With flying colors

Divinity dean takes his many gifts to a new role at Duke

Staff WriterFebruary 4, 2010 

  • Age: 49

    Education: Bachelor's degree in speech communication and master's degree in public policy and administration, University of Denver. Master of divinity and doctorate in Christian theology and ethics, Duke University.

    Academic positions: Assistant and associate professor of theology, Loyola College, Baltimore, 1988-1997; dean, Duke Divinity School, 1997-2010.

    Family: Wife, the Rev. Susan Pendleton Jones, and children Nathan, Benjamin and Sarah.

    Initiatives as dean: Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life, the Reynolds Program in Church Leadership, the Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation, the Clergy Health Initiative, and a partnership with the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

    Home: Chapel Hill.

When he was chosen to lead the Duke Divinity School 13 years ago, L. Gregory Jones was an up-and-coming theologian but an untested administrator.

Next month as Jones leaves the divinity school to become senior adviser for international strategy at Duke University, it will be his administrative skills that will be most difficult to replace.

Those skills, by most accounts, have become legendary. During his tenure as dean of the divinity school, Jones raised millions of dollars, built a new addition, recruited star faculty and started a half dozen new programs. His work habits are said to be compulsive, his energy endless and his abilities seemingly limitless.

"His appointment is an indication of the respect he's earned over the last [few] years as a person of great administrative gifts who can be useful to the university," said Stanley Hauerwas, professor of Christian ethics at the divinity school and Jones' mentor and teacher in graduate school.

To Hauerwas and others, it was a forgone conclusion that Jones would not return to the classroom when his tenure as dean ended. And though Jones' time at the divinity school hasn't always been worry free, faculty say he has made the school a gold standard for Christian leaders throughout the state and nation.

At a time when theological schools across the country are in financial straits, that's a big accomplishment.

Thriving in tough times

The recession has hit seminaries and divinity schools particularly hard. Of the 250 theological schools accredited by the Association for Theological Schools, many are consolidating or closing. Endowments have plummeted, enrollment has remained flat, and mainline Protestant churches, where many graduates are expected to serve, have been hampered by a nearly 50-year decline in membership.

The accrediting body's magazine ran a cover story on the crisis last year with a photograph of a Sisyphus-like boy pushing a boulder uphill.

At Duke, a shrinking endowment and rising costs have taken their toll, too. Although the divinity school expects to have a balanced budget over the next two years, projections suggest a nearly $1 million shortfall by 2013.

Jones, 49, said he's not worried.

"I'm pretty confident our financial trajectory, which a year ago was challenging, now looks stable and promising for the future," he said.

In large measure, that's because of the strategic plan Jones helped craft. It calls for two new master's degree programs and one new doctoral program. The new offerings, modeled on the success of executive MBA programs, are designed to allow pastors and laypeople to earn degrees while remaining in their jobs. They will do so through a combination of weekend sessions on campus and Internet classes online.

The school hopes these kinds of programs - overwhelmingly approved by the divinity school faculty, but still awaiting the university and accrediting body's approval -- will attract a wider swath of Christian leaders far beyond the Methodist men and women who once made up the bulk of its students.

"Rather than reacting to trends, we want to work proactively to develop new relationships and partnerships," Jones said.

That kind of expansion could also bring in much needed revenue.

For Jones, Christian ministry is also an inheritance. His grandfather was a minister. So was his father. Indeed, Jameson Jones served as dean of the Duke Divinity School for 18 months before he was felled by a heart attack.

Greg Jones, then 21, was a first-year student at the divinity school. Even then, some saw his intellectual curiosity as taking him beyond his father's orbit.

"Greg has the ability to integrate ideas from a variety of disciplines," said the Rev. Kevin Armstrong of Indianapolis, who sits on the school's board of visitors and is a longtime friend. "I've heard the term 'intellectual entrepreneur' to describe him."

Innovating institutions

Although Jones remains an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, he said his real calling is to better understand how traditional institutions can develop in innovative ways.

As senior adviser for international strategy, Jones will work with the president and provost to develop partnerships abroad. Already, the Fuqua School of Business has a campus in China. Duke's Global Health Initiative is poised to expand as well.

"Institutions play a very significant role in creating and preserving community and enabling people to live well," Jones said. "Building, sustaining, renovating and renewing institutions is a crucial task."

But as he works to envision a future for the university, he and his wife, Susan Pendleton, are also working to preserve tradition. Their eldest son, Nathan, is a first-year student in the divinity school.

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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