Interviewing Mako Fujimura, 2018

By Jeff Munroe, Executive VP

What if you spent a few months staying at home during the COVID-19 pandemic and decided not to come back to work? The seminary recently made it possible for me to step into retirement, and I gladly did.

Nobody knows what the full impact of the pandemic will be on our school. (We thank God that no one on the faculty or staff has gotten sick.) Now, as the seminary is discerning its new normal, a number of us have been offered early retirement, and some positions have been cut.

As a result, I find myself saying goodbye, and because of the uncertainty of the moment, my final message to you is an exhortation to keep supporting Western with your prayers and financial gifts. Your help is needed now more than ever. I know from the inside that it’s not just an empty platitude to say “you really do make a difference.” It happens to be true!

My other message is unqualified gratitude. I attended WTS in the 1980s. I highly doubt that anyone then could have predicted that I would return decades later as a member of the administration. In fact, one former staff member was so stunned by this development she said, “You? I don’t believe it. You were a rascal.”

That rascal came back and was enormously privileged to be part of this wonderful community for the past eight and a half years. It’s been a joy. I still can’t get over the esteemed Dr. I. John Hesselink becoming my friend (as a student I looked at him with equal measures of awe and terror). I overheard him tell someone I was his “protégé” a few years ago, and my head swelled. I accompanied him in his late 80s to not one but two Detroit Tigers games. Our conversation in the car kept switching between the relative merits of Tigers star Miguel Cabrera, the Dutch politician-theologian Abraham Kuyper, and the finer points of both the double play and double predestination. One of my other most cherished memories is of the morning President Tim Brown and I took Dr. Hesselink out for pancakes (and another theological discussion) at Jackie’s Place a few short days before he died.

And speaking of Tim Brown, did anyone ever have a more encouraging boss? We had great times together traveling to places like Iowa, Florida, Arizona, and California on behalf of the seminary, and plenty of other great times just talking things over sitting in a booth at Russ’ Restaurant. I’ve never met anyone quite like Tim. I would tell him bad news, and before the conversation was over he’d somehow turn it into a chance to give me a compliment.

reading a poem during Community time, 2019

I’m extraordinarily grateful that I was a part of a very good decade at our school, a decade of strong growth and expansion. We experimented with creative ways to deliver theological education, we embraced multi-ethnic ministry training, and we transformed the campus into a state of the art learning center. I’m grateful for an association with WTS that began in 1981, almost 40 years ago! Western is a special school and I simply would not be who I am without it.

Now the school faces challenges as difficult as any in its long and storied history. President Felix Theonugraha is a smart and highly committed leader. I am absolutely convinced we have the right person in the right job for this moment, but he cannot rise to the challenges of this extraordinary time alone. He needs your help, but more importantly, our students need your help. Take this last piece of advice from a reformed rascal:  stick with the seminary and build up future leaders for Christ’s church!

In February, I informed the Board of Trustees that after much prayer and deliberation, Nancy and I have decided that my time as president is coming to an end. This coming school year of 2018-19 will be my last year as president.

There are many things that I want to get done. This won’t be a victory lap! This will be a very intentionally focused period.

First, I want to bring to completion our new building, fully funding the project. When we asked the Board for permission to start this project, I said to them, “I promise I will stay as president until that building is up, the flags are flying, and every debt is paid.” I’m happy to say we are really close.

I want to continue to support the work of Dean Alvin Padilla and the rest of the faculty as they make enormous strides in our Hispanic Ministries Program. Every population census you can possibly read will tell you that by 2050, the largest cross-section of our population will be Hispanic. It was such a gift to us when Alvin Padilla agreed to come and be our academic dean, and I’m so grateful for that.

I now have permission to say that Eddy Alemán has been nominated to be the new General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America. Eddy is Latino, a graduate of WTS, and also a member of our Board of Trustees. What great energy and synergy we have to do the work that is coming!

I also want to both bless and help the faculty as we move toward important hires over the next year. Several faculty members have left or will be leaving, and we need new people to join our team. I am eager to keep this stunning record of great young scholars who are Reformed, evangelical and ecumenical.

I will work very hard in the next year continuing to make this a place that helps men and women flourish in ministry. All the hard-fought efforts over the years that have opened the doors to women in ministry have recently met with resistance. We’re not going to allow that. We’re going to keep working hard until we enter in to that vision of the prophet Joel: On that day I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Last but not least, I want to ensure in the midst of our ever-expanding diversity that we have a clearly gracious, generously articulated Reformed Identity. I’m going to ask the Board of Trustees to call forth a task force to help us articulate what we mean when we say Reformed identity, so we can be expansive and welcoming but also clear about who we are and what we intend to do. This is no time to be ashamed of our Reformed identity, but to embrace it and move into the future.

I intend in the name of Jesus to give my best to all of these things, and I will, I promise you, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord our labor is not in vain. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

After more than twenty years of teaching biblical languages at Western Theological Seminary, Associate Professor Dawn Boelkins is retiring at the end of the 2016-17 academic year. To say that she will be missed only scratches the surface of what her gifts and presence have meant to students, colleagues, staff, and administration.

The ordination liturgy for Ministers of Word and Sacrament in the RCA charges those being ordained to “attend to reading, prayer, study, preaching, and teaching,” and to “not neglect the gift that is in you.” Since her ordination to that office in 1987, Dawn has devoted herself to living out every aspect of that charge. A graduate of both Western’s M.Div. and D.Min. degree programs, Dawn has played an integral part in the work and culture of Western Theological Seminary, teaching Hebrew and Greek in both the on-campus and distance learning programs. Her students laud her for her creativity and compassion, crediting her with opening God’s Word to them in unexpected and invaluable ways.

Dawn’s own sense of calling and satisfaction in her teaching is glimpsed in her response to a question about what it’s like to teach required language courses: “Generally, students approach the biblical languages with some trepidation. I beckon them past their uncertainties into the humbling, exhilarating, and spiritually rewarding discipline of biblical translation and interpretation.” One of her greatest joys, she says, is seeing the “lights go on” for her students in this regard. She also highlights the rich sense of collegiality she has experienced in participating in the Hebrew program, which has undergone many innovative changes during her years on the teaching team.

When asked to reflect on what has given her the most joy in her time at WTS, Dawn identifies her role in the committee that redesigned Mulder Chapel. The practical and theological joined hands in a powerful way for her on this committee. The end result, she says, was “an opportunity to see the Word made flesh” in a wonderful way.

You will be deeply missed, Dawn! Thank you for tending so faithfully both to your own gifts and to the gifts of your students. May God bless you richly in the coming years as you have indeed blessed us.

—Dr. Carol Bechtel

Carol Bechtel

In their words…

In Hebrew class I loved when you would gather us in a circle to have a “lovely little theological discussion.” You always created a safe and holy space for us to share our perceptions and ideas about what we were learning. …Thank you for offering yourself and your gifts of language, teaching, music, worship, and creativity to the church, the seminary, and to students like me who are now ready to take all we have learned and go out to share God’s blessing to those we encounter along the way.

—Michelle VanDenBerg

At faculty meetings I often saw you as a model, showing us how to ask honest and probing questions while holding to your convictions, even if you were the only one to vote a certain direction. I loved it when you were willing to be the only “no” or “yes” vote!

—Dr. J. Todd BIllings

As one who struggled with Greek, your care and skill opened the door to the beauty of the language, and how it can help reveal God’s character to us.

—Chris Walker

I will never look again at Greek or Hebrew with the fear and frustration I had living within me when I walked into my first class with you. …I am an improved student of the Word because you showed me how to research to understand the narrative in light of God’s redemptive plan, and not just to get the language right.

—Josh Westhouse

In Hebrew class, you named me Rav Chesed—steadfast loving kindness. As an attribute of God, it is used again and again in scripture, and each mention of it brings to light the depths of not only who God is, but helps me realize more fully who I am in God. What a gift! I will truly cherish it the rest of my life.

—Amy Klanderman

Teaching on the Hebrew team has been one of the greatest joys of my life and has lent such meaning and purpose to my work. …Thank you for giving yourself to the team for so many years, for laughing with us at all our mistakes (and sharing yours so we could both laugh and learn from them. …Thank you for being not just a delightful colleague, but a dear friend.

—Rev. Travis West