Celebrating Jacqueline E. Lapsley - Princeton Theological Seminary

When your professional career has been filled with highlights, it can be difficult to choose the one accomplishment of which you are most proud.

But for Jacqueline E. Lapsley — known as Jacq to most — who is taking up the call to serve as president of Union Presbyterian Seminary after serving five years as dean and vice president of academic affairs and longtime professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, there is, hands down, one feat that stands out in her mind.

“I would say the biggest thing was that we changed the curriculum for the first time in 50 years,” Lapsley says. “I didn’t do it by myself — it took two years of work with a fabulous task force. But I was involved in that process and really wanted, when I came into the dean’s role, to work on curricular change.”

The last major curriculum change took place in the 1960s. “It was definitely time for curricular change,” Lapsley says.

When she became dean in 2018, Lapsley was following in the footsteps of her late father, James Norvell Lapsley, Jr., who was a professor of pastoral theology for 30 years, and served as the Seminary’s academic dean from 1984-1989.

“My dad was not a big talker. He was a person of few words, I would say. When I told him that I was going to be dean, he was proud, of course, in his quiet way,” Lapsley says. “But when I asked him if he had any advice for me, he said, ‘Be careful not to be dragged into too many meetings.’ Well, I was totally unsuccessful on that point,” she says with a laugh.

“For the most part, I’ve enjoyed the meetings, because I enjoy people. I enjoy working on problems together,” she adds. “I’m less about coming up with solutions to problems sitting alone in my office and more about participating in a well-run meeting that has a goal and a purpose, and we actually get there together.”

This has been particularly true in the case of the revision of the curriculum.

“The curriculum turned out pretty well,” Lapsley adds. “It’s not perfect, for sure, but it really gives students a different, better experience of being a seminarian and being formed for ministry.”

During their first semester, students now participate in a “Life Together” class that integrates focused academic study with service learning, table fellowship, worship, advising, and vocational discernment. Classes are small and include a faculty member, an administrator, and an upper-level student mentor.

“It’s a very holistic experience,” Lapsley says. “And the feedback has been very good. The students really appreciate the experience and the faculty enjoy teaching it. It’s intensive teaching — it’s not just academic labor, it’s a lot of emotional labor for the faculty to walk with students as they jump into the deep end of Seminary life,” she adds.

The other big obvious challenge of the last five years has been the global pandemic. “Managing to turn an entirely residential campus online within two weeks was tough; I was especially glad to have a terrific team in the Office of Digital Learning in that season — they were amazing,” she says.

Lapsley spearheaded many other milestones during her tenure as dean, including:

  • integrating into the curriculum the Seminary’s historical audit on slavery in pedagogically compelling ways;
  • hiring eight new faculty colleagues, with strong attention to further diversifying the faculty;
  • enacting major changes to make faculty governance more democratic;
  • implementing ongoing antiracism formation;
  • engaging in a comprehensive review of the PhD program;
  • designing two innovative new degree programs to begin in 2023, both of which will utilize new curricular modalities, including online classes; and
  • working with Continuing Education to dramatically increase and diversify its non-degree offerings.

Leaving Princeton to become president at Union Presbyterian Seminary (her late father’s alma mater) is exciting and energizing, but also evokes bittersweet feelings about leaving Princeton Seminary.

“Not only have I worked my entire professional career at the Seminary for the last 25 years, but I grew up on the campus for most of my childhood years. I’ve lived in Princeton for almost 50 years, so this is a big shift.”

Moving to Richmond means leaving the historic home on Mercer Street (Princeton Seminary’s first classes were held there in 1812), but she will take with her a lifetime of precious memories of Princeton Seminary’s people and places.

“Obviously, I will miss the people — my cherished, beloved colleagues who have been so fabulous on the faculty, the staff, and in the administration,” Lapsley says. “And I will miss the current students; I don’t lose the alums, because I will remain connected with them wherever I go.”

And then there’s the Seminary Chapel.

“The other thing that really hit me hard was when I was most recently in the Chapel,” Lapsley says. “It was a Friday, and it was communion. And it was like a gut punch. I can’t believe I’m leaving this place. The Chapel has meant so much to me … My mother’s funeral in 1989 was held in the Chapel. I still remember everything about that and the hymns that we sang…but also later, so many other important moments have happened in that Chapel, sometimes joyous, sometimes not. And I always remember where I was sitting and how I felt; it is a thin place where God is deeply present.”

Lapsley recalls one such occasion when the ending of the service was a conga line. “We all just danced, you know, all the way around the Chapel a couple of times,” she says. “There are just so many layers of memories in the Chapel and the worship there, which has been really special and meaningful. So, I think that’s going to be the place that holds the greatest memories of all kinds. It’s the heart of the Seminary, a wholly sacred place.”

Lapsley will be deeply missed at Princeton Seminary.

“I have been privileged to witness Dr. Lapsley’s dedication to Princeton Seminary for many years, most recently as a member of the Board of Trustees,” says recently appointed president Jonathan Lee Walton. “Her insights and wisdom are forever woven into the fabric of Princeton Seminary. We celebrate this new opportunity for her and will remain connected by our shared commitment to holistic theological education. We know that she will do great things at Union.”

Longtime colleague and friend Dennis Olson, Charles Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology, says Lapsley has been “one of the most effective, transformative, and energetic academic deans that Princeton Seminary has had over the past 35 years.”

“I am very grateful to her for all her incredibly hard work, wisdom, and leadership through a very difficult COVID season and the important PTS Slavery Audit from which the faculty and curriculum have emerged as much stronger, more dynamic, and forward looking than they have ever been,” Olson adds.

Lapsley has been intimately involved in bringing to Princeton Seminary a new contingent of bright and dedicated young faculty members with enormous talent, dedication, and energy for the road ahead, Olson says. “Most importantly, she has played a central role in forming the faculty as a body that is much more cohesive, more organized, and structurally more able to discern its own mind and speak its voice as we enter a challenging future that will require ongoing change, adaptation, and vision. She has also encouraged the faculty to ‘have more fun’ together and build relationships across departments and disciplines through faculty retreats, faculty seminars, and a new faculty lounge. Dean Lapsley leaves a legacy from which generations of students will benefit. We are all deeply in her debt.”

Elaine James, Associate Professor of Old Testament, echoes Olson’s sentiments.

“Dr. Lapsley has seen the PTS faculty through a time of incredible change. Her personal integrity and her devotion to the mission of the Seminary are a consistent inspiration,” James says. “I especially admire how she has worked tirelessly and courageously to deepen the sense of faculty collaboration and community, including welcoming a new generation of scholars and teachers to PTS.”

“As our first woman dean, Dr. Lapsley has also been a champion for women and LGBTQIA+ members of the community — including founding the Center for Theology, Women, and Gender — and her steady leadership has ushered in much-needed change for an institution with a deeply patriarchal history,” James adds. “Her commitment to the life of the community has been unflagging, including regularly co-teaching our Orientation to Old Testament Studies course, preaching in chapel, and singing with the choir. With her incisive intellect, hilarious and acerbic wit, and commitment to discernment in community, she is a treasured colleague. It has been a gift to work alongside her in the Biblical Studies Department.”

Lapsley’s last official day at Princeton Seminary is June 30; she begins her presidency at Union on July 1.

In a farewell letter to the community, she writes, “I am proud and grateful for the work we’ve accomplished collaboratively. … And together we made it through the painful convulsions of the pandemic. It has been a great joy to do this work among you and with you.”

“It has been a pleasure and a privilege to teach here and to work here. I’ve cared so much about the mission of the Seminary; it’s been a joy to put my own shoulder to the wheel of that mission along with others who really care about it as well,” Lapsley says. “I am filled with gratitude.”

That gratitude is returned tenfold by all who know you, Jacq.