BANGOR, Maine — Being president of Bangor Theological Seminary brings “a surprise every day,” the Rev. Kent Ulery, head of the nearly 200-year-old institution, said last week.
Ulery, 58, of Bangor will be inaugurated at 3 p.m. Tuesday as the 10th president of the seminary affiliated with the United Church of Christ. The ceremony will be held at Hammond Street Congregational Church in Bangor during the seminary’s annual convocation.
“I’ve been genuinely surprised by the warmth and hospitality I’ve been shown,” he said last week. “The stereotypical reserved New Englander is not what I’ve experienced in Maine. It’s become home very quickly.”
The Wabash, Ind., native took over the reins of BTS, located on the Husson University campus, in July. Ulery bucked tradition set by his recent predecessors and chose not to hold the inauguration ceremony during the fall semester.
“Last fall, we went through the reaccredidation process [by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada] that is required every 10 years,” he said. “Faculty and staff were so focused on preparing for the visit of the accreditation team that it seemed unreasonable to ask them to plan the inauguration as well.”
Convocation is a time when faculty, students, alumni and area clergy come together for study and worship anyway, Ulery said. It seemed natural to combine the two.
He is expected to outline his vision for BTS on Tuesday.
Ulery was serving as the pastor of the Michigan Conference of the United Church of Christ when his appointment was announced in April by the BTS board of trustees. He was one of 20 applicants considered to replace the Rev. William Imes, 65, now of Easthampton, Mass. Imes retired last summer after seven years as president.
Ulery said one of the best surprises he has encountered has been the seminary’s “spirit.”
“This school is a gem,” he said. “My office is next to a classroom and I often can hear laughter through my wall. I went over one day to [jokingly] remind the students that it is not in the Congregational Puritan tradition to enjoy education.”
Ulery added that that spirit is why faculty tend to remain at the institution for decades rather than years. Ann Johnston is retiring this year after more than 20 years as the Old Testament scholar. Two other longtime faculty members are expected to retire over the next three years.
The seminary also is searching for a New Testament professor.
“They are teaching the new leaders of the church by exploring the faith from the inside instead of objectifying it as history,” he said. “They make Scripture come alive.”
In the short time he has been in Maine, Ulery said, he has grown close to Husson University President William H. Beardsley, who announced last week that he will step down at the end of 2009. It was at Beardsley’s invitation that the seminary moved in 2005 from its historic campus between Union and Hammond streets in Bangor across town to Husson.
Beardsley, who was raised a Quaker, said Ulery’s 12 years as pastor of the UCC’s Michigan Conference would serve him well as head of the only accredited seminary in northern New England.
“Much of his time in Michigan was spent supporting small rural churches, so he’s very attuned to the kinds of churches we have in Maine and much of New England,” the Husson president said. “Because of that work, he also thinks in terms of the state and the region rather than individual churches.”
Because small rural churches that can’t afford full-time ministers dot the landscape served by the seminary, Husson could help provide BTS students with other career skills that could supplement their income, Ulery and Beardsley said in separate interviews last week. Husson and the seminary are looking at possible joint programs in areas such as pastoral counseling and hospice training for nurses.
Ulery graduated in 1972 from DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., where he majored in religion and mathematics. Three years later he earned his master’s of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J., with a concentration in New Testament studies. In 1984, Ulery earned his doctor of ministry degree in parish revitalization from McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.
Ulery and his wife, Margaret, live at the seminary president’s home on Broadway in Bangor. They have two grown sons who live out of state, and four grandchildren.