May 2019 – In 32 years at Drew Theological School, Heather Murray Elkins, the Frederick Watson Hannan Professor of Worship, Preaching and the Arts and former university chaplain, led and inspired scores students as they followed their calling.
“Through her scholarship and leadership, minds have been stretched, hearts have been opened, and all have found a place in the evolving work of the God she proclaims,” said Theological School Dean Javier Viera. “She has been a gift to Drew, while at the same time being Drew’s gift to the church and the academy. We will miss her terribly in Seminary Hall, but her presence and influence will endure for generations to come.”
Now, as she prepares to retire, Elkins is reflecting on her career and the road ahead. Here are some highlights.
Arriving in The Forest
Elkins left her small ministry in West Virginia in 1985 to study with Dr. Bard Thompson, dean of Drew’s graduate school and a professor at both the graduate school and Theological School. In particular, Thompson’s book Liturgies of the Western Church called to her. After earning a PhD from Drew and serving as university chaplain for two years, she joined the faculty of the Theological School in 1989.
The Student Influence
“My job is to acquaint my students with all these extraordinary treasures (traditions and texts) that they are. Either they had forgotten or no one has ever taught them. Let them teach each other about the extraordinary diversity of this work of worship,” Elkins said of her required worship classes. Elkins has each student complete this sentence: “For me, worship happens when ___” explaining, “Blessed diversity—no one’s answer is the same.”
What She’ll Miss
Her simple reply of “the trees and the forest-dwellers” has far deeper meaning. Each year, underneath the carved acorn at the apex of Craig Chapel, Elkins gives each of her students an acorn to plant “when they finally go where they’re supposed to be.” Adding “that notion of being a part of this eco-theological space is very important to help integrate the diversity of people that are here,” Elkins explained. “We need that unifying place and moment.” Elkins also sees the acorn as a symbol of longevity and emergence, asking, “How many forests are in your acorn?”
Elkins is particularly proud our her Appalachia and Native American cross-cultural courses. She’s hopeful that her Native American Peoples and Place course will continue, as it “honors the people that were here first.”
Elkins will continue her passion to serve: she and her husband plan to work with their son, a drug prevention education officer in Delaware. “Waves of pain prevention lead to addiction—toxic water that is an epidemic,” Elkins said of the drug crisis in the U.S.