The Colgate Scene
May 2005

A mission proposition
Nick Carter '69 has a plan to transform the nation's oldest graduate seminary

[Photo by James Leach]

That the nation's oldest graduate school of theological education would pick someone with the credentials of Nick Carter as only the ninth president in its history could be read as a signal.

"I'm an activist, and activists make things happen," said Carter. And what Carter means to make happen is what he called in his October 2004 inaugural address "the mission proposition," a redefinition of missionary works.

"I'm really troubled by how, in the church and in society, we are doing violence to each other," said Carter. "We haven't developed the tools to engage people who don't look like us or think like us or worship like us."

Truly engaging others, said Carter, has defined his life, "whether it's a ministry for the homeless, or abused women, or low-income handicapped, or the nuclear arms race, or starving people in Ethiopia," and he made all those stops on the road that led him to Andover Newton Theological School.

Colgate played a role in shaping Carter, whose college years as a political science major coincided with the societal changes that marked the late 1960s: "When I arrived at Colgate I was a naïve young man. By the time I left, my whole worldview had changed. I had become far more political, far more engaged in the world.

"I'm not prepared to say that was all a result of the coursework," said Carter. "A lot of what happens in college is more than what happens in the classroom." He was a member of Sigma Chi when the fraternity broke from its national organization in protest of restrictive clauses. "It was a very different place between 1965 when I arrived and 1969 when I graduated," he said.

Carter was fresh from Colgate and teaching high school in New Jersey when a Rockefeller Scholarship made it possible for him to enroll in a master's program in philosophy and religion at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. The scholarship was intended to introduce promising students to the ministry, and Carter bought into the proposition, switching his major.

He began his ministry working with young adults in Rochester's housing projects in the 1970s, and then moved to the Baptist Church's denominational staff in New York City.

When Carter's wife Deborah was accepted to the doctoral program at Andover Newton, he found a calling as minister of the First Baptist Church in Beverly, where he stayed for 10 years.

"The church in Beverly is probably the most community-oriented church in New England, and maybe in the country," Carter said. "We had eight separate corporations and 63 staff with a home for boys, a home for girls, an apartment program for at-risk teens, assisted living, a nursery school, a homeless shelter and kitchen, and 110 units of low-income handicap housing." He and his parishioners embraced what he calls "a true sense of service," finding imaginative ways to leverage the church's resources for the community's good, such as underwriting the mortgage of a shelter for abused women.

Through his work in Beverly, Carter met a group of Quakers who were forming a movement to press for a freeze on nuclear arms. Carter started the Beverly chapter of the Freeze organization, which led to involvement at the county level and then with the state and national movements. He helped place a referendum on the Massachusetts ballot that put the state on record opposing the nuclear arms race by the largest margin in state history. When U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev met for talks in Geneva, Switzerland, Carter and his colleagues showed up with a million signatures on a petition proposing a moratorium on nuclear testing.

Through The Freeze Carter came into contact with leaders of SANE, the oldest peace and justice organization in the nation, which had numbered among its members Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Norman Cousins, and the Rev. William Sloane Coffin (Colgate Honorary Doctor of Divinity 1979, described by Carter as "the closest we will come to a prophet in our times"). While Carter was away from the United States on a yearlong sabbatical to seven Third World countries, observing "people making a difference," SANE and The Freeze hatched plans for a merger. Coffin was elected president of the organization, and when Carter returned to the states he was recruited by Coffin to become the organization's executive director.

Carter remembers, "People would say, `So you're going to leave the church?' and I would respond, `No, my relationship with the church is just fine. God is just calling me to work someplace else.'"

Of his relationship with Coffin in those years, Carter says, "He sang and I conducted. Both being ordained, we could share faith together in our motivation for doing this with our understanding that the call for peace and justice is an essential part of ministry."

From his work with Coffin, Carter took on projects with the Pew Charitable Trusts, studying how nonprofit and religious organizations launch and sustain themselves. His experience with Pew led to a position with the for-profit firm Imagitas, which developed partnerships between the public and private sector to benefit the public good. One such project brought General Motors and McDonald's together to sponsor "buckle-up" messages on McDonald's packaging of children's meals.

From Imagitas, Carter founded his own firm, Wayfinders Consulting, where he drew on his experience to counsel nonprofit, educational, and religious organizations on the planning, fundraising, communication, and capacity-building that Carter refers to as "institutional physics."

But even as Carter relished those projects, he says he found himself "getting a little far afield." Then a friend asked if he would accept a nomination to become president of Andover Newton. "At first I laughed out loud. I'm not an academic. I'm an activist. I'm an entrepreneur. Pick one. But none of those add up to seminary president."

His friend persisted, though, and when Carter looked closely he saw a parallel between his experience and what the seminary sought in its leader. The trustees agreed. As board chair David E. Smith said at the inauguration ceremony in Boston's Old South Church, "Nick's energy, his experience, and the abundance of new ideas he brings to the Hill make him exceptionally well suited to the task of guiding Andover Newton through its next pioneering chapter of Christian ministry."

Whether to change is not an option, said Carter. "We must change. All the assumptions on which theological education and most of church life have been based for the last 100 years have been swept away in these times. Whether it's denominational identity, or our sense of globalism or diversity, or the very definitions of leadership. In order for churches to thrive they must be transformed -- that is our biblical mandate, and it's never been more true than now."

And this is the new leader's "mission proposition" for the nation's oldest seminary: "It is a call to travel to the place where we will find the other -- whether at ocean length or arm's length -- and with an open and faith-filled heart, to begin to break down the barriers between us."

Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: Stage setter Next: Cash in >>