“We have to avoid the word ‘merger,’ or our board would never get behind a partnership between us.” — President of a US-based, independent, prosperous theological school considering a space-sharing agreement with a college
“What words did you use to define what you did in relationship with Yale? We can’t use the word ‘merger’ with our board.” — President of an overseas, independent, struggling theological school considering becoming embedded in a university as a matter of viability
Merger, merger, merger, merger, merger, merger, merger, merger, merger.
In answer to the two questions I consider in this week’s installment of “Evidently, I’m In Charge,” I told my colleagues considering new partnerships to do the following in their next board meetings: put their faces as close as possible to the camera on their Zoom screens and scream: “Merger merger merger merger merger merger merger merger merger.”
Why? For the sake of desensitization therapy. Given how much our religious institutions are going to need to change in order to meet the spiritual needs of communities in generations to come, we better start toughening up those who cringe at harmless little words like “merger”. They don’t like that term? How about “oblivion”? “Obsolescence”? “Irrelevance”?
The reason I found myself in the conversations from which I quote above is that many theological schools are in partnership talks with larger institutions with broader missions, namely, colleges and universities. Andover Newton Seminary, the oldest graduate school of any kind in the US, formed a partnership with its theological twin-separated-at-birth, Yale Divinity School, in 2017. The partnership is flourishing, and it gives me great joy to talk with colleagues about the benefits of the new arrangement, as well as the learnings from along the way that I’m free to share.
In such conversations, I find I hit a point of resistance when talking about how we got our constituents on-board. Questioners insist that Andover Newton’s wider community must be very different from their own. Andover Newton’s alums, church partners, and neighbors must have been just incredibly mellow about all the changes, they assume, but theirs are different. Um, no.
Andover Newtons alums, church partners, and neighbors were apoplectic about the concept of our selling our campus and moving to another city and state. They were deeply distressed by the idea of identity-loss that comes with being a small fish in a big pond. They were upset, and angry, and all the things. Yet we had to work with them and move forward, for we had at that point tried everything else.
My predecessor Martin Copenhaver often said of his predecessor Nick Carter, “Having a predecessor who tried every possible option made my work a lot easier.” In other words, leaders had already thrown the kitchen sink at sustainability issues including enrollment decline, deferred maintenance, rising expenses, and soaring student debt. Merger — although, truth be told, we avoided that term too — was not just the best option; it was the only one we could make work. Our school’s mission to educate faith community leaders was one we felt too important to be allowed to go down with the ship, so we put that mission in a lifeboat pointed southwest.
In Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, (Penguin Random House, 2021) Gates proposes dozens of different technologies and policies that world leaders in business and government ought to try. He encourages experimenting with abandon, as we are going to have to try a whole lot of different interventions just to find a few that succeed. The climate crisis requires a no-holds-barred approach.
In her Bauer-Broholm lecture at Andover Newton at Yale on March 20, Sue Phillips of the Sacred Design Lab used an expression that has since burned in my brain like a glowing ember. She defined today’s congregations as a “broken delivery system” for a good that the world desperately wants and needs. She critiqued churches that stick with programs that don’t work. Like strategies to avoid climate disasters, religious organizations have to try lots and lots of new approaches to meeting people’s needs for spirituality and meaning-making. In conversation with colleagues after the lecture, I learned that some heard that definition of churches as a “broken delivery system” as depressing. I actually found it liberating, the very best news, because if it’s broken, we can fix it.
The foundational principle underlying the Christian faith is this: life wins. If it’s broken, it can be put back together. If it’s injured, it can be healed. If it’s dead, it can rise. Never do we contemplate the wonder of this mystery more than Good Friday, which we mark today. Witnessing Jesus’ suffering, humiliation, and death on the cross is almost more than we can bear, even though we know the story’s ending, which somehow manages to take us by surprise every Easter.
Jesus will rise. Knowing this, we have nothing to fear. The worst already happened, and then God happened. With this armor strapped to our chest, how can we worry over harmless little arrows, such as trifling words like “merger” that provoke small-time existential anxiety?
Jesus’ death and resurrection results in renewal of our bravery as we seek to do God’s work of making the world more loving and just. Bravery emboldens us to try everything, choose the more difficult but faithful path, and overcome resistance from — while loving and respecting — those who are afraid. This freedom isn’t the easy kind. It’s freedom-to, not freedom-from, and it’s the reason for the season. Throughout Lent we’ve purified ourselves in order to get ready, because when Jesus rises, so must we.