Written by Bennett Guess
The Rev. Serene Jones, a UCC/Disciples minister and feminist scholar who currently teaches at Yale Divinity School, has been named the new president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, one of the flagship institutions of liberal Protestantism.
Jones, 48, is the first woman to head the 172-year-old non-denominational seminary located in upper Manhattan and affiliated with Columbia University.
Her presidency also represents a generational shift: Jones succeeds 74-year-old Joseph C. Hough Jr., also a UCC minister, who is retiring after serving nine years in the post.
Jones will begin her duties July 1 at an institution that has served as a scholarly home for such major theological figures as Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich and, more recently, the black theologian James Cone.
In announcing the appointment, David Callard, the chairman of Union's board of trustees, said that Jones will help Union "not only to continue its role as a leading institution of theological education but also to be a strong voice at a time when religion, with all its pluralistic manifestations, has become an increasingly powerful and divisive issue."
Union is emerging from a period of financial uncertainty, and one of Jones' challenges will be to build on Hough's record of raising money.
Hough is credited with helping boost Union's endowment to close to $100 million, averting fears that the seminary might shut its doors. Last year, he said fundraising would have to remain a major part of his successor's job.
In an interview, Jones acknowledged that fact but also said her job will be made easier because "Union is completely stable. It's not going away."
"The dark clouds have passed; the place is lean but ready to go," she said, adding that the seminary is now poised to begin a period of expansion.
Given Union's urban locale, Jones said, the school is in a unique position to become a center of dialogue and study about the contemporary cultural shifts in Christianity -- changes that she said might prove ultimately as important as the changes caused by the Reformation.
Jones has taught at Yale for 17 years and holds degrees from the University of Oklahoma, Yale Divinity School and Yale University. She holds ordained ministerial standing in both the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.