A Transformational Leader Looks Back
Retiring STH Dean Mary Elizabeth Moore reflects on how world events have impacted her tenure
When Mary Elizabeth Moore arrived at BU’s School of Theology from Emory University in January 2009 as the school’s first woman dean, she found a community poised for change. In the years that followed, STH established new programs and scholarships to diversify the student body, built a community center to foster conversation, and confronted societal challenges of homophobia, ableism, racism, and climate change. It was a tumultuous decade in world history and a transformative decade for STH. Now, as she is leaving the deanship, Moore reflects on what she accomplished—and what she didn’t—and the role she believes the school can play in shaping conversations about race and social inequality.
Mary Elizabeth Moore
BU Today: What drew you to the School of Theology?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: I asked myself what I wanted to contribute before I died. I was drawn to a vocation of reshaping theological education for the future and when I visited BU, I found a faculty and student body who were motivated to do that very thing.
BU Today: When you were hired, the provost at the time said that you impressed the search committee with an inspiring vision for STH. What was that vision?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: I wanted to build on a vision that was not just coming from me but also from students, faculty, and administrators. We all yearned to build a strong, vibrant, just, and healthy community, to expand the extraordinary academic scholarship that takes place here, and to create community opportunities for people to gather and engage in informal conversation, joyful events, and hard conversations.
BU Today: How have world events impacted the school during your time here?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: I came into STH right after the 2008 recession. This was a time when theological schools were struggling with questions of mission, financial sustainability, and responsiveness to the rapidly changing student population and rapidly changing church and faith communities. The school was already facing major issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity; that continued, but we had a very clear direction we wanted to go: to embrace fully all people. The same could be said of racial tensions, which have risen enormously during the last 11 years in our country—and especially in the last 4 years. Global warming has become increasingly disastrous and the ecological passion of the school has continued to grow. In all of these areas, every step we make awakens us to things we haven’t faced yet, ways we have not gone far enough.
BU Today: During your last semester as dean, a global pandemic and new instances of police brutality have renewed discussions about social and racial inequalities. What role can STH play in shaping these conversations and advocating for change?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: The human family is in a new moment, and the priorities of STH are called into question daily. We are witnessing the horror of two diseases—the coronavirus and the persisting disease of racism in the United States and beyond. COVID-19 devastates human bodies and communities, some far worse than others, and racism continues to devastate the soul of this country, as it has from the beginning of European settlement, destroying indigenous peoples and building a social structure on slavery. The sharp awareness of human vulnerability and the evils of institutional racism cannot be muted; we will remain ignorant at our own peril. This awareness does not mean that people see the realities and issues in the same way, so we need to engage deeply and find ways to continue this awareness journey together. What, then, is the vocation of the School of Theology in this moment of time, and what is my role as an outgoing dean?
One thing we have learned (are learning) is that STH cannot return to “business as usual.” Any temptation to do so will obliterate this moment of awareness, accountability, and potential transformation. We are also learning that we need to act both quickly and slowly. We need quick responses to immediate realities, such as hybrid patterns of education, curricular and cocurricular planning, and renewed attention to spiritual hunger, spiritual care, racial structural violence, ecological threats, and social inequities. We also need to act slowly so our work can be informed by deep thinking and listening. Some of that slow work is in conversations that grow organically, both formally and informally. STH has launched new opportunities, such as a series of public seminars on topics related to the pandemic and racism, including spiritual and psychological care, meaning-making, and congregational and public ministries. All of these include reflective and action-oriented elements. STH is also sponsoring explicit antiracism forums, and we will offer a new course in the fall on Theology and Black Lives Matter, expanding on the antiracism courses we already offer. We owe thanks to Teddy Hickman-Maynard (STH’03,’15), Rady Roldán-Figueroa (STH), and Bryan Stone for their exceptional leadership in these and many other matters.
The need for deeply rooted and visionary theological education has never been stronger.
Mary Elizabeth Moore: These initiatives are part of a larger, unfolding vision to reshape ourselves more radically. STH is exploring structural, curricular, and cocurricular changes with great care for the future. We are seeking clearer vision for transformations that we have not yet imagined and pathways that can lead the school in truly new directions, crafted with active participation by the full STH community.
BU Today: In the face of so many threats, how do you tackle current challenges while also maintaining a long-term outlook?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: Every immediate issue holds within it the past and the potential for the future, so they can’t be separated easily. You can’t address issues of racism if you don’t address issues in the history of slavery, immigration quotas, and discrimination. If that’s not part of addressing an issue, then you are simply digging a deeper hole. You don’t necessarily have to be optimistic about the future, but the opportunity to address an issue in the immediate moment is what draws us into the future. That requires imagination, it requires hearing multiple points of view, and being open to a point of view that hasn’t even emerged yet.
BU Today: STH now uses the tagline “Make History.” What does “history” mean to you?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: I understand history as a movement in which all of the past continues to influence the present and will influence a future. So, engaging with the movement through history is a way of engaging with what’s already dwelling within us. And if you see the history as moving into the present, and the present as setting the way for the future, then movements continue through time, continually changing.
Thinking of this as an ongoing process is a very important perspective when you’re working toward social and personal transformation. Because, if you think that people can transform the world into a completely just, compassionate, and inclusive place, and be done with it, you’re fooling yourself. If you think of history as an ongoing movement, then new problems can awaken you to new depths, which awaken you to new possibilities. So you’re never finished.
BU Today: Is that motivating or intimidating?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: It’s both. When you work so hard and you think you’ve made real movement toward greater racial justice, for example, and you discover the eruption of more violent, abusive racial injustice, it’s very depressing and discouraging. At the same time, if I can accept the fact that this is a task of the human race to the end of time, then it motivates me to recognize that I can celebrate accomplishments, but never rest in them, because the present and future are always tugging us to keep moving for the sake of bettering the world, which I would call the “kindom” of God, or God’s new creation.
BU Today: Transformation and transformational leadership have been important themes for you. Which transformations stand out from your tenure?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: The largest one is one that we’re still working on, and that is our movement toward greater diversity in the faculty and student body. This is one of those visions that you never finish, but we have an increasingly diverse faculty and many different life experiences, ethnicities, abilities, theological understandings, sexual orientations, gender identities, and approaches to research in our faculty and students. That is incredibly enriching.
BU Today: When you were hired, it seemed like a lot was made of your work studying feminism, but during your time here, race became a dominant theme. Was there a point when issues of race became a bigger priority for you?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: Those two have always been part of my passion, as have ecological justice and conflict transformation, or peace-building. Those have been themes for me for at least 40 years. I don’t see one as more urgent than the other, but I recognize that I devote time in different measures in different time periods, and always in an intersectional relationship. I was focused especially on women’s life experiences and theologies for the 10 years before I came here, and it’s very influential in how I work in the normal daily life of the school. I’m conscious of gender equity and gender leadership. Race has persisted as a life-threatening issue in our country and the world, as have ecological justice and sustainability. They’ve demanded a huge amount of attention in recent years, while also foregrounding gender, sexuality, abilities, and perspectival differences.
BU Today: In recent years, American society in particular has become more tribalistic. Does it feel like you’re swimming against the current by building a community that is increasingly diverse?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: Yes, very intentionally. I see us trying to create a counterculture that represents compassion, justice, and honest relationships oriented toward a better future. I also think we have within our community natural worries that some issues will be attended to more than others, some people will be empowered more than others, some priorities will outweigh others. Negotiating those fears and those hopes is part of what it means to be a community.
BU Today: Is there anything that you didn’t accomplish that you wanted to?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: Yes, so much. I wish that we had reached a more respectful, trusting place in race relations within the school and within the school’s contributions to faith communities and the larger world. The school has been affected by the fears and struggles and violence of the larger community, so I’m very glad that we’re at a place where we can have hard conversations and where people can really listen to one another, at least most of the time, and can grow from that listening. But I wish we were at a more respectful, trusting place than we are.
BU Today: Do you feel like the positive trajectory is there, but you just didn’t get as far as you wanted to?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: Yes, definitely. We can have conversations now that we couldn’t have begun to have 10 years ago, 5 years ago, even 2. I think we have a lot of tangible movement that you can see, in terms of student groups, scholarships, and program centers. In terms of teaching, faculty offer far more diversity in the curriculum and in individual courses, and they continually work toward greater inclusiveness in relation to their unique fields. But you have to be here for 11 and a half years to see that. If someone’s coming in for their first year as a student, it’s very easy to see all the problems. That’s a good thing, because the new people help us see things we need to see. And also, they keep us humble because we know that we haven’t reached as far as we want to reach.
BU Today: After this semester you’ll be taking a one-year research sabbatical—what will you be working on?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: I have five research projects I’d like to work on—and that’s too many. So I’ve been in the process of discerning which one I’ll do. I have decided to focus on sacrality and social change, seeking to understand the interplay of sacred traditions and sensibilities with transformative ecological and social movements. To what extent can sacred traditions and the sense of the sacred inspire more adequate critique of the present and more full-bodied visions and actions for the future? What kinds of revolution are necessary, and how can they be fueled by a sense of the sacred?
BU Today: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Mary Elizabeth Moore: I think the stakes are high and the need for deeply rooted and visionary theological education has never been stronger. Theological schools carry a huge responsibility and an even greater opportunity to contribute to faith and the common good. At the same time, challenges are growing and forces are pulling people apart rather than pulling them together in our present world. I envy and value the people who will come after me. They will take up that challenge.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.