On a recent Sunday at New York’s Riverside Church, the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones ascended the pulpit and reflected upon the last time she had preached there: It was November 2008. The country had just elected a new president, the world was reeling from the impact of the financial meltdown and Union Theological Seminary was celebrating Jones’ inauguration as the seminary’s 16th president.

As she reflected on that day a year earlier, Jones preached on the dramatic prison rescue of Peter in the Book of Acts. Even amidst chaos and trauma, God’s presence is there to lead, push or prod us along a future path, she said.

“This story tells us that God’s presence and grace comes to us regardless of how coherent we are. It doesn’t require our rational minds to grasp it. It just comes, as an angel,” Jones said.

“The hardest thing we have to do as Christians, and what Peter finally does, is awaken -- to stay awake in the midst of complex human situations and know that even though we don’t have answers, it is not impossible to say, yes, this moment in our awakening is where God comes.”

The moment of Jones’ appointment as the first woman to lead Union in its 172-year history prompted “a huge shout of joy and pride," said the Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, where Jones served on the faculty for 17 years. “We always whispered that Serene would leave Yale Divinity and play some very important leadership role somewhere.”

But coming at such a transitional time -- against the backdrop of a global economic crisis, the ongoing decline of mainline church membership, and rumors of Union’s own financial frailty -- the job change raised questions among many who had been following Jones’ career: Why would a renowned scholar with a named professorship leave the security and prestige of Yale University to lead a seminary with a history of financial hardship?

Life after Yale

Jones and her family have strong ties to Yale -- she was born into that institution. Her father, Joe R. Jones -- the former dean of Phillips Theological Seminary and later president of Phillips University -- was a student there when she was born.

After growing up in Oklahoma and doing her undergraduate studies there, Jones’ interest in philosophy and social and political theory led her back to Yale, where she earned a masters of divinity degree and later a Ph.D. in theology in 1991. Her sister Verity -- editor of the soon-to-close Disciples World magazine -- did both her undergraduate and divinity studies at Yale.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider:

  • What motivates a Christian leader to make a leap from a comfortable environment into one full of risk and challenge? What support must be in place for this to happen effectively?
  • Are you able to envision the decline of mainline denominations as holding the promise of a new vision? In what ways?
  • What is the advantage of being a collaborative theologian? Who are unlikely people with whom you could collaborate?
  • In what ways can you help craft the desires of the community you serve?

After joining the Yale Divinity faculty, Jones, 50, served as Titus Street Professor of Theology and held appointments in the law school and in the departments of African American Studies and Religious Studies. Jones also served as chair of Yale’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, a collaborative initiative exploring the relationship between women religious practitioners and political, economic and social developments.

A prolific scholar in the fields of theology, religion and gender studies, Jones is the author of books on feminist theology and Calvin, among other topics. With her latest book, “Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World,” Jones departed from scholarly writing to craft a message for the general public -- one that speaks directly to those who have suffered abuse, war, and other kinds of trauma. The book explores the question: How do people wounded by violence come to feel and know the redeeming power of God’s grace?

She described herself as “happy as a clam” at Yale, so the move to Union was not, in fact, on the career path Jones had charted. And the huge change in scale and scope of her job has also been a personal challenge: As the divorced mother of a 13-year-old, she notes that she has no “first lady” in her home to rely on.

“Coming from Yale was a huge leap,” Jones said. “I had 17 years of wholehearted support for my research and teaching interests at Yale.”

Yet when she was approached by Union’s presidential search committee to discuss the future of theological education she began to envision a new future for herself as well.

“We were several months into the search for a new president and Serene had not applied,” recalled Gary Dorrien, Union’s Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics and a member of the search committee. “The idea of asking her to consider it was just a fantasy. She had four appointments at Yale and had rejected offers to go elsewhere. What chance did we have?”

But after many hours of discussion and months of reflection, Jones gave Dorrien the response he had not dared to hope for: “‘Gary,’ she said, ‘the Union presidency is the only position in this country that could lure me from Yale.’”

Crisis of values

“It’s a fantastic moment to be standing at a seminary,” said Jones, now one year into her presidency at one of the leading centers of liberal Christianity -- and the oldest multi-denominational seminary -- in the country. “One of the reasons I decided to leave Yale and come to Union is because what you see happening globally parallels what was happening 500 years ago when this little guy named John Calvin got run out of Paris.”

She points to many forces that are challenging people and communities of faith: The battle scars of violence, the often-divisive influence of religion and the economic problems that pushed many to the brink of poverty and increased the suffering of those already living on the edge.

At the same time, new and rapidly evolving forms of technology are changing the way people think, she said.

“Change of this significance hasn’t happened since the Reformation,” Jones said. “We are living through an extraordinary moment in our lives. Forces on the one hand are collapsing. On the other hand, we are seeing forces of potential good, of hope.”

The mainline Protestant church is caught up in the cataclysm.

“Fifty years from now we’ll look back and won’t recognize what we see now in organized religion,” said Jones, who grew up in a family where the church was the centerpiece of their world. “More and more I look at my students and realize that it is a pretty rare thing these days to find people who have had the positive experience of having the church be the place where you learn to think, where you learn about the world and justice.”

At the same time, Jones said, the faculty at many seminaries are more scholars about faith than imparters of it. Students, as a result, do not always have mentors who can guide them on a journey that is both intellectual and spiritual.

If she can help it, the students at Union will face no such void.

“Before Serene came, our faculty meetings were consumed with the business of the institution,” Dorrien said. “That changed immediately. Now we spend more than half of each meeting discussing what we believe, how we teach, and what we should be doing as a theological institution.”

But Jones’ emphasis on the spiritual does not detract from intellectual rigor.

“Serene has a strong commitment to the intellectual life of Union. She really encourages scholarly conversation in an exciting way,” said Joe Strife, a fourth-year doctoral candidate at Union. “One example of this was the public forum she organized with Gary Dorrien and Cornel West in her first year as president.”

The course, Christianity and the U.S. Crisis, was co-taught with Dorrien and West, the provocative Princeton scholar and champion for racial justice. Every week students and members of the public filled James Chapel -- Union’s largest space -- to hear the three scholars discuss the contours of the deepening U.S. crisis and chart a Christian response to it.

The mega-course captured attention in the media, and was featured last July in an episode of Bill Moyers’ show “The Journal.”

Today’s crisis is a crisis of values, Jones told Moyers. “We can never underestimate the crisis of desire. Turbo-capitalism takes over your desire, turning you into a creature who wants commodities. But in churches another kind of desire should be being crafted. That’s where you can get in their bones and really begin to force the question: What makes you happy?”

A very old upstart

At her inauguration, Jones set out her vision for theological education -- a vision that requires seminaries to see and witness the rapidly changing world, to emphasize the importance of interfaith studies and to make the best use of resources for the common good.

Jones’ vision is both a call for change and an extension of Union’s heritage -- her vision statement has the title “A Very Old Upstart.” With a few dozen faculty members and about 250 students, Union may seem too small to make a difference, but since the late 19th century it has been one of the leading centers of liberal Christianity in the U.S., and it has long been at the forefront of social movements.

And, given its location in New York, Union is in a unique position to become a center of dialogue and study about the contemporary cultural shifts in Christianity, Jones said.

“Union is thriving in the midst of all these undoings. The doors of Union seminary are flying open and bursting with the life of the students, yet at the same time the gargoyles on top of the building are literally falling down on our heads,” she said.

The crumbling buildings of Union’s 100-year-old campus serve as an apt metaphor for the school’s vulnerability. And it is true that some of the oldest parts of the Gothic landmark have sustained wind damage and that chapel spires are currently surrounded by scaffolding, but rumors of its demise are unfounded.

According to Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, Union is not in as delicate a position as it was when Jones’ predecessor, Joseph Hough, went there a little over a decade ago.

Hough, now serving as interim president at Claremont Graduate University, is credited with pulling Union back from the financial brink. From 1999 to 2008, he succeeded in restructuring the seminary, making fundamental changes in how it operated, such as transferring ownership of Union’s Burke Theological Library to neighboring Columbia University and leasing some of its buildings. He also renewed the donor base and restructured the board, Aleshire said, giving Union the best possible change of succeeding.

A new theological vision

Students are also entering Union in greater numbers than they have in many years. In September 2009, with 247 students, Union had the highest enrollment in several decades, and applications for the class to enter in September 2010 are double what they were last year. The fastest-growing program is the masters of divinity program.

“Close to 68 percent of our masters of divinity graduates go into parishes,” Jones said. “These will be the people going out to lead faith communities in our new world -- communities that need to be less about moral obligation and more about delight.

“What I see in my students is powerful,” said Jones. “Students are coming committed to social justice and open to the power of the spirit in physical ways that give them a sense of zealousness that for a long time the liberal left had lost. They are driven by strong and passionate desires, and they want their passions to take concrete forms.”

These future leaders will leave the hallowed halls of Union and enter church communities whose numbers are dwindling -- a prospect that does not seem to worry Jones.

“Church membership is declining, but it is also changing,” she said. “Christianity could well be at its best when it gets completely undone,” she said quoting the Reformed tradition’s belief: “reformed and always reforming.”

It is that promise of a new vision -- of witnessing in the here and now to respond to the spiritual needs of this new reformation -- that makes Jones so excited about her position at Union. She sees within its walls the same forces -- both death and resurrection -- that are rocking the foundations of faith around the country, and around the world.

It is time, Jones believes, to cast a new theological vision that fits the moment we are in now. To witness, to listen and to track the emerging forms of love.