Meet Greg Sterling, the next dean of Yale Divinity School

by Gustav Spohn, Director of Communications and Publications

In 1990, YDS Dean Harold Attridge was a professor in Notre Dame’s Department of Theology when Gregory E. Sterling, an up-and-coming New Testament scholar from the Graduate Theological Union, joined the faculty as an assistant professor. Now, two decades later, Attridge has the pleasure of welcoming Sterling once again—this time to Yale Divinity School, where Sterling will succeed Attridge as dean.

Group PhotoThe much-anticipated announcement of the identity of the new dean came on the morning of March 1, just as students and faculty were putting the finishing touches on the first half of the semester’s work prior to the beginning of spring break the next day.

In an email to the broader YDS community—including students, faculty, staff, and alumni—Yale President Richard Levin announced his decision to appoint Sterling, who is currently dean of the Graduate School and professor of theology at Notre Dame.  That announcement was followed three hours later with a packed gathering in the YDS Common Room at which Levin introduced Sterling in person to the YDS community.

After lauding Attridge for his “truly extraordinary” service, Levin described Sterling, a New Testament scholar whose work focuses on the writings of Philo of Alexandria, as being perceived by those who know him well as “a terrific colleague, a natural collaborator, a person who checks his ego at the doorway and devotes himself entirely to the task of service.”

Said Levin, “This strikes me as just exactly the type of person who you’ve had as your dean and who will make a great dean of this very service-oriented and very mission-driven enterprise.”

Attridge is greatly pleased to have his former junior colleague follow in his footsteps at YDS.

“President Levin made an excellent choice for the new dean of YDS,” he said. “Greg Sterling's scholarship has made important contributions to the understanding of the environment of early Christianity. He also brings to the position a track record of proven administrative leadership and a demonstrated commitment to the work of the Church.  His energy and enthusiasm for the mission of YDS augur well for his leadership of the school in the next decade. I look forward to working with him in the years ahead.”

After stepping down from the deanship at the end of June, ending two five-year terms as dean, Attridge will take a sabbatical, then return to teaching at YDS in 2013-14.

Sterling is not only a professor and administrator.  Like his father before him, he is a minister in the Churches of Christ, a denomination of about 1.6 million that, among other things, has a heritage of ecumenical involvement and is distinctive in lts liturgical preference for a capella music in four part harmony over instrumental music.  For 16 of his years at Notre Dame, until 2009, he served as a part-time minister for the Warsaw Church of Christ in Warsaw, IN.

In an interview, Sterling spelled out what he believes will be the biggest challenge of his deanship at YDS:  the impact of the school on American religion and on global religion.  He said he hopes to use YDS “as a platform so that we can address the global context in which we appreciate and value other religions without surrendering Christian identity so that we are unashamedly Christian but not narrowly Christian.”

Greg and Adrian SterlingAnother challenge, Sterling said, in addition to the internal difficulties inherent in administering an institution as complex as YDS, is YDS’s role in revitalizing the mainline church traditions, which have seen dramatic declines in membership since the 1960s.  People have been pushed to extremes, Sterling believes, resulting in the loss of a rational voice.

“So how can we reclaim this rational articulation of Christianity,” asked Sterling, “in a way that will appeal to a wide group of people and help lead to a revitalization of mainline traditions?”

The question of diversity continues to be a front-burner item on the YDS campus. During Sterling’s four years as dean of the Graduate School at Notre Dame, applications increased dramatically, while enrollment by African-American and Latino students more than doubled.  That is an area, said Sterling, “that needs to be addressed,” particularly on the Latino front, where YDS still lacks a single Hispanic regular faculty member.

On the international level, Sterling noted, “A dean of a graduate school at a research university in the U.S. must think globally. One-third of the students I serve at present are international. I have tried to expand their presence for the Theology Department at the University of Notre Dame in several ways.

“Most recently, I was able to procure special funding for African students to study theology. We are now able to admit two masters students into the Master of Theological Studies program every year and one Ph.D. student every three years with separate funding. As a result, we have a group of a dozen or so African students in our graduate programs. I have worked for these efforts because I believe that we must think globally when we think of contemporary theology.”

Sterling offers solid credentials as a New Testament scholar whose focus is on the writings of Philo of Alexandria, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of the 1st century.

While Sterling does not believe the New Testament authors knew the writings of Philo, he believes Philo’s commentaries “are a window into the interpretive world of Greek-speaking Judaism and allow us to read some of the texts in the New Testament against that background.”

What attracted Sterling to YDS?

“YDS has been one of the most important, if not the most important, ecumenical seminaries in the U.S. and in the world,” he says.  “As our world has become smaller, our awareness and appreciation for others and other religious traditions has grown more important. There is a pressing need to cultivate a Christian identity while thinking globally. YDS is a divinity school in fact as well as in name; it has not become a religious studies department. YDS is positioned to lead Christians and help them think about the meaning of their faith in a global context.”

Sterling also notes, “YDS has a rich faculty tradition. The quality of the faculty has always been exceptional. It is an honor to be associated with the current faculty and the YDS tradition.”

From 2007-11, Sterling served as chair of the Historical Jesus Section of the Society of Biblical Literature and has had an active role as well with the Catholic Biblical Association.

He currently serves as general editor for both the Philo of Alexandria Commentary Series (E.J. Brill) and the Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity Series (University of Notre Dame Press).

Sterling earned a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies/New Testament from the Graduate Theological Union; an M.A. in Classics from the University of California, Davis; an M.A. in Religion from Pepperdine University; a B.A. in Christianity and History from Houston Baptist University; and an A.A. in Biblical Studies from Florida College.  He also did post-baccalaureate work in Classics at the University of Houston.

Sterling grew up in a Christian household (California and Idaho) where the rhythm of life was delimited by Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening worship, and Wednesday night prayer service.  His father was a Churches of Christ minister for 46 years.  His mother essentially shared in the ministry, focusing on care of people no one else would help—the mentally challenged, the indigent and, in Sterling’s words, “some simply outside the system.”

He recalled, “The home I grew up in was something like a hotel.  We had people on a regular basis... We had people live with us who were indigent...It wasn’t a job.  It was the way my parents lived. That shaped my upbringing in a profound way.”

Dean Attridge and President LevinOn the lighter side, Sterling says, “I enjoy reading American history and visiting museums or Civil War battlefields. I enjoy golf, but rarely find time to play. While I have no formal training, I am fascinated by architecture and aspects of engineering. I designed our current home, with assistance from a professional architect.”

Sterling and his wife, Adrian, together have four children, the youngest a college senior. They have one grandchild. Adrian Sterling has a bachelor’s degree in geography and an MBA from Clark University. She has worked in land surveying and at the Graduate School of Assumption College in Worcester, MA. Her parents designed and installed stained glass windows in churches and chapels throughout New York State.

Sterling’s appointment is effective Aug. 1, and when he arrives on campus he will be greeted by many well-wishers, including Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Emilie Townes.

Said Townes, “We now step out on a new journey of faith with Greg Sterling’s leadership.  I look forward to learning what he sees in what we have identified as important for YDS’s future through our recently completed long range planning process.  His fresh set of ideas and clear vision should help us to embrace the challenges we have set for ourselves as he also shares with us his vision for our future.  It is a time of holy boldness as we discover how to live our mission of blending faith and intellect on behalf of church and world.”

YDS Advisory Board Co-chair Christopher Sawyer ’75 M.Div., who served as chair of the special Advisory Committee to the Search Committee, said, “Greg is an impressive, thoughtful, collaborative, and enjoyable man of faith with many relevant skills and much experience and will prove to be a very successful Dean.  I also know that he will work very hard with all of us to be just that, and for all the right reasons including his recognition of the very real responsibility that YDS has to the broader faith community.

"The Advisory Committee has been thoroughly and positively engaged throughout this process, and we are especially grateful for President Levin's decision to create the committee and to solicit our input so generously.  Throughout, President Levin has demonstrated his deep understanding of YDS and his unwavering commitment to its future, and we thank him."

KC Choi '95, '98 M.Div., vice president of the Alumni Board, said, "One of Greg Sterling's many strengths is his distinguished accomplishments as dean of the Graduate School at the University of Notre Dame.  I am confident that his deep administrative experience and the academic vision he has been able to implement there will be very valuable assets as the Divinity School moves forward during a challenging time for theological education and mainline Christianity."  

Date Posted: Friday, March 2, 2012 - 6:41pm