Michael W. DeLashmutt, Ph.D., was recently appointed as Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs at The General Theological Seminary. GTS News sat down with him to talk about his background and what brought him to General.
Would you tell us a little about your background?
I grew up on a family farm in southwest Iowa. Though I was baptized as an infant in the Methodist church, I was re-baptized in a Baptist church at around the age of eight. Some of my first memories of faith formation are sitting in my minster’s office going through the pre-baptismal coursework and talking about what it meant as a youth to make faith my own. I went to Sunday school and VBS as a kid, and it was an important part of growing up.
Later, my family moved to the Seattle area, and I started going to a Pentecostal church near our home. Around the age of 16, I felt a call to some kind of ministry and realized I wanted to be in theological education. After receiving a B.A. in Biblical Literature and Theology at Northwest University, I started at Fuller Theological Seminary Northwest while working at a local church, just to see where it all went.
My wife, Julia, and I met when we were in high school, and we got married in the summer of my senior year at college. We have two wonderful little girls. Eliza Ruth is nine years old. Naomi Grace is 12 years old. These kids have been really amazing through the number of transitions in our lives.
During my time at Fuller Northwest, the church my wife and I were attending imploded in a really damaging way. There was a split in the congregation as a result of significant misconduct by an individual who was also my mentor. It was difficult to recover from that. Julia and I stopped going to church, though I continued to go to seminary. For me, theology was a way to engage with an intriguing intellectual puzzle, but I didn’t want anything to do with God. In fact, I was pretty sure that there was just no way I could believe in God anymore.
Then, a friend invited us to a Presbyterian service in Seattle. It was the first time in my life I had ever stepped into a church where the clergy wore any kind of vestments and there was any type of order of service. At the beginning of the service, the deacon stood up and led us through an Order of Confession and Absolution. When she pronounced our sins forgiven, something in me just broke. I had never known grace and forgiveness from God. All I had ever known was obligation and duty. This started me back on a road toward a new way of understanding what it meant to know and love and to serve God.
Our denominational journey next took us to a small ELCA congregation in rural Washington, then to the Episcopal Church of Scotland, when we moved to the United Kingdom in 2002, and then finally to the Church of England and The Episcopal Church. It’s a journey that’s been marked by a growing sense of the power of liturgy to carry you along in faith, when you don’t have the strength or the ability do it yourself. I am so thankful to be accepted as a member of The Episcopal Church and to find in this communion a broad home where my Pentecostal background and also my love of history and the arts are all included in the welcome and embrace of diversity in the Church.
Academically, after completing my Masters at Fuller, I moved to the United Kingdom to pursue a Ph.D. at the Centre for Theology and Literature in the Arts at the University of Glasgow. Then, I went on to my first job as a teaching fellow in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen.
Next, I was the Lecturer in the Study of the Christian Church at the University of Exeter. There, I was able to wrap my head around this task of ministry formation, including the big questions of how we prepare people in the parishes to cultivate an interest in theology and in faith.
I went from there to a position in the administration at Sarum College in Salisbury. This was my first administrative role. I find working in administration an opportunity to serve faculty and to serve institutions by doing something I love that a lot of people don’t love; namely, figuring out ways institutions can be more effective and more oriented toward serving their missions. If I can create a context where a faculty as a whole is able to teach, research, serve, and lead in ways that effectively form and educate our students, then I’ve done my job, and I can go home feeling satisfied.
How did you find General Seminary?
Of all the positions I’ve held, this one feels most like a call. I wasn’t looking for a new job last December when I received the email from Kurt Dunkle. I did have an inkling that my current role was ending—the college that I was working for was in significant financial distress. Around the same time, several colleagues had contacted me, unrelated to Dean Dunkle, encouraging me to consider an opportunity at General Seminary. It felt very much like the hand of God was operating behind the scenes.
When I first read the person specification—not the job description, but the person specification that Dean Dunkle sent out initially—my wife and I both started laughing, because it sounded so much like me. So, I sent out word to my network that this is something that I was discerning, inviting people to pray along with us and provide guidance about this decision.
I was fully aware of the controversy that General had gone through and was further aware of the financial difficulties that the Seminary had faced. I’m not afraid of uncertainty or financial problems, having been a higher education professional in the midst of turmoil and transition at other struggling institutions.
My experience has given me an instinct about how to revitalize an institution, because I have seen institutions die and I have seen institutions reborn. I am confident that the previous faculty situation, while painful and difficult, is far enough behind General that we can begin to move forward, and I can sense a real energy and hopefulness here. I am excited to be part of the great future of General Seminary.
How would you describe your role as Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs?
The Vice President and Dean for Academics is slightly different from the traditional Subdean role; although I will still occupy the Subdean’s stall in the chapel. I see myself as a partner with the Dean and President, and my job is to support his work by managing and leading in academic affairs.
My role is to provide leadership and oversight to the academic dimension of the Seminary. I have responsibility, with the Dean, for supervising faculty, for curriculum development with the faculty, for accreditation and assessment, and for assuring and enhancing the quality of instruction while supporting the development of curriculum and new program areas. I will also liaise with the Board of Trustees through the Education and Formation Committee and oversee the Library Manager and the Registrar.
What are you excited about in this new position?
The first thing that I’m excited about is the faculty. They are all pulling together toward a common goal, a common mission. There’s a sense of camaraderie, a sense of mutual respect, and a commitment to integration and collaboration. This makes us a distinctive place in the higher education ecosystem, as we continue to live out this collaborative spirit.
The next thing that I’m excited about is the opportunity to serve the Church in my new role. Education and formation are the most important ministries that the Church can engage in. We get to work with men and women who are discerning their call, and to help them to get a better sense of who they are in their experience of vocation and to live out that vocation to its fullness. It’s wonderful to be a partner with them in cultivating these skills and competencies.
Lastly, I am excited to develop new programs here. We have an amazing campus. We have an incredible library and a wonderful staff and faculty. I want to share this with people who may not have thought about how they can see themselves in theological education as a student. I’ve been speaking with the faculty and the Dean about developing a new two-year master’s degree in Ministry. It would be an M.A. in Ministry, which would be open to students from any denomination who were interested in either lay or ordained ministry. Such a degree program could also offer a more formalized curriculum for some of our one-year Anglican Year students. I think our mission in the future is one where we are serving the broader church as a significant educational resource; to complement the education and formation we currently provide, and to attract a more diverse student body.
Do you have a vision of your role as Academic Dean?
My hope is to help the faculty to develop their craft as teachers and to provide opportunities for professional development. I think one of the things the academic affairs dean can do is to help manage faculty workloads in such a way that they can really focus on those things which nourish their lives and serve the institution. This leaves room to continue to serve the Church and to publish, as they have time. I am also intrigued by the question of how we mentor and advise faculty to be effective monitors and advisors to our students.
I look forward to forging meaningful partnerships with other institutions, whether those are other Episcopal seminaries or other entities. I believe we can find ways we can strengthen each other. We really need to recognize one another as sisters and brothers in this common ministry of theological education and find ways we can support one another’s work.
Are there any plans, general or specific, that you are working on?
I really hit the ground running when I started here at General. I’ve been working to refine some of our policy infrastructure; so that, ultimately, students have a clear sense of what our expectations are for them. I’m also helping support Emily Wachner’s work on The Way of Wisdom. We are thinking about what it means to truly develop an integrated theological curriculum for ministry formation, where students are not only integrating course work with actual works of ministry and engaging in churches, but are thinking about how the various theological disciplines themselves integrate with one another. This has been a lifelong project for me, thinking about interdisciplinary integration. I’m teaching a couple sessions in our first integrated seminar course this semester.
I’m really excited to work on a new web site for General Seminary. We’ve hired a design firm which specializes in web sites for faith-based not-for-profits. They’ve already been working with us on developing the navigational framework for the site, and our goal is to have a new web site operational sometime this fall. I think this is a great first step, as we try to reach out again to this broader network of folks who may have yet to hear about us, and to promote the great things we have here.
In what ways do you see yourself participating in the daily life of General?
I moved here with the family and we see living here as a family matter. I look forward to Morning Prayer and Evensong as much as I do teaching and working with the faculty and the Dean and President.
I am delighted by the prospect of a weekly Community Eucharist, where my wife and daughters can join us in the Chapel and enjoy a community meal. Formation for ministry is a project that we’re engaged in all the time, and the informal and formal connections that we get to have with students are really special for me.
What does The General Theological Seminary mean to you?
Given its history as the first theological seminary of The Episcopal Church in the United States, it means that by design we intentionally serve a broader constituency than perhaps other seminaries might serve. We have to be open and affirming to all God’s people and provide opportunities for education and training for the whole people of God. I see that as something that we can live into.
I think it also means that, when the Church says it needs certain things for its priests to be able to do and be able to know; when it is asking for competencies and skills; when it is calling for adaptive leaders who can be entrepreneurial and missionally focused, who can speak about Jesus in communities in a way that is lifegiving and meaningful and persuasive; when it’s asking for clergy who can spark faith in people’s lives and be instruments of the Spirit, I think we have to be able to respond.
I don’t think that The General Theological Seminary can necessarily follow any one agenda or whim or trajectory; but, it has to serve the Church, the general Church. This does not mean we are generic, and it certainly does not mean we abandon the liberal catholic heritage that has so shaped this place. But I think what it means is that we take this heritage into the future, and we see where God’s mission in the world is leading us. I look forward to discerning that with the General Seminary community and this Church.
What do you see as the future of The General Theological Seminary?
I imagine a future here where we continue to build upon the faculty model that Dean Dunkle proposed, with a strong core full-time faculty, affiliate faculty who bring their presence and their expertise to campus in a way that is unique in theological education, along with a diverse network of adjunct faculty who can provide specialized theological education in subjects that our students need.
I see the development of new programs to the point where the students in the lay vocational training programs will be just as numerous as those in the M.Div. program. The development of a new training educational pathway will have a benefit to the whole community. These pathways won’t dilute the quality of the M.Div.; but, if anything, they will create more opportunities for M.Div. students to take diverse elective courses and encounter students from a variety of backgrounds. I want to work with the Seminary to ensure that access to theological education is made available to a much larger group of people.
Is there anything else you would like the GTS News readers to know?
While I may have a diverse faith background, my family and I have found a home in The Episcopal Church. There’s something about The Episcopal Church—its history, its breadth, the sense that theology isn’t just something that you believe. It’s a way of devoting oneself to God—that is very appealing to me.
I want people to know that I am deeply committed to the success of our students. I want our students to be transformed through the experiences and the learning that they have here. Through residential theological education, we live out Jesus’ “Summary of the Law” in a profound and concrete way, loving God with all our heart through the regular rhythm of worship and prayer, and loving God with all our mind through study and contemplation. Through both education and formation, we are reminded that theological study isn’t just another academic discipline, it is a calling to a deeper encounter with God.
We love our neighbor as ourselves as we look outside the Close and see how the Seminary can make a difference in the lives of men and women outside this beautiful idyllic place—whether that means serving churches by offering opportunities for theological education, or engaging in service projects throughout the city and in the region. There are abundant ways in which we can express our love of God and of our neighbor here. Ultimately, theological education is a way we express our love for God, individually and as a collective.