“We are at the front end of a new reformation, which will likely take many decades to unfold. I am excited to be part of this era of the church’s life, to be able to participate in the new thing that God is doing. Some of our versions of church will fail, and not a moment too soon. But the gathered people of God who are the Body of Christ in the world today, will continue because God will not forsake us.” — The Rev. Dr. Elaine Heath, Dean of Duke Divinity School
In this historic week in which the first woman has been nominated for President of the United States, it’s an honor to introduce you to another female “first”: the Rev. Dr. Elaine Heath, the first-ever woman Dean of the Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. An ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, Heath has served as pastor in local churches as well as in academia. She is the cofounder of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, a nonprofit that administers a national network of regional hubs of missional learning communities and the author of a new book for the church, God Unbound: Wisdom from Galatians for the Anxious Church (Upper Room Books, 2016).
We caught up with Dean Heath in her first month at Duke to ask her some questions about her work, passions, and guilty pleasures as part of our Patheos 10+1 Interview Series, in which we ask the same 10 questions (plus one unique bonus question) of Christian game-changers and thought-leaders who are inspiring us today.
What, in the broadest sense, is your work in the world?
My work is to bring renewal to the church through higher education, so that the church of tomorrow can fulfill its missional vocation.
What are you most energized by, professionally or personally, at the moment?
Professionally, I am most energized by my new position as Dean of one of the top divinity schools in the world. Here I am privileged to work with outstanding faculty, staff, and students, to guide our institution to equip missional leaders for the church of tomorrow. On a personal level I’m loving our new location, Spring Forest, which is an intentional community and farm in Hillsborough, NC. Our friends who lived in community with us in Texas, relocated so that the ministries of prayer and hospitality of our house could continue here in NC. We are delighted with our land and home, and the ways in which our home will serve as a gathering place for spiritual formation and friendship building in the years to come.
What’s inspiring your work right now?
The people who inspire me the most at this time are President Obama, for his remarkably centered, unwavering leadership over the past eight years in the face of many obstacles; Pope Francis whose leadership models in very basic, public ways, the practices of Jesus; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose communal and prophetic experiment in theological education points toward our own day in which we must ground our students—future leaders of the church—in spiritual practices of prayer, hospitality, and justice. All three of these leaders understand the power of genuine community, and the importance of integrity in the life of the leader. I am always inspired, too, by the wisdom of Julian of Norwich, the courage and spirituality of nineteenth century evangelist Julia Foote, and the spirituality of Phoebe Palmer, our own Methodist Mystic and mother of the Wesleyan Holiness Movement.
What’s the last book you read?
I just read Simon Synek’s Leaders Eat Last, and L. Juliana M. Classens’ Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimaging God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament.
What’s something few people know about you?
I love to roller skate! I still have my skates from high school as well as roller blades.
Why are you still a Christian?
I am still a Christian because my heart utterly belongs to God, the God whose personality is revealed to us in the life and practices and teachings of Jesus. As I gaze at Jesus in the Gospels, I see love incarnate, love that is for me and is for my neighbors. “O love that will not let me go…”
What’s your favorite theological word?
What a funny question! I don’t know about favorite, but this word certainly keeps coming to mind as I think about the shift in orientation that the church must now negotiate if it is going to fulfill its God given mission. That word is “kenosis,” which is found in Philippians 2:6-10, the great hymn about how Christ loves. Kenosis means “self-giving.”
How do you pray?
Prayer for me is primarily a set of listening practices, in which I listen to what is going on within myself, within my environment, within the text I am reading, within my conversations with others, within our city and our nation, within our institutions. I am listening for the voice and wisdom of God. Listening for the enlivening of the Holy Spirit. Listening for the call to follow Jesus in a particular place, way, or action. Journaling helps me to listen. The prayer of examen helps. Holy conversation with my community helps. The forest and field where we live, helps.
What’s a guilty pleasure?
A guilty pleasure is something that your frowning and judgmental self sneers at because it is for sheer pleasure and has no utilitarian purpose. Some of my guilty pleasures (over which I feel absolutely no guilt because the capacity for pleasure is God given) are: peanut butter cup ice cream and Harry Potter novels. Preferably at the same time.
What’s one cause you’d like more people to know about/support?
I would love for local churches to get much more involved in supporting refugees in their hard work of resettlement in the US. Very few congregations are actually engaged in welcoming these newest neighbors, though tens of thousands of refugees are brought to the US every year. There are many ways congregations can help, from ESOL classes to homework tutoring, to helping people learn how to shop in American grocery stores, to navigating the search for jobs and an education.
There is definitely hope for the future of the church. The church in America will look different 50 years from now than it has in the past century. It will be much more diverse in form. There will be more creative expressions of local faith communities, and networks of small communities will be more normative. The church will not be able to assume it is in charge of America anymore and deserves special perks (which is a good thing, as the true Gospel invites us to a stance of kenosis rather than dominance), and there will be more bi-vocational leaders and fewer full time clergy with salaries and benefits. We are at the front end of a new reformation, which will likely take many decades to unfold. I am excited to be part of this era of the church’s life, to be able to participate in the new thing that God is doing. God is faithful and will not forsake the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” church. Some of our versions of church will fail, and not a moment too soon. But the gathered people of God who are the Body of Christ in the world today, will continue because God will not forsake us.
Read an excerpt from Elaine Heath’s new book, God Unbound, at the Patheos Book Club here.