January 1, 2020

 

I bring you New Year’s greetings from Iliff.

It has been a meaningful year filled with work that is addressing the rapidly changing landscape impacting theological education. At Iliff, we have many gifted leaders that share in developing the institution’s future. As we reimagine that future, the most satisfying part of all of this is to see the essence of Iliff clearly coming through as the new expressions of that essence emerge. Despite all of the challenges, there are many gifts as well.

Many of you are aware that there are struggles within the many communities to which Iliff is related. Mainline Protestant denominations are under great stress to discover new settings and strategies for ministry and instill new skills for the leadership needed for those communities. Across the entire ecology of higher education, patterns of enrollment are under stress. Underneath those patterns are questions about the value of graduate degrees across all disciplines. Theological school business models must change to reduce over-dependency on tuition and denominational support. Internal strife within the United Methodist Church is creating widespread anxiety among those who are feeling called to ordained ministry. Many potential students are wondering if there will be a church that will include them, or that they, in good conscience can serve, thus making their educational investment worthwhile.

All of these issues are real. Every graduate school and every theological school, in particular, is having to ask critical questions about how it is going to shape its future. Every generation has its challenges. I believe we are living in a time when we are called to be the transition generation. The work that has fallen to us is nothing less than reframing theological education.

This past year, Iliff formed a Futures Committee and began a formal discernment regarding these current challenges. Their final report is currently being compiled and will go to the Board of Trustees on January 30th. Among the questions we have been asking are these: “Who will be the new learners at Iliff?” “What do our degree programs need to look like?” “What partnerships can we build with new communities?” “What modes of learning will we need to create to serve these new communities?” “What are the relationships we need to foster to open our imagination even further?”

Our discussions have us imagining Iliff offering programs that are worthy, viable, and feasible. We will continue to offer distinctive academic programs as long as they are viable. We will develop programs that will serve a larger population of learners, many of whom will not be “students” in the traditional sense. We will engage these new learners in a broad portfolio of learning opportunities focusing on the needs of the learners to acquire knowledge, develop skills, think differently, take on a new perspective, and preparation to participate in the moral discourse. We will endeavor to develop mutually beneficial partnerships with other institutions, learning organizations, corporations, not-for-profit entities, and government branches of agencies to further the scope and reach of its programs.

In the spirit of exploring these new directions, this year we continued to develop the Artificial Intelligence Institute. We are bringing our institutional expertise and theological disciplines with external partners toward creating “Trust-based AI.” Our Eco-Justice Center has just completed its first conference on the theme, “Water.” Students then shared an immersion experience to the Peruvian Amazon. The Ministry Incubator has established a community of persons looking to develop new models of ministry. ReSource continues to grow and bring new skills and training to leaders of faith communities and not-for-profit organizations.

At the center of our discernment is a commitment to make manifest anew the core essence that is Iliff. To feel Iliff’s essence is to know its students. Since Iliff was founded, our students have come here because their previously planned futures were interrupted by a deeply personal, dissonant experience which touched them at their core and raised deep questions within them. This experience kept calling to them to imagine their lives standing in those places of deep hurt and brokenness. They each gave up their previous life plan and came to Iliff. When I welcome each new class of students, I invite each of them to remember their own, “interruption story.” I express gratitude to them for listening to it and letting it lead them to Iliff. To hear their stories, is to know Iliff’s essence. As we build Iliff’s future, creating ever increasing and new pathways for new communities of people to encounter what Iliff has to offer, we must continue to remain aligned with the vocational urge that brings learners to us.

Along with our students’ vocational alignment, Iliff must renew its own sense of vocational. In an earlier time of greater wisdom in Methodist history, the church bestowed upon its colleges, universities, and seminaries the expectation that they would be stewards of the Wesleyan model of education. This means a commitment to academic freedom and to be inclusive communities. It was a gift that empowered each institution to be a dialogue partner to the church. That gift has led to both times of disagreement and transformation. Iliff will continue to steward its commitment to academic freedom and inclusivity regardless of any future outcome from the United Methodist Church.

Our future growth and development as an institution is dependent on living in congruence with our own stated values. This past year, Iliff’s board, faculty, and staff made a commitment to intentionally engage in diversity training. At the heart of this is the recognition that Iliff is not immune from structural racism. We are asking our institution to do the same work we ask our students to do. Our commitment is for building cultural humility within the school and to see this as ongoing work (not one time training) by building it into the fabric of the community. This is one part of the 50-in-5 initiative. Another central goal of this initiative is for Iliff, by the year 2024, to have 50% of its enrollment to be students of color. All of this will require that we be in constant dialogue, perceive the need to challenge assumptions, and actively engage in necessary structural change.

As we enter this new year, I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone for their support, dedication, and creativity. This excellent work has prepared us well for what is before us in 2020. I look forward to working with everyone as we transition towards a purposeful, innovative, and enduring vision for Iliff’s future.

Blessings in this New Year,

Tom