Dean Esther Menn on Relationship Building, Interpersonal Connection, and Joy
From a personal history of inter-religious engagement to a life-long love of learning
For Esther Menn (MA, 1985), Dean of Academic Affairs and Ralph W. and Marilyn R. Klein Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, the journey to LSTC started in Sunday school. “I loved the Old Testament,” Menn says. “I gravitated to the sense of joy of life and overcoming challenges and the resourcefulness of people in difficult situations.” The courage of the people in those stories gave Menn her own well to draw on: “I was inspired by the idea of God’s greater plan, so I could imagine myself as carrying on those ancient stories to the present day. I really identified with a lot of those narratives,” Menn says.
The Hebrew Bible became even more interesting to Menn after she found out, during college, that she had a Jewish great-grandparent. “I didn’t know that,” Menn says. “So I started studying Hebrew for the last two years I was at Luther College. I fell in love with the language and the worldview it presents.” With a love for both learning and the action-oriented perspective in the Hebrew Bible, Menn embarked on a year-long trip to Israel. Her experiences there, with both Jews and Muslims, supported a new lifelong passion for intercultural and interreligious understanding. As Menn puts it: “I came to my interest in theology as an adult because of interreligious engagement.”
In 1981, upon returning to Chicago, Menn began taking classes at LSTC as a Special Student, first taking courses in Greek and then Introduction to the Old Testament. She enjoyed the experience so much that she eventually applied to the MA program, where LSTC faculty including Wesley Fuerst, Carl Braaten, Phil Hefner, Kurt Hendel, and Franklin Sherman acted as trusted mentors and advisors. “They were great professors,” Menn says. During this time, Menn was also dually enrolled in the MA program at University of Chicago, where she also eventually earned her PhD, studying with Hebrew Bible scholar Jon D. Levenson and Nathan Cummings Professor of Jewish Studies Michael Fishbane.
After graduation, Menn taught at various institutions around the country and earned tenure at University of Virginia, where she taught for six years, before returning to teach at LSTC. For Menn, teaching provides an important avenue to engage students with the kind of inter-relational learning experiences that were so foundational to her own development as a scholar.
With the support of LSTC’s Center for Christian-Muslim Engagement, for example, Menn found opportunities to introduce students to guest speakers of other faiths and visit local synagogues, to partner with other religious and cultural institutions, and to train the next generation of leaders in faith and service.
As Dean, Menn has continued to support the institution’s work in Jewish-Christian relations and to teach Hebrew. Some of the same skills required for interreligious relations also serve Menn well as Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs, including active listening and fostering collaboration among people with different perspectives and gifts. “Leadership for me is supporting each person to develop their distinctive potential and encouraging us to work together to accomplish much more than we could separately.” She is especially proud of LSTC’s strategic plan that features initiatives for pursuing equity and addressing climate change. “These timely initiatives were identified through a dynamic process involving faculty, staff, students, and alumni, and the means to implement them continues to draw on the strengths and insights of the entire community.”
She also works to continue the institution’s work in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion and sustainability. “It’s part of our strategic plan to pursue equity in the areas of race, gender, and sexuality—and to really dig in with environmental justice,” she says. The work is not always easy or comfortable, but it is important.
And to prospective LSTC students Menn says, “If you’re looking to come to a school that is very much student-centered, if you want a small school that has great aspirations and really high ideals as far as the potential for making a difference in the world, LSTC would be a great fit for you.”