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In Conversation with … James Hudnut-Beumler

by May. 5, 2011, 11:00 AM

The dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School reflects on job prospects in the ministry, attracting more Hispanics and being a Detroiter living in the South

Vanderbilt Divinity School Dean James Hudnut-Beumler (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

Over a cup of coffee during a typical morning of wall-to-wall meetings, James Hudnut-Beumler paused to ponder a conundrum that has long been on his mind.

“This is one of those rare professions where a talented college graduate who comes to our divinity school might well have made more money by not pursuing graduate education,” Hudnut-Beumler said. “What you have as a result of a divinity education is often a life of non-tangible rewards.”

As he enters his second decade as dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, Hudnut-Beumler remains bullish on the value the experience provides to students and the ripple effects they have on the world.

During the recent recession, he noticed that his graduates were still finding jobs, unlike many grads of law and business schools.

“Why was this? Well, when push came to shove, our graduates were needed,” he said.

“They’re needed by bedsides and at congregations. They were needed by agencies that were helping homeless, unemployed, hungry people and addicts. That work didn’t go away – in fact, it intensified.”

Hudnut-Beumler, a native of Detroit and the son of a Presbyterian minister, recently signed on for another term heading up the divinity school to end in June 2013. The dean was in a reflective mood as he chatted about his past and future leading one of the few university-based nondenominational divinity schools in the country and the only one in the South.

“I don’t think anybody sets out to be the dean of a theological school,” he said. “The thing I didn’t see coming was how much it is like being a parish minister. … I’ve had faculty members and students come in and reveal fairly difficult things that they’re working on or facing in their own lives. So the work has ended up being ministry and scholarship at the same time.”

The students at Vanderbilt Divinity School have changed over the years. For one thing, they are much less likely to be deep in debt as they begin their careers, thanks to increased support from the university as part of its drive to better support graduate education.

“We are seeing fewer students who are ‘seekers,’ as we call them in the theology school business,” Hudnut-Beumbler said. “Those are people who come to a divinity school to find out who they are by learning about religion and seeing which one fits.”

Instead, today’s divinity school students tend to be more interested in finding the way they want to serve humanity than in identifying the denomination or organization that will best allow them to proceed.

“So, divinity school has gone from a place to find yourself to a place where your life’s work finds you,” Hudnut-Beumler said. “That’s all to the good.”

The student body at Vanderbilt Divinity School has steadily increased and become more diverse during Hudnut-Beumler’s tenure.

“When I first arrived, more than a third of our students were current residents in Tennessee at the point when they applied,” he said. “The number of Tennesseans has held even, while the numbers of people coming from other places has greatly increased.”

Vanderbilt – like other divinity schools – has lagged in adjusting to the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population: Hispanics. Hudnut-Beumler is looking to turn this trend around at Vanderbilt.

“We need to stop missing out on potential leaders in the churches who could be found up and down the streets in Middle Tennessee and elsewhere,” he said. “We will begin by doing what we do best. We will study the situation and we will meet the churches and leaders in the field and figure out how to get from where we are to where we need to be by being helpful to others.”

The divinity school has been evolving outside of the classroom over the past decade as well, in part due to the Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture program, which began in 2008.

“Anyone who’s been to the divinity school knows that it’s somewhat modernist and stark in its appearance,” Hudnut-Beumler said. “We’ve discovered that that’s not what’s inside of our people.”

With encouragement from the dean, divinity professor Robin Jensen applied for a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to do something about it. The grant was won, and now the halls of the divinity school ring with poetry readings, cultural lectures and art exhibits.

“If our students learn to enrich their ministries with the culture that is in Nashville, they will take those skills and abilities and do the same thing wherever they go after they leave here,” said Jenson, the Luce Chancellor’s Professor of the History of Christian Worship and Art and administrator of the grant.

In addition to his duties as dean, Hudnut-Beumler is the Anne Potter Wilson Distinguished Professor of American Religious History. He teaches a popular course about Jesus in modern America and has authored books including a history of Riverside Church in New York City, as well as In Pursuit of the Almighty’s Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism and Looking for God in the Suburbs: The Religion of the American Dream and Its Critics, 1945-1965.

He’s currently studying contemporary Christianity in the South.

“I’m writing about the ways that the church religion and culture of the South are still distinctive,” he said. “The most popular example would be when we say, ‘bless his’ or ‘bless her heart.’ It’s like saying ‘we love you’ even though this thing you did seems a little crazy. … There are literally dozens of these traditions that get at both the folkways and conventional religiosity of being in the American South that make it both charming and different.”

Hudnut-Beumler, who grew up in Michigan the son of a father who came out of Southern culture, has now lived more than half of his life in the South.

“I don’t consider myself a Southerner,” he said. “I guess I consider myself one of those people who by the grace of God found his way down here and has found acceptance.”

America is a culture that shelters young people from what it’s truly like to work in many professions until it’s too late, Hudnut-Beumler believes. He takes pride in the fact that the divinity school, with its extensive field education component, is completely up front on that score.

“We who are ministers work with people in their most vulnerable and most joyous situations,” he said. “The paycheck doesn’t track the importance of the work. … The thing that I’m most proud of is that our graduates have learned in the course of their education at Vanderbilt Divinity School to put their shoulders to the wheel and get done the work that the human family needs to have done.”

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