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New leader of divinity school developing visionary ideas for change

Angela Sims arrived at an interesting time for Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.

She started work just a few weeks before the school moved out of its Hogwarts-like campus following a decision to sell the property to a developer. On Aug. 20, Sims led a parade of faculty and staff in a walk from the old campus down Goodman Street to the new location in modern yet largely anonymous office space on the edge of the Village Gate complex.

Angela Sims
Angela Sims

“I’m really glad that I got to spend my first few weeks…at 1100 South Goodman St. It gave me a greater sense for the feel of the place,” she said. The former campus runs deep in the memory banks of the school, considering that many of its employees had worked there 15 years or more before her arrival.

Sims most recently worked as a vice president at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Kan., (the school also has a campus in Oklahoma City) before becoming the first female president at CRCDS and the first female African-American president at any Rochester-area college.

Sims said she has received a wonderful welcome from female executives in Rochester, and while she’s aware of the historical role she plays, she also points out the two-sided nature of the role.

“Whenever a woman is the first, it often signals that there are some amazing challenges, which can also be wonderful opportunities to contribute positively,” she said. “When the person also happens not only to be a woman but black or a racialized minority, often the opportunities and the challenges are significantly greater than one might imagine.

Colgate’s old hilltop location is next to a historic park designed by the storied Frederick Law Olmsted and overlooks the southern suburbs of Rochester. The new site at 320 N. Goodman St. sits at the bottom of a hill, overlooking railroad tracks dividing the Neighborhood of the Arts in southeast Rochester from one of the poorest quadrants of the city.

“While we are on a particular side of these railroad tracks in the Neighborhood of the Arts that’s an up-and-coming and positively changing community, we always have to be mindful of what’s on the other side of those tracks that might not mirror the reality of our nearer neighborhoods,” Sims said. Her vision for the divinity school is as “a seminary of and for the community.” She envisions a strategic planning process taking place this year and next that will tie students in new ways to that community, starting in the 2021-22 academic school year.

She also sees changes coming in the curriculum, noting that divinity schools affiliated with certain denominations sometimes have taught in ways that discourage inclusion, as the denominations may have rules against same-sex marriage, for example, or ordination of women or gay people. “We may miss an opportunity from an educational perspective,” Sims said. “When I think about any particular moral issue, one moral issue might be what it means to be fully welcoming, to be truly welcoming.”

Theology students today aren’t necessarily planning to be preachers or parish leaders.

“Increasingly, more and more of our students are bi-vocational. A number are looking for ways to live out their sense of vocational identify in non-traditional spaces. I think that seminaries have a responsibility to be responsive to that but also be forward thinking as we look at the changes that are occurring on the religious landscape on a number of faith traditions.

As students express increasing interest in ministry outside of traditional church settings, Sims notes the divinity school’s new location brings different kinds of student placements to mind.

“What would it mean to have a student placed at the mental health institution that’s right across our hallway? What might it mean to have a student placed at the autism agency that’s in this neighborhood? …What might it mean to have a student placed in City Hall?” she asked. Sims said ideally students would serve both in a congregational setting and in an agency during they time at the seminary. “I want it to be a more intentional placement.”

Thinking outside of hidebound traditions has won Sims respect in the theological community as she has developed scholarly study around the issues of lynching and womanism – the latter a term borrowed from author Alice Walker that describes women-centered perspectives from women who aren’t just white.

“I take seriously the experiences of black women, particularly thinking of black women as sources of moral discernment,” Sims said, noting that she doesn’t discount the other voices that have always been at the table. Denied the chance to be part of the academy for generations, the voices of black women can be brought into the curriculum now, Sims said, by adding their writing to course syllabi, adding speakers and formal and informal discussions including them. Above all, she said, womanism often means being aware of whose voices are not being heard.

Jeanne Hoeft, a fellow vice president at Saint Paul in Kansas City, said Sims’ “scholarly work on lynching and the black church has really been important to us and in a way brought …Saint Paul into the public realm. Her work was so publicly recognized.”

Both Hoeft and longtime friend Lorenzo Cooper York, a retired Navy chaplain, describe Sims as intellectually sharp, deeply spiritual, a groundbreaking scholar and possessing a keen sense of business (she was a comptroller in her previous line of work) and, as Hoeft said, “comes across as a force.”

“She’s driven to make a difference in the world,” Hoeft said. “She has high expectations both for her colleagues and students. But on the other side, she would spend hours working with a student if a student asked for help. She would do that without judgment.”

York, who has known Sims since they were both in college years ago and reconnected when they and their spouses were at Camp Pendleton in California (he’s from a Navy family; she’s from a Marine family,) said it might look like Sims got into theology to keep herself busy once her nest was empty. In reality, he said, the sum of her experiences came together at that time to make her what she is today.

“What you’re getting is an administrator with great skills and experience that isn’t restricted to any one particular area. She’s keenly savvy when it comes to business. She’s a successful mom who raised successful kids. (Her sons graduated from West Point, her daughter from the University of Virginia.) She’s also savvy because she’s a Marine Corps wife: that has to be a lot of flexibility, has to be a lot of patience and understanding of sacrifice beyond the talking, and in the doing,” York said. “The richness of experience prepared her for the gifts she has to offer the Rochester” divinity school.

Added Hoeft: “She has such a unique confluence of skills and gifts and experiences. Colgate is very lucky to have her.”

Sims was born in Louisiana and reared in San Antonio, Texas, and Hayward, Calif. As the wife of a Marine, she moved around as a young adult, too, but after a time settled the children in Prince William County, Va., to be close to both good schools and the Marine Corps operations at Quantico. While raising her children, Sims also worked in finance, and it was while working in that realm that she found her calling to the ministry – not in the four walls of a Baptist church where she formed and continued to practice her faith.

The founder of an organization for which she worked was a faithful Catholic, she said, and demonstrated faith in action with his work policies. “To date, it is the only organization where I’ve worked where profit-sharing was calculated and instead of going into a designated account, checks were actually cut to employees,” she said. The boss also invested in workers, allowing her the flexibility with her schedule so she could take on an associate pastor’s position at a local church. In that unpaid position, she found herself and the pastor each attending on the same day to separate families as they received DNA confirmation of their loved ones’ deaths on Sept. 11, 2001.

It was the hardest pastoral duty she’s done, Sims said, next to being with families in the ICU as they decided to stop life support for their infants.

This apparently is the softer side of Sims that Hoeft alluded to, and the flip side of the woman who says she was attracted to the job in Rochester after two downsizings at Saint Paul because of the challenge it offers.

“It really provides opportunities to think about the ways we can work efficiently and still provide a quality educational experience,” Sims said. She talks about the possibility of expanding enrollment through use of technology once the staff has been trained in software that allows them to reach a broader audience.  “I saw it as not only an opportunity to re-imagine theological education but to also really think about great workplace efficiencies.”

In the few months since she arrived, Sims has begun restructuring the staff. She added a librarian and office manager. She also hired a vice president of institutional advancement, who handles recruitment as well as public relations and giving.  Additionally she hired a director of institutional effectiveness, seemingly a catch-all job tasked with responsibilities ranging from legal affairs to faculty use of technology and training.

Other than change in location, students have not yet felt these administrative changes, Sims said, but she expects they will become more involved as they share in the discussion of “what it means for students to really own some of the space and for them to see themselves as really vital members of the community.”

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Angela D. Sims

Position: President, Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School

Age: 63

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, Trinity College, Washington D.C.; master’s degree in divinity, Howard University; doctorate degree in Christian social ethics, Union Presbyterian Seminary

Residence: Perinton

Family: Husband, Terron; sons Terron II of Arlington, Va., and Douglas of El Paso, Texas, and daughter Helene in Hayward, Calif.; three grandchildren

Activities: Training for a walking half-marathon, gardening, reading and travel

Quote: “Increasingly, more and more of our students are bi-vocational. A number are looking for ways to live out their sense of vocational identify in non-traditional spaces. I think that seminaries have a responsibility to be responsive to that but also be forward thinking as we look at the changes that are occurring on the religious landscape on a number of faith traditions.”