In her second week as dean of Duke Divinity School, Elaine Heath had already unpacked and organized her books. Volumes on psychology, pastoral care and women’s studies now line one wall of her campus office. Books on Biblical studies and theology fill another. Worship resources here; Wesley studies there.
She had also started learning what makes Duke Divinity special, setting up meetings with faculty members to learn as much as possible about the divinity school – its strengths, its connections to the church and community, and where it is heading.
“The world is rapidly changing, and the church needs leaders who can guide it through culture shifts toward a vibrant future,” she says. “With our grounding in a long tradition of intellectual and spiritual rigor, Duke Divinity School has marvelous resources with which to respond to the challenges in theological education today.”
Heath – a theologian, preacher, teacher and writer – arrived at Duke in early July from Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. She follows Richard Hays, who retired in August 2015, and Ellen Davis, who served as interim dean. In announcing the appointment this spring, Duke President Richard Brodhead described Heath as “a person of powerful authenticity and a good listener, (who) will strengthen the community within the Duke Divinity School and help the school maintain its important leadership role.”
Randy Maddox, a professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at the divinity school, chaired the search committee. “As an ordained United Methodist elder,” he said, “she is deeply committed to nurturing the divinity school’s historic Methodist connections, while equally passionate about the value of diversity and the importance of modeling an inclusive community.”
Listening, Learning, Leading
Heath received her Ph.D. in systematic theology from Duquesne University and her M.Div. from Ashland Theological Seminary. Her interest in the intersection of the church, the world, and justice issues led her to co-found the Missional Wisdom Foundation, which helps clergy and laity learn how to live in intentional and missional communities.
At Duke, this passion has now led her to ask, “Where is God calling our school? How does God want our school to resource the church going forward?”
She does not want to lose sight of the divinity school’s history, though. “We have a very rich legacy here of intellectual rigor and a good connection with the church,” she says. “That’s something I want to continue to nurture.”
Still, she is aware that the church and the school are both in transition. “There are all kinds of expressions of church that are experimental and very diverse,” she says. “We are here to prepare leaders – not for just a particular type of church, but for emerging forms, too. The core mission for me is to prepare leaders for the church of tomorrow.”
This may require rethinking Course of Study for Ordained Ministry, for example, which serves as an educational route for pastors who are not on the Master of Divinity track, and imagining how Duke Divinity School might pilot an alternative program. It could mean expanding traditional methods of field education, adding new opportunities to help students who are called to non-traditional ministries. It may include training leaders for churches that meet in coffee shops, bars, under bridges, or around issues such as environmental care.
Connecting Beyond the Church
Heath is committed to training Christian leaders who are well-schooled in the history of the church and are good at the practices of ministry.
Duke Divinity School and The Duke Endowment
The Duke Endowment has had a long relationship with Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. In the Indenture of Trust that established the Endowment in 1924, James B. Duke named Duke University as one of his main beneficiaries. “I advise that the courses at this institution be arranged, first, with special reference to the training of preachers, teachers, lawyers, and physicians,” Mr. Duke wrote, “because these are most in the public eye, and by precept and example can do most to uplift mankind.”
Over the years, the Endowment has awarded more than $82.5 million in grants to the divinity school, including a $12 million award in 2007 to fund the Clergy Health Initiative. In addition, as part of Mr. Duke’s commitment to rural churches, the Endowment helps train aspiring and practicing clergy for leadership in rural communities by providing scholarships to various programs at the school.
But for the church to thrive, she believes it must become missional in orientation – so she hopes the divinity school can do a better job training students in community organizing and spiritual direction. Heath believes that pastoral leaders need to be well-versed in asset-based community development, a process that “calls upon the strengths of the community, connects people, and facilitates relationship-building and imagination so that good can happen for the whole neighborhood.”
What will success look like for her in ten years? Heath hopes to strengthen Duke Divinity as a place where students learn to love, study, and think well.
In the meantime, you can find her listening, reading, praying, and reflecting.
“Leading an institution through change is always challenging,” she says. “It can’t be fast, and first I want to make sure that I do all of my work building relationships and knowing and loving the essence of this place.”
Learn more about Duke Divinity School.
Robert R. Webb III
Director, Rural Church