Having served as the President (in South Africa we call this person the Principal) of the South African Theological Seminary (SATS) since 2006, and before that as its Vice-President since 2000, I will retire in April 2018.
For a relatively young institution (we were founded in 1996), this could be a daunting moment for an institution that has built a reputation for its uncompromising stance on three foundational principles, namely, Bible-based, Christ-centred and Spirit-led. History is littered with examples of institutions which began to move in a slightly different direction when a new President took over, and when one considers the long-term effect of those changes, the results can be catastrophic. Harvard University, for example, is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. The College’s original purpose was to train Puritan ministers. An early brochure, published in 1643, justified the College’s existence: “To advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the Churches.” Harvard’s early motto was Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae “Truth for Christ and the Church.” In a directive to its students, it laid out the purpose of all education:
“Let every student be plainly instructed and consider well that the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus, which is eternal life. And therefore to lay Christ at the bottom as the only foundation of all sound learning and knowledge.”
The following extract comes from the presidential installation address of the latest president of Harvard University, Drew Faust:
“The “Veritas” in Harvard’s shield was originally intended to invoke the absolutes of divine revelation, the unassailable verities of Puritan religion. We understand it quite differently now. Truth is an aspiration, not a possession. Yet in this we – and all universities defined by the spirit of debate and free inquiry – challenge and even threaten those who would embrace unquestioned certainties. We must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt, to the humility of always believing there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand.”
Early in 2016, the Board of our seminary, deeply aware of the dangers surrounding succession, carefully thought through a plan which they believe will ensure that the ethos of the institution will be preserved. They identified Dr Kevin Smith, the current Head of Academics, who has been with the seminary since 2004, as the next President. Dr Johannes Malherbe, the current Head of the Postgraduate School, will become the new Head of Academics. As part of the plan, I have been helping him prepare for the handover by introducing him to many of the contacts I have made in many places around the world, in order to maintain continuity and strengthen longstanding relationships, and by mentoring him in some of the intricacies of serving as a President. The staff, students and public were informed more than a year ahead of the event, to reassure them that SATS will not veer away from its chartered path and that the maintenance of its biblical ethos will be a non-negotiable.
The result is that everyone, including me, has peace about the transition and can look forward with confidence to the completion of the succession plan and to the continuing favour of God upon the institution. The Board is to be commended for its insight and forethought, and for a plan which may hopefully serve as something of a model for other institutions facing a similar transition.
Dr Reuben van Rensburg
Dr van Rensburg is the current President of the South African Theological Seminary