New Vice President David Grafton: The Challenge of Hearing Many Voices
For the past eight years, the Rev. Dr. David Grafton has worn two hats — administering the seminary’s Graduate School (advanced-level degree program) and teaching Islamic Studies as a faculty member.
This summer he took on the responsibility of wearing four hats, agreeing at the behest of President David Lose to serve as Vice President for Planning, Assessment, and Administration at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP) while continuing to teach Islamic Studies.
Why take on such a demanding post?
“Two reasons,” Grafton said simply. “I have always had the heart to do something when asked to do it. So when President Lose extended the opportunity to me, I took seriously what I considered to be an external call. Secondly, given the changing dynamics and expectations of the times, the move made sense if I felt I could help to create a new culture at the seminary and support new work taking place here and the teaching the school has to offer in this time. I considered it a good opportunity after thinking about it. I used to primarily work directly with students. Now I am administrator for the staff. That is why I am here.”
Regarding planning, Grafton explained he is working with the ideas and vision of the seminary’s president and putting them into forms to be shared with the school’s various constituents. “And I work to see that the progress of the plan is monitored and tracked,” he said. One challenge is to put into place the seminary initiative for Distributive Learning, which has a web-based instructional focus currently in development.
His second “hat” of assessment is to oversee the school’s progress in dealing appropriately with federal and state regulations and accreditation standards. “The assessment challenges increase each year,” Grafton explained. (He oversaw an accreditation self-study for the school in 2012.) “I need to make sure we abide by and are accountable to the standards. Regardless of the size of a school, as long as we receive federal funding or are accountable to state regulations it is mandatory that someone like me is in place who is aware of the standards.”
Finally, as chief administrator, Grafton helps the president run the seminary. “I deal with all kinds of staff issues and the operation of the seminary,” he explained.
Grafton described the challenges for overseeing a strategic plan as “huge.”
“Three years is a long time to have such a plan,” Grafton explained. “The expectations of the church change. The makeup, shape, and form of funding patterns change. And the context in which we send our students is constantly changing.” The seminary regularly takes steps to listen to its constituents and their changing expectations.
“We get a lot of ideas and listen to many expectations,” Grafton said. “I regularly hear leaders saying we need to think ‘out of the box’ when it comes to preparing tomorrow’s rostered leaders. But we serve two masters. As long as we are granting students accredited degrees we have to meet certain standards that may not allow us to put some ideas into place.”
The challenges come with opportunities too. “”We have an incredible group of enriching and exciting students who seem to get it when it comes to the world in which they want to serve,” Grafton said. “They are not always sure of what they are getting into, and they don’t have all the answers, but they want to do something special to live out the Gospel in their approaches to ministry. You hear their passion all the time in the classroom. With any strategic plan we develop we have to demonstrate an ability to hold onto it and be accountable to it. But we have to be prepared all the time to reinvent the wheel.”
Any strategy requires giving students freedom of expression and development, he explained. “Over the past seven or eight years parish ministry has taken on a wide variety of shapes,” he said. “Our graduates are serving in different kinds of interesting places. Yet, we are not always sure what our graduates will be getting into. As a Lutheran seminary we have students representing 29 constituent ministry organizations across the church. We need to encourage relationships of trust with all of them. They need to understand that we each have the best interests in mind to serve the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As we seek to be accountable to each other we need to remember what Reformer Martin Luther wrote in his explanation of the 8th Commandment. We need to think well of each other and recognize we all want what is best for the church.”
Grafton has read all of the applications for the new students entering the seminary this new academic year. “Not all of our newest students are young Millennials,” Grafton noted. “But there is something different about the generation of Millennials. They are an exciting group. They have unique insights and ideas and commitment. That I think makes them perfect for the church right now.
“They want to get beyond the four walls of the church, regardless of whether they have been born and raised Lutheran and have that DNA,” Grafton said. “They have unique ideas about what has sometimes been referred to as the classic church model. They believe that a church’s property and resources should not be a church’s identity, and so there will be some struggles between the generations about what ‘church’ should look like. We need to listen to their ideas because they are becoming the church now.”
Grafton has a unique perspective on hot button issues in society right now — racial controversy and immigration.
“I’ve lived abroad as both part of a minority religion and minority person and voice in Egypt, where I served for many years as a missionary trained for Global Ministry by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” Grafton said. ”In the Middle East I discovered an important sense of the place of minority voices in a society. I was trained about the value of looking for the voices of outsiders to which to listen. In my work with students I’ve enjoyed relating to international students, of associating myself more with voices at the fringe of our dominant culture. That training has never left me, and it is a great gift.
“But even with that training, as a white middle class male I am always struggling with where I fit in,” he said. “I am always trying to make sure that I am communicating with groups different from myself. It is hard when you are part of a church that is predominantly white and middle class. But I think it is critical to hear voices different from those in the predominant culture in order to get perspective.
“That is why I feel at home at the seminary,” Grafton explained. “I have had colleagues who are bright and committed to the idea of justice. We have students here from all over the place. That reality is a main reason why a lot of students want to come here. Being part of such a diverse community can be difficult, but it is also life affirming.
“I often hear alumni returning to our campus and visitors saying to me that the seminary is not the same school they remember,” Grafton said. “But the place where we are living today is where the church is. And we have a lot to offer. When I first came back to the U.S. from Egypt eight years ago I was often asked what the global church looks like today. I told them that the global church is not white, or rich, or predominantly American. But our experience here makes that reality seem normative. It is not the case. Having people in our seminary community from a variety of denominations, ethnic, and economic backgrounds and a variety of races, is a great gift here, and our students get to learn from such a broad variety of perspectives.
“For me, being a teacher of Islamic Studies puts me naturally in a position where I need to be sensitive to issues like violence and gender,” he said. “Interfaith discussions can sometimes be uncomfortable. I bring Muslim leaders into my classes so students can learn to engage people from other faiths and listen to others in communities of which they will become a part. Learning to listen to other voices and people with different faith assumptions will enable them to begin future dialogues.”