BU Today

Campus Life

A conversation with the new dean of Marsh Chapel

Robert Hill talks about religious life on campus

Robert A. Hill, the new dean of Marsh Chapel. Photo By Kalman Zabarsky

Reverend Dr. Robert A. Hill, the new dean of Marsh Chapel, comes to BU from Rochester, N.Y., where for 11 years he was minister at Asbury First United Methodist Church. With a congregation of about 2,000 and a worship attendance of 800, Asbury is one of the two largest Methodist churches in the Northeast. “My passion is preaching,” says Hill. “At Marsh Chapel I will have the opportunity to give a national voice to the Methodist ethos.”

The new dean, who will also be a professor of New Testament and pastoral theology at the School of Theology, is deeply committed to the ecumenical space Marsh Chapel offers to the University. “The Dean of Marsh Chapel guides and orders the full expression of religious life, which is so varied and wonderful here,” he says.

Hill received his bachelor’s degree from Ohio Wesleyan University, a school with Methodist roots as deep as BU’s, attended Union Theological Seminary in New York, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in New Testament studies at McGill University. He has served in seven churches, five times as minister, has extensive college level teaching experience, and has published books and articles in both Biblical studies and practical ministry.

With his wife, Jan, a pianist, Hill will live on Bay State Road. One of his three grown children is currently studying at the School of Education. He reports that he has already discovered the pleasures of jogging along the Charles River, and he looks forward to getting to know Boston. Hill spoke with BU Today about religious life on the University campus.

BU Today: What brought you to BU?

Hill: The pulpit. Its history, its predecessors — Howard Thurman, Franklin Littell, Robert Hamill, Robert Thornburg, Robert Neville. Its influence as a defining point nationally in Methodist preaching. Its potential for formative influence, especially on the next generation of ministers. Its connection to the University and School of Theology. It also has the potential to attract people to consider the ministry.

What were your first impressions of religious life at BU?

I was impressed by something President Brown said at the inauguration — the phrase that BU is at “the heart of the city, in the service of the city.” I believe Marsh Chapel can provide a heart for the heart of the city and a service for the service of the city. A loving heart for the heart, and a worship service for the service.

What would you like to see happen in the University’s religious life?

There are three things most present on my mind. First, to continue the years of excellence in preaching at a national level and to invigorate and expand the influence of the pulpit regionally and nationally. Radio will be an important part of that.

Second, to illumine the Methodist spirit that still inhabits this space. It’s a very ecumenical space, and the Methodist contribution is a combination of head and heart, of learning and vital piety. Religion is a combination of deep personal faith and an active social involvement.

Third, to provide excellent hospitality. So that this is a space in which we’re not just doing, but being. So that we are human beings, not human doings.

Also, I’m always thinking about the next generation. I’m used to preaching in a full church, and I carry a metaphorical fishing license, looking for the next generation of clergy.

What do you see as the role of the dean of Marsh Chapel on campus?

The dean of Marsh Chapel guides and orders the full expression of religious life, which is so varied and wonderful here and in Boston generally. My aim is to do so in a way that across differences we can find common ground. I want to help us learn that when we need to disagree, we can agree to disagree agreeably.

What do you see as the role of your sermons?

My passion is preaching. I love to hear and work with preaching. I love to listen to good preaching as much as I love the challenge of working on my own. The Boston preacher Phillips Brooks said that preaching is the communication of truth through personality. Each part of that needs to be emphasized, not just the communication. You need to trust that truth will come through. I believe there is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.