Seminaries. The author of numerous books and articles on preaching and worship as well as biblical commentaries, he has served as senior homiletics editor of The New Interpreter’s Bible and is an editor-at-large for Christian Century.
A number within the Bethany community took part in the service, offering prayers, instrumental and vocal music, scripture reading, and introductions. Dan Ulrich, Wieand Professor of New Testament Studies, presented a “Witness of Bethany Theological Seminary” incorporating both historical and philosophical perspectives. Board chair Lynn Myers led the commissioning of the president and was joined by trustee, student, and faculty representatives in the laying on of hands. The gathering also heard statements of witness from representatives of the Earlham School of Religion, Manchester University, and the Church of the Brethren.
Those gathered for the event attended a celebratory lunch following the service, and members of the Bethany community joined the board for an inaugural dinner that evening.
Full Board Activity and Actions
Carter opened the board’s general session with an overview of objectives to help Bethany meet current challenges. Emphasizing the value of what Bethany has to offer, he focused on continued strengthening of recruitment and retention strategies, balancing the needs of residential and Connections students, and increasing the accessibility of the Seminary’s programs. The board also viewed comparative data from peer schools of similar size and programming, including enrollment and acceptance rates, student body demographics, faculty, cost of education, giving, and investments.
To help the full board engage in current issues specific to each area of the Seminary, questions for discussion were brought by the committees for Academic Affairs, Institutional Advancement, and Student and Business Affairs: What can Bethany do to prepare people for bivocational ministry? How do we communicate the concept of stewardship and habitual giving to younger generations? How can we use current resources to further our mission without hurting long term strategy? Common discussion themes were the importance of building relationships, whether with new educational partners or millennial donors, and of creative and thoughtful planning.
Among the board’s action items was the opportunity to recognize the contributions and achievements of longtime faculty members with new appointments to endowed chairs. Scott Holland, in his fifteenth year at Bethany, was named the Slabaugh Professor of Theology and Culture. Established in 1985 by Bethany alumnus and longtime Brethren pastor Foster Myers, the Warren W. Slabaugh Endowed Chair of Theological Studies honors a “master teacher” who taught at Bethany for forty years before serving as interim president in 1952-53. Likewise, the Alvin F. Brightbill Endowed Chair of Ministry Studies was established by Bill and Miriam Cable in 1982 to honor the forty-five-year tenure of Alvin Brightbill in teaching church music and speech. Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, in her sixteenth year at Bethany, was named the Brightbill Professor of Preaching and Worship.
In addressing items that appear on each spring’s agenda, the board approved the list of potential graduates for the current year, providing all academic requirements are met, and the Seminary’s budget for the coming academic year. The 2014-15 budget is $2,649,240, a negligible increase from the previous year. A revision of the articles of organization of the Brethren Journal Association was also approved. Following discussion of current endowment policy and the Seminary’s financial position, the board suspended the stabilization fund policy for the coming academic year, requesting Bethany’s administration to recommend revisions. The policy was established to help ensure financial security in the leaner years during relocation to Richmond.
The board also approved officers and committee chairs for the 2014-15 academic year: Lynn Myers, chair; David Witkovsky, vice chair; Marty Farahat, secretary; Jonathan Frye, chair of the Academic Affairs Committee; Miller Davis, chair of the Institutional Advancement Committee; Greg Geisert, chair of the Student and Business Affairs Committee and the Audit Committee; and Paul Brubaker, chair of the Investment Committee.
Departmental Reports and Activities
The Academic Affairs Committee reported that with the resignation of Malinda Berry, assistant professor of theological studies and director of the MA program, these roles within the faculty will be reviewed before a new search is begun by the end of 2014. Berry noted that current MA students are pursuing a variety of topics for study, with equal numbers choosing the traditional thesis option and the new portfolio option. The Brethren Academy for Ministerial Leadership introduced Carrie Eikler as the new coordinator of TRIM and EFSM and continued to highlight the success of SeBAH-COB, the Spanish-language ministry training program in cooperation with the Mennonite Church. The board also heard from visiting staff member Donna Rhodes, director of the Susquehanna Valley Ministry Center, regarding changes in personnel and class formats and Bethany faculty involvement in teaching. The center has a goal of making its partnership with Bethany and Elizabethtown College more explicit to constituents.
With the four-year Reimagining Ministries campaign drawing to close this June, the Institutional Advancement Committee noted that while the initial dollar goal has been reached, more work is needed in building relationships with new donors. Conversations with individuals and groups around the denomination will continue for the next few months. Current giving numbers are positive, with the total of $2.25 million for calendar 2103 as the highest in the past eight years. Giving to date for fiscal 2013-14 is comparative with recent years and higher than a year ago due to a large grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. Month-to-month annual fund giving has kept pace with or exceeded amounts in recent years; however, the 2013-14 goal of $900,000 is higher as part of the Reimagining Ministries campaign.
A new website design, coordinating with Bethany’s new admissions materials, has been in process during the current academic year. The board saw sample pages of the new look, which was expected to go live within the next month.
The Student and Business Affairs Committee was focused on issues of balancing resources for current mission priorities—such as enrollment—with long-term financial viability. Brenda Reish, executive director of student and business services and treasurer, gave an orientation to the Seminary’s financial practices and goals and the breakdown of its assets. This included an historical overview of investment return and endowment draw and their relationship to the operating budget.
Tracy Primozich, director of admissions, and Amy Ritchie, director of student development, spoke to the importance of engaging with both prospective students and those in the Connections program. Calling out persons with gifts for ministry who can connect with the distinctives of a Bethany education falls to mentors and leaders in the church as well as to Bethany staff. Those who commit to follow this call as distance learners are at a higher risk for withdrawal without the benefit of community support and involvement.
The Institute for Ministry with Youth and Young Adults task team reported on progress since its formation last year. Charged with developing the potential of the Institute, it has reviewed programs, the plan for sustainability, staffing, and the advisory board structure. A three-year plan has been established to manage finances, maintain staffing, and develop additional activities or events. Advisory board terms and membership and a procedure for communication with the board of trustees have also been formalized. The mission of the Institute was clarified as helping church leaders minister to young people through educational programs that relate to Bethany’s mission—a purpose that differentiates it from other programs within the Church of the Brethren.