Acadia Divinity College is proud to introduce Rev. Dr. Anna Robbins, the seventh president of Acadia Divinity College (ADC), and the Dean of Theology of Acadia University. Dr. Melody Maxwell, Associate Professor of Church History, asked Dr. Robbins a few questions about her life and ministry.
A portion of this article was original published in the 2019 Summer Edition of the ADC Today.
How and when did you experience a call to ministry?
I think my call came in stages. I knew as a young child that I wanted to serve Christ and that I had gifts for leadership. Those were affirmed by my church family, and they gave me many opportunities to lead. After undergraduate studies and marriage, Peter and I were involved so completely in church life that it became a natural progression in some ways.
In other ways, my call emerged from a crisis. I was working at the Red Cross in development education, and we led a group of young leaders at a weekend camp. To my surprise, they decided the world would have been better off without humans in it. That was a turning point for me. I realized I needed to be able to engage real world challenges from the perspective of faith if, in fact, my faith was up to it.
This was a secular camp. But I knew if Jesus was to make a difference to these kids and the issues that confronted them, then the Bible had to say something about the real world and address its problems with good news. Though I had been given excellent biblical and practical foundations at my church, my questions were bigger. I knew I needed to study theology and find out if my faith could stand the test.
My husband felt called as well. Our church affirmed our call, though I was told clearly that Peter, not I, would be the minister. Despite having a leadership role at work and multiple leadership roles at church, this was okay with me. I had never experienced anything different. I enrolled in the Master of Religious Education program at Acadia Divinity College rather than the Master of Divinity.
My call took clear shape while I was at ADC. In many ways, I was in my element as a theology student. I’d always had a natural academic ability. But I had never studied anything that I was truly passionate about. At ADC, my ability and passion came together for the first time. I just had to come to terms with the call.
Like most women studying for ministry at that time, I had to understand biblically how God could call me to leadership. This was not something I undertook lightly. I had gentle encouragement from many faculty members and from the churches where I served. In particular, Dr. Allison Trites taught consistently from the New Testament on this topic. He patiently answered my questions at his open door until I surrendered to God’s sovereignty and said yes to the call.
My home church then had to decide whether they would recognize my call or not. They had several meetings about this. I was told that the matter was settled when one deacon said, “Well, I don’t know if God calls women. But we all know that God has called Anna!”
And that was that. My call was unanimously affirmed at every stage, including ordination council. That means a great deal to me. I believe that ministry can’t be done as a lone ranger.
How has ADC been influential in your formation?
ADC prepared me exceptionally well for ministry in various forms. I grew in practical skills, intellectually, and spiritually. My time as a student laid the foundation for my understanding of the Bible, of theology, and of who I am as a called servant of God. I learned to learn and to keep learning!
From Jarold Zeman I learned that we don’t know what’s ahead if we don’t appreciate what’s behind. From Andrew MacRae I learned that intellect and evangelism belong together. From Miriam Ross I learned that mission is a rigourous and demanding gift. From Dennis Veinotte I learned to think theologically and not to fear myself. I could go on and on.
But more than that, my professors taught me to wrestle with God, theology, and my understanding of my place in the world. Best of all, I gained a confidence in Christ that goes beyond my ability to grasp his kingdom. Knowing that I am held by him helps me let go of my striving and consider the possibilities of mission that exist around us. I am a servant of Christ, not His lawyer. I am a servant of the church, not its saviour. That role is taken. What a relief! I am free to do what God has placed before me.
What are you most excited about in your new role as president of ADC?
I am excited by the opportunity to shape theological education for today. It will take discernment to identify and preserve the foundational aspects of our work. We will also need flexibility to identify the changing skills and issues that will equip servants of Christ for his mission.
I believe we have the most excellent team and resources to enable ADC to be a seminary for Canada and the global church. Our faculty are smart, resourceful, and in touch with the church and society. They love scholarship and they love the church even more. We are ready!
Where do you hope to lead ADC in the days ahead?
We have no idea what the world will look like twenty years from now, but we do know it will be very different. Automation, artificial intelligence, and the stewardship of the planet have wide-ranging implications for the future. For ADC and the church to carry on “as is” is not an option.
I hope that in the future we will train people with faithfulness and flexibility, ready to lead amid global change. ADC will continue to be the place to be in the know about Christian life and ministry, not in a vacuum. It will be a place for Christians to understand their faith in the context of the world as it is now, and as it will become.
I know that Jesus is here with us. I pray that we may discern clearly His voice and His footsteps so, that as a college, we move where He leads, in the confidence and power of the Holy Spirit.
You lived in the United Kingdom for 15 years. What impact did your time there have on your life and ministry?
It’s hard to put such a significant part of my life into words. We went to the UK after pastoring in Clementsvale, Nova Scotia. We planned for me to do most of my PhD work during two years in Wales and then finish at home. We stayed 15 years.
There’s no question we were called to the United Kingdom. We spent the first four years in Wales, where Peter pastored as I studied. In the last year in Wales I landed a job on the faculty of the London School of Theology (LST) and commuted every week. By the fifth year, Peter was called to a church in Watford, near London and not far from the college.
Before I was appointed to teach theology and contemporary culture at LST, I had no idea that such a job existed! The role and LST were a great fit for me. Biblically faithful, contemporary and edgy, with a diverse and creative faculty, the school gave me opportunities to learn the craft of university teaching, supervision, student formation, academic administration.
At one point, I was invited to lead the college for over a year after the resignation of the Principal. I realized for the first time that this level of leadership was something I might be called to do.
In London I also had amazing opportunities to serve a variety of organizations, and my network expanded exponentially. It’s an exciting place where ideas often hit the ground and churches respond creatively to the changing culture. That kept me sharp in my knowledge and skill. I was often invited to present at events across the UK.
I especially appreciated how many Christian organizations sought and valued theological guidance. In London I was invited to serve the Evangelical Alliance, Tearfund, the Baptist Union, the Baptist World Alliance, Theos, and Christians in Politics. I met Christians in government from across parties who would study the Bible together as they considered what difference it made to their work for the common good. I had the privilege to lead Bible studies and worship services, or attend meetings, for Parliamentarians, Peers and press, where public servants and elected officials were equipped for their high level of responsibility as Christians.
I’ll never forget the day I entered Westminster Hall, having just cleared security at Portcullis House. In this hall where kings and queens reigned in centuries past, this Saint John South Ender walked alone to present a Bible study in the chapel of St. Mary’s Undercroft. God and I shared a laugh. He surely has a sense of humour!
The potential breadth of impact and scope of influence during my time in London remains hard for me to fathom. I’m amazed at the ways God works, even at the seat of earthly powers.
We left Canada as two and returned as three – our son David was born at the conclusion of my year as Acting Principal at LST. That represents the most significant event for us in London! David has settled well in Atlantic Canada but still sometimes refers to England as ‘home.’ In some ways, it will always be that for us.
We’re glad that God called you back to Canada! In your perspective, what opportunities do Atlantic Baptists have in the twenty-first century?
We have every opportunity! The biggest obstacle to embracing the possibilities around us is most often not the culture, but ourselves. We got too used to being the only religious people in the village and neglected our mission. If people today don’t understand the unique, positive role of the church in society, we have to own that failure.
Jesus is alive and at work in the world today. We are invited to know and to follow him now through the doors that are open before us. The gospel is bigger than our buildings and our memories. If we are just looking to hang on to what we’ve got, we’ve already lost our mission.
The past of the church teaches us that we have a future. But the future won’t look like what things do now. If we have a neighbour, a relative, a friend, or a co-worker, then we have an opportunity today.
Embracing opportunity is a daily reality for us at ADC. Being on the campus of a modern liberal arts university exposes us to the ideas that inform our culture. We learn to engage people who hold and generate those views with respect and love.
In the midst of this, we are able to interpret ideas in the light of Christ. We can communicate the love of God and the profound positive influence that the church has had in our culture, beyond misconceptions and failed mission. We find people interested in a winsome gospel that is actually good news. It may not always be this way, but it is right now.
We need two things: to know who Jesus is and to be completely sold out to him and his mission.
We have to know who we are in Christ. That’s what the church is: people sold out to Jesus and his mission. The stuff of the church building is just stuff. It doesn’t have to look like this or that. What if the first thing everyone heard on a Sunday morning was “Welcome to church. Can I get you a glass of water?” What if we talked together about the stuff of life and were real with each other? Imagine the possibilities.
Meet Dr. Anna Robbins
Full name: Anna Maureen Robbins
Hometown: Saint John, New Brunswick
Current town: Wolfville, Nova Scotia
Family: husband Peter and, 10-year old son, David
Degrees: BA (Carleton University), MRE (Acadia University), MA (Theology) (Acadia University), PhD (University of Wales)
Past jobs: Shoe shiner at Saint John Market Square, International Development Education Officer at Canadian Red Cross Society, Professor at London School of Theology
Hidden talent: Cooking
Favorite ice cream: Raffaella Gelato from Croatia
Best way to spend a snow day: In front of the fire with a good book and a mug of hot chocolate, after playing in the snow with son, David.