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Professor Rebecca Laird Steps Up As Interim Dean for the School Of Theology And Christian Ministry

Photo credit to Marcus Emerson.

After serving more than 10 years in Point Loma Nazarene University’s School of Theology and Christian Ministry, professor Rebecca Laird is filling the role of interim dean this semester. After the dismissal of previous dean Mark Maddix in the spring semester, Laird shares her journey in ministry and her thoughts, hopes and vision for the School of Theology and Christian Ministry. 

The Point: Where are you from originally and why did you want to go into ministry?

Rebecca Laird: I grew up in Nampa, Idaho. My dad was a minister and became a professor, teaching things much like I do now. I did not want to do any of that. But, my mom and dad were very involved in the church and so was I. 

I felt a real sense of call to give my life to ministry when I was about 17. That didn’t look like church-based ministry at the time, mostly because I couldn’t imagine that. While the church of the Nazarene has always ordained women, I certainly hadn’t seen any and I came to Point Loma as a literature and speech major. I would’ve been a journalism major but we didn’t have that yet. 

I was interested in publishing and that world which is what I did for my first career while working in churches. As time went on, I went on to seminary [and] worked in publishing and did ministry on the side, kind of in a bi-vocational way. As I continued in ministry, that flipped. I became an ordained minister, went on and came to teach others. 

TP: I read online you worked for Harper Collins Publishing. How did publishing translate to ministry and vice versa?

RL: I worked with the very best of the best, and I worked in the religions books division. Less now, because it’s been a number of years, but at the time, when the most quoted people, I had met them, known them, read them. [It was] the best education ever. 

It’s surprising how many people work in either media, now, or print media and ministry. There’s something about “word” and good news, all those things that have to do with communication. Since my subject area was religion, there was a lot of overlap. 

TP: Stepping into this role as interim dean, what have you been feeling and thinking over the summer and heading into this semester?

RL: I was interim dean eight years ago. So, stepping into this, I knew pretty much what to expect. I didn’t anticipate doing this again. The events of last spring were, certainly, not  something I wanted, anticipated [or] would wish for. 

But, it became clear that the school of theology needed leadership and because I’ve done it before and many of my colleagues worked with me during that time, it just, by their will and common sense, seemed to be the next step. I was reluctantly willing when we started. And, now, the reluctance has gone by the wayside just because we need to continue to do really good work in the present and move forward.

TP: What have been some challenges or difficulties heading into this school year? What also, has come pretty naturally?

RL: Certainly, the challenges of this year are that it’s a new year. We’ve got wonderful new students. We’re so excited to teach them, to welcome them, to learn with them and [to] see their gifts unfold. 

And then, there’s a population of students, faculty and staff that were here that are still healing and struggling from the events of last year. And we don’t want the new students to carry burdens that aren’t theirs.

 At the same time, when people have gone through hard things, you can’t pretend it didn’t happen. Trying to figure out, how do we navigate that and pay attention to all the mixed feelings on campus or in this department? I think about that.

TP: What has care and support looked like for yourself and for other faculty members and returning students as conversations are still happening?

RL: The school of theology and faculty have done a really good job of staying in communication with one another. We’re highly supportive of each other and have recognized this has taken a toll on all of us. 

We have so much gratitude that our new faculty member, Jen Guerra Aldana, has joined us. Knowing Jennifer was joining us and having her wisdom and energy has, again, given us a sense of this is a good team. What we do together is really great. So there’s been a lot of internal care for one another. 

With students, we’re mostly talking one-on-one. We have our first event for the whole school at the end of September. We hope, in our being together, we can continue to hear. If there’s a response that’s needed to a larger group of folks that’s not just one, we’ll do that. A university community changes, by, at least, a fourth if not a third every year. How you give care to people who have had differing experiences is something that will evolve. 

TP: What is something you would say you’ve learned this summer or are currently learning? And, how is that informing the way you’re living out this role as interim dean and bringing yourself into classrooms?

RL: My summer, the highlight was walking a part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. While you walk the Camino, you meet all sorts of people when you walk with them for a few minutes, a day or several days. As you walk, everyone says “buen camino” or “good day” or “may the road be good for you.” I brought back the hope that I look at everybody that I work with that way. If I’m walking with you for a few minutes, I wish you well. There’s some people that I walk with everyday and there’s some people I walk with just briefly. And, there’s some people that it’s just hard to walk with, but it’s still good to remember to want everyone to flourish. I remind myself of that pretty often. 

TP: Given some of the difficult conversations that are happening in the Church of the Nazarene right now, conversations that could be impacting our campus, as an elder of the church, how are you navigating this time?   

RL: My role as an elder is separate from my role as a professor, although they inform one another. There have been lots of conversations with people in the denomination, some on campus but a lot off campus. My relationship with many elders in the church reaches across the country and many many decades. 

The way I’m handling this is just to be in conversation with others, trying to sort out what is happening. Recent rulings or shifts have really challenged many of the unwritten assumptions that we worked by, and so I think we’re all trying to be patient, and at the same time proactive, to make sure that whatever those processes [are] that they’re loving, just and equitable. A lot of that is just conversation and encouraging each other.

TP: For this semester or whole school year, what are your hopes, whether it’s treading this difficult ground right now or conversations in those classrooms? What do you hope to see?

RL: An interim dean has a different task than somebody who’s going to be a long-term dean. So, since I’ve done this interim role before and I’ve had two other interim roles prior to this, I know my job is, mostly, to help the team do what it needs to do, keep the processes running smoothly and then to have a couple of hopes that will help us step into a larger future that somebody else will lead. 

And so, the two things I’m focused on are: one, this is a period in which conversation, boundary and organization are taking place. I seek to be a spokesperson at the table for the School of Theology and Christian Ministry. It’s important to all of us that the role we play on campus, the classes that we teach and the conversations we have with the broader church and churches, that we continue to be positioned in a way we can do that works well.

Second, the school of theology has about 15 adjunct professors that teach Bible and Christian Tradition and Christian Life as Vocation. And, one of the things that I can do is to work on how the school of theology resources, works with and supports them in the classroom. That’s one of my priorities this year. 

TP: I’ve heard talk of the school shifting into a department or those sorts of things. If you can speak on that, how is the school processing that or advocating to remain a school?

RL: The plans for reorganization are still evolving. What we’ve seen places the school of theology in a school with a couple of other departments. There’s been more recent conversation that we may be continuing as a school with some sort of relationship with those departments that’s different than us being a free-standing school, which we are now. 

All of that is in flux and the faculty have been having forums and conversations to try to give as much info as possible. What the school of theology wants to do is to make sure that we’re able to do the work we’re tasked with doing, and we want the process not to move too fast or not think about how the school of theology is different from some of the other schools. 

We’re not as big numerically as the other free-standing schools, but we have asked the question, is numerical size the only way to determine whether or not a group can serve the university as a school? I think we’re open to change. It’s inevitable and sometimes necessary. We’re just trying to make sure that the “why” questions are well thought through and that the changes will help us serve the university. 

TP: What would you like to say to both new students and returners stepping back into classrooms? What encouragement or advice would you like to share?

RL: What I would like to tell them is we have a brand new major. Think about it. Take a look at our theology, justice and peace major. It’s an interdisciplinary major that has students taking classes in the school of theology and the department of sociology and the Department of History and Political Science. We just finished it last spring. We want students to know that what we do in the school of theology is equip people for all sorts of ministry, and so we put that degree together to attend to many ways that people want to be involved in the hard places of the world. 

Of course, we continue to prepare people for Christian ministry. I hope students know we have seven minors and no matter what the major someone is involved in, we’re here. 

I would encourage students to remember that Point Loma is a very good place and that what we’ve been through is a reminder that no institution is perfect and that institutions have to constantly be asking questions about what is our mission? How do our policies enable us to treat each other well? If they don’t, how do we rewrite them? How do we rethink our way of life together? 

I hope that helps students to both recognize when harm is done. We don’t pretend things didn’t happen that are really sad and unfortunate. And yet, we do not give up because every community will have periods in which the wheels seem to come off, and then we have to decide: How do we put the wheels back on? How do we travel together well? I hope we learn from this and continue to call each other to account and learn how to apologize, learn how to forgive, even if it takes some time, and learn how to support people when their lives have taken turns that they didn’t choose. These are powerful life lessons. 

It’s easier to just want to dismiss or write off or to cancel, but the call to Christian discipleship is to stay in the game and to know nobody does it all right, but to say, “We’ve got to love each other best we can.” And when we don’t, thankfully, we have the call and the grace of God to do some repairs and move forward. The purpose of God has not changed.