Service. Adaption. Innovation.
All three have served Dr. Mark Harden, the new president of Ashland Theological Seminary, exceedingly well throughout his varied career.
In 1985, Dr. Mark Harden was beginning a career in law enforcement, serving the Detroit metro area. Uniquely, he brought a commitment to ministry to this public servant role, as well.
The two callings unquestionably strengthened the outreach and community service offerings Dr. Harden was able to create and offer in his law enforcement role.
They also helped to lay the foundation for his informed, diverse and proven approach to seminary leadership.
“I was respected in the community because of my standing as a police officer,” recalls Dr. Mark Harden, the new president of Ashland Theological Seminary. “That opened doors for me to develop programs to prevent youth, in particular, from choosing violence, alcohol or drugs as an alternative.”
As a minister, as well, Dr. Harden also focused on strengthening the relationship between the Church and the surrounding community. He was able to effectively bridge the gap by developing outreach education and activities to help youth understand what it means to possess a sense of spiritual well-being. In the process, he says, he learned how better to empower and motivate these young people.
This diversity of experience — and his ability to draw from all of them to provide exemplary, innovative seminary leadership — has become something of a hallmark for Dr. Harden, the first African-American president of Ashland in its 110-year history.
A spirit of service
Looking back, Dr. Harden says his time as a police officer uniquely shaped his leadership approach in the theological seminary environment. Importantly, it taught him the need to approach life with a measure of confidence — “to avoid running in the opposite direction when I see trouble, and instead be determined, persistent and focused, with a bit of patience, in order to achieve my goal.”
Historically, he has also called upon two police work-associated strengths — being strategic and tactical — in his seminary leadership. “There are advantages to both approaches in theological education and ministry,” he explains. “That’s pretty much my approach.”
Indeed, anyone who has worked with Dr. Harden is likely to have observed how central strategic thinking is to his methods; he strives to cultivate a learning culture that can innovate, particularly when it comes to a specific task.
“Police work forces you to engage and discover the advantages you have in tough situations,” he points out. “With the tough situations I’ve faced in theological education, I would say I’ve pretty much stayed in that mode.”
A strong multicultural career focus
Dr. Harden served for a time as Bethel Seminary’s Dean of Intercultural Relations. It’s an experience he says will undoubtedly inform his role at Ashland, in several ways — especially at a racially divisive time in our nation.
For Dr. Harden’s part, he believes seminaries can equip church leaders to help their communities bridge this gap. It begins, he says, with some essential foundations.
“This includes changing our language for productive conversations about differences so that dialogue can have a chance in experiencing our own proclivities and the value associated with how we were socialized to a community which gave us our social identity,” he begins. “[We must also learn to] confront behaviors and actions that create conflict between people, and learn about the humanity of others through meaningful and significant human interaction.”
Lastly, Dr. Harden says seminaries can set students on a path to building their capacity for intercultural competence in their lifetime.
In fact, his own Intercultural Relations-centric role at Bethel Seminary somewhat mirrors this evolution. “It involved building the capacity of students, faculty and staff to confront their innermost fears related to diversity and differences,” he explains. “[Part of my job was] to develop the capability to engage successfully with those who operate out of a different worldview perspective or reality.”
In doing so, Dr. Harden says he was able to overcome the need to judge — or misjudge — and become what he calls “a student of people — a student of those who are different, or those who come from a different background.”
This aptitude has served him particularly well in an increasingly global world, as globalization has affected even theological education, training and ministry life. “It [has] helped me lead the seminary into new, uncharted areas of the church and community and service to God, and for the sake of the Church and the world, too,” he says. “When we explore differences and become students of ministry, we also become students of people. And you can’t do that without a measure of curiosity and engagement.”
A clear (and proven) path forward
Given Dr. Harden’s depth and breadth of experience, it’s perhaps no surprise that, throughout his career, he has received exceptional recognition in the areas of community service, youth mentoring, intercultural education training & communications, Christian community development — the list goes on. He says this diversity of expertise is sure to inform his new role as the president of Ashland Theological Seminary.
First, of course, it lends a level of confidence that he can provide leadership and succeed, particularly in tough times.
“I also understand and see the limits of money in terms of revenue and resources,” he adds. “What I often find in organizations is the inclination to throw money at solving a problem. But in the non-profit and community outreach worlds, you don’t always have money. You have to ask yourself: How can we do more with what we have? How can we do more with less?”
For Dr. Harden’s part, he is well-acquainted with doing both — at basic and innovative levels.
His diverse experience also enables him to identify trouble signs and to telegraph common mistakes that people make in the realm of theological education. “An example is when people get frustrated and look to the ‘good old days,’” he says. “They want to try to ‘go back’ when what’s really required really may be a new approach altogether.”
Dr. Harden’s long-held focus on adapting and innovating will surely help shape Ashland’s educational offerings in the coming years. Partly, this means understanding how the seminary can learn to do more with less, as mentioned earlier. But, adaptability and innovation can — and should — also extend to the classroom.
“Seminaries have to ask themselves tough questions that will lead them to think outside the box and be innovative in the delivery of a product or services,” Dr. Harden points out.
That’s easier said than done, of course: embracing change is difficult for most people. As Dr. Harden has learned, the key to doing so is to focus on the opportunities associated with change. “I think we often look at challenges as half-empty glasses,” he points out. “But, we can choose to transform that particular challenge into an opportunity. To break free and head down a different path.”
Speaking of challenges …
Seminaries face a handful of common hurdles right now, including the financial challenges of being a 21st-century seminary — and the resulting necessity for a seminary to articulate a relevant purpose and identity. “The ‘storm’ [on the horizon] is that Christian believers are looking elsewhere,” Dr. Harden explains. “[We must adapt] to get them to look to us again.”
Fortunately, his varied and extraordinary background are well-positioned to help Ashland meet these challenges.
“Seminaries navigating through these storms are seeking to educate themselves about the function of faculty — or instructors, or ‘theological educators,’ if you will — and the value of theological education itself,” he says. “The storms I see are the factors that cause the seminary to lose its way, and has caused many seminaries to lose their way in this present context.
“Seminaries must somehow — even with financial challenges — reinvent how they exist, and how they can provide meaningful theological education in the market.”
Looking more long-term
Beyond meeting existing challenges, Dr. Harden believes certain innovations and mindset changes can position institutions like Ashland to not only endure, but thrive in the years and decades to come … starting with technology.
“Yes, technology plays a role — an increasing role, at that — in how we do theological education,” he acknowledges. Specifically, he posits that simply mimicking the university study model is “a dead-end road.” And in this sense, technology represents a huge opportunity.
“Technology should not only mediate learning and facilitate students having a seminary experience; it should also influence how the seminary engages with its constituency,” Dr. Harden explains. “For seminaries to remain relevant, technology is very much needed. Social media and other forms of technological communication should facilitate that engagement, which would lead to innovation for theological education.”
— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh