Dale Peterson: a man for all students

Ray Waddle

The genial Dale Peterson, YDS’s associate dean of student affairs , has been on the job 11 years now. He has already attained a measure of immortality.

Peterson and DaviesThe Candy Bowl outside his office, and its contents, is known across the wide YDS world. A popular gathering point on the Quad has been sanctified as Peterson’s Knoll. The school’s email communication network is branded with his name: Dale Mail.

All these details are affectionate homages to a daily truth: Dale Peterson stands near the beating heart of YDS, a guardian of the teeming life of students, minister to their needs and anxieties, celebrant of their dreams and successes.

“There are administrative tasks to do, but students are always my first point of contact—to help them create the community they want, and help them through their immediate, personal concerns, which could mean vocational discernment, challenges in class, health issues or family struggles,” he says.

“Every year it’s a different community, with a different set of passions and commitments, and that’s exactly as it should be. Our students are wonderful about taking care of themselves and being self-aware. They are good about asking what they need and want.”

His is a ministry always in flux, moving to the rhythms of the academic year—a moment-to-moment condition of “past-present-future,” he says. Each year he gets to know every member of the entering class—that’s about 140 students. At the same time, he is nurturing relationships with second- and third-year students, teaching assistants and others, while staying in touch with alumni and also making contact with the next wave of prospective students and incoming classes.

Without warning, the routine can take a sobering turn. Peterson steps in if a student is suddenly consumed by crisis—a death in the family, a health emergency, a legal transgression. His work has taken him to psychiatric hospitals, jail cells, funeral parlors.

“A busy routine can quickly be turned on its head by a crisis, a really troubled situation, which you can’t schedule,” he says. “But it happens. These students are real people living real lives.”

The job title says dean, but Peterson calls his work a thoroughgoing ministry, an embodiment of his faith, an extension of his vocation as an ordained Baptist clergyman.

The official Baptist side of his life recently increased its public profile: he was elected to the one-year presidency of American Baptist Churches of Connecticut, a network of 120 congregations across the state.

“Everything I do is through the eyes of ministry,” he says. “Without my personal faith, there’s no way I could be present to others.”

Peterson has been a child of the church for as long as he can remember. His father was a liberal Southern Baptist pastor in Virginia; both his parents went to seminary.

“As the story goes, I was born on a Monday, but I was in church by Wednesday night!” Peterson exclaims. “I don’t think I missed a service from the time I was born. Our household was right there—we always lived next door to the church.”

He nurtured a sense of vocation from early on. In college at the University of Virginia, he tutored Vietnamese refugees. Especially formative, after college, was his two-year stint as a high school teacher and youth minister in Nazareth, Israel.

“I fell in love with the people and the culture and food—they were so generous, kind, welcoming,” he recalls.

“But it was an education in other ways too. Suddenly I was outside the U.S., living in an apartment in an Arab city in a Jewish state—one of the world’s hotspots. New perspectives were everywhere. I had a conversation with a young man who asked, ‘Can I be a communist and a Christian?’ I heard anti-American chants from some and vehemently strong pro-American chants from others. Do I react as an American or as a Christian? I had never really connected my faith to politics or systemic change. Now I saw faith’s implications in everyday life. There’s no arena in which our faith has no place.”

After receiving an M.Div. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, he became a college chaplain at Dartmouth, then did work as a nursing-home chaplain in Waco, TX, where he was ordained a minister in 1987. In the 1980s he was a charter member of various new organizations for moderate and progressive Southern Baptists—the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists, among others.

In 1988, he became Baptist chaplain at Yale. In 1996, the American Baptist Churches of Connecticut officially recognized his ordination; he eventually served as pastor of two congregations in the state while at Yale. In 2000, he left the Yale University chaplaincy to become YDS student dean.

“I’m a minister who is doing ministry at this time and place,” he says. “Every ministry I’ve been involved in has shaped me theologically. These amazing students certainly have shaped me, too. I have a (Rep. John) ‘Boehner reputation’ for getting tearful at YDS ceremonies. It happens out of a deep gratitude for who these students are and what they are setting out to do in the world: we believe in them and trust them to do the hard work of ministry, the work of being present with people. What a great thing they are doing.”

YDS sends ministers out to help heal and gird up the world. Dale Peterson helps gird up the students while they’re here.

“God loves me and other people love me,” he says, “and I’m supposed to love God and other people. I get to do that here.”

July 5, 2011
About the Author: 
Editor of "Reflections" magazine