Welcome back my fabulous readers! Today we’re bringing you an exclusive interview from Rev. Dr. Frank Yamada, McCormick’s latest president to take office. Now, I tried getting an interview with this man while he was still one of our professors, but to no avail. But it seems as though all my pestering and begging has paid off, I got my interview! Man, I feel like Barbara Walters when she gets one of those exclusive interviews with celebrities that only speak through their agents, but that’s not Frank. So without further ado, here’s Frank!
Your Name, Title, and what you do at McCormick?
Frank Yamada, the 10th President of McCormick Theological Seminary.
Who makes up your family?
Michelle is my spouse of almost 21 years. My two children are Stephen (20) and Adam (17), and our dog, Roy.
Frank and his super-awesome wife, Michelle
Michelle and their two sons
Roy, just after getting a summer shave
Where did you grow up? Go to school?
I grew up in Huntington Beach, CA (yes, the same city that one this year’s Little League World Series). I went to one grammar school and one high school (Marina H.S.).
I was one of the students lucky enough to have you as my small group leader in PIF, and I remember you telling us about growing up in a Buddhist family. Can you tell us a little about that and how that has shaped your views as a Christian and as a leader in the church?
I grew up in a nominally Buddhist family. There are twice a year Christians—those that go to church on Easter and Christmas. We were twice a year Buddhists, which means that we went to church (yes, they called it a Buddhist church), when someone died or got married. In both instances there was incense involved.
Being Buddhist was synonymous with being Japanese American for me. I didn’t really think of Buddhism as a religion that informed my day to day living; but it very much shaped my sense of cultural identity and ethnic belonging as a child, even if I never would have identified it as an influence. Mostly, I associated Buddhism with big family gatherings on big moments in our my family’s life.
Buddhism and being Japanese American shaped my views of being a Christian leader in the same way that being an American shapes my view of the world. It has always been there in the background. When I served as a jundosanim (youth pastor) at a small Korean immigrant church, working with second generation or 1.5 generation youth, I began to realize as an adult how ethnic churches and religious communities play such a crucial role in affirming and shaping a young person’s identity.
How did you come to McCormick?
I actually taught as an adjunct at McCormick while I was still a Hebrew Bible/Old Testament professor at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston. I had also taught in the Taste of Seminary program when Laura Cheifetz was the director. When Seabury declared financial exigency, David Esterline, who was then Dean of Faculty, invited me to submit my application to be the Director of the Center for Asian American Ministries. The rest is history.
With the 2011-2012 school year kicking off, what are you hoping for in regards to the students of McCormick? Faculty? Staff? Etc.?
I told the students at orientation last week that they should expect to be stretched. Behind that statement was my desire that I have for all students, that is, I want them to learn and to grow. I want and expect them to be leaders. God has not called them here to just get a degree. God has called them to become leaders. That doesn’t start after seminary. That starts now. That starts with their learning.
My hope for the faculty is that they regain their love for what brought them to McCormick in the first place—their love for teaching, learning, and scholarship. The financial crisis in our nation during 2008 was hard on all of us in higher education. My hope is that we rekindle our passion for learning and for theological education—something that we never really lost. After hearing the faculty begin to take on the work of revising the Masters level curriculum around our mission/vision at our last faculty conference, and the energy and creativity that they brought to this work, I was very, very encouraged. This is a great faculty, who cares a lot about what they are doing. It was fun to see the generative spirit in the room.
We have a very talented and committed staff. We have had a lot of changes in the past couple of years. Transition can be a very exciting time, but it can also be very unsettling. Our staff, however, has not been rattled. They take things in stride, and they have been very supportive of me in my transition. Most of our staff is here because their work at McCormick is more than a job, it is a vocation. We are more than co-workers, we are a community. So, my hope for the staff is that they continue to thrive in their work, as they support our mission to educate and train leaders for their ministries.
The seniors and middlers know you as a professor and there’s a different relationship that professors have with students than administrators do (most of the time); how do you see this working out with the role change? What are some of the advantages/challenges you might expect ahead?
Didn’t you ask me the same question when the students were interviewing me as a candidate? J Yes, my role will be different as a president. However, I was a down-to-earth professor (at least I thought of myself that way). I don’t expect that will change now that I have become president. I am and will remain a people person. I still intend to win our version of Iron Chef. Oh wait, that makes me more competitive than approachable. I also realize that my new position means that I have a different set of priorities. As a professor, some of my best time was spent mentoring and getting to know students. I will, of course, still get to know students. However, I will miss not being able to advise and mentor them.
In my relationship with students, are there advantages to being president? Yes, now that I am the president Marsha always makes sure that I have a fresh box of tissues for my visitors (That was an inside joke. If you weren’t at Feast of Fools last year, ask someone who was). Are there challenges? Yes, I am a little worried about the aforementioned event as the new president, especially with this senior class.
What are some things/projects that you are looking forward to?
I am looking forward to my inauguration (Save the date: Feb 8-9, 2011 with the actual inauguration service being on Feb 9th), which is a project of sorts. I look forward to working with our development team to create a plan for McCormick that will sustain our work for the upcoming decades. I am also excited to build new initiatives. I have already had a number of exciting big-idea conversations with local and national church leaders. I am very excited to hear from our alumni/ae to find out how we can do what we do better.
So, you’re a facebook guy. Last summer when I was working with the Youth Theological Initiative at Candler Seminary at Emory, they kept talking about what it meant to be a public theologian and social media got brought up, a lot. How do you see facebook, twitter, or other social media outlets as being important to being out there in the public for you and for the students who are coming up? Or do you?
Bruce Reyes-Chow, the former Moderator of the PCUSA’s General Assembly, is much more of a “Facebook guy” than me. Watching him use Twitter and Facebook as “the Mod” taught me a lot about how to be a public person via [social] media. What we tend to think of as social diversions actually have a ton of potential for organizing people and movements. Obviously, recent world events have shown us how social media can facilitate radical change, even revolution.
Ultimately, I believe that the phrase, “public theologian” is or should be redundant. We do theology for the sake of transforming society for the greater good. Social media has changed the platform by which one can go public with one’s thoughts. One must remember, however, that the line between public and private blurs on Facebook. One must always know that you are public-self on social media. To use the theological phrase, in social media you are always bearing witness to the truth.
Ok, these are the important ones…
Your favorite food AND place to eat in Chicago (these don’t have to be the same)?
Favorite food: Del Seoul’s spicy Korean BBQ pork taco with a side of gamja fries
Favorite place to eat: Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill
Those of us here at McCormick know you to love some good music. What are some of the artists on your playlist right now?
The Arcade Fire, Radiohead, and Dar Williams
I know you were trying to give up on the coffee a while back. How has that gone for you?
I come off of caffeinated coffee periodically. It gives me killer headaches when I do. Right now, I am back up to a Vente a day (iced of course). However, I worry that coffee could be bad when combined with stress, so I may consider giving it up altogether. We’ll see.
If you could live anywhere that you’ve never lived yet, where would it be and why?
Hawaii, I am thinking that my next job will be to start a seminary there. Why Hawaii? Because I could surf before I preach, teach, or run a meeting with the board.
If you could be any animal, what would it be and why?
That’s a weird question. I guess I would want to be an animal that doesn’t get eaten by other animals.
Reading anything good right now? Any recommendations?
Theological books: I recently finished Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good in preparation for a class that I was going to teach with Jennifer Ayres (but then this presidency thing came up). I particularly liked his reading of Pharaoh’s dream in the Joseph cycle—very clever, very relevant.
Others: I just finished an audio book by David Allen, Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity. This is one of the most practical and useful books that I have read/listened to in a long time.
If you could say anything to the incoming students for this new year, what would it be? You know, what are Frank’s words of wisdom?
Study hard. Studying at this level in the things of God is a real privilege that stretches back for centuries, even millennia (read Proverbs 1). Study hard, but live life well while you study.
Is there anything else you want to put out there?
Yes, so when are we going to start a flag football team and start taking it to those U of C students?
Well folks, that’s all for now. See you soon!
Peace ~ Shelley D.