Preparing leaders to serve the black church means recognizing the diversity and range of black faith traditions, and equipping ministers and lay leaders to serve in those varied contexts.
That was one of the messages that came from the recent Black Church Studies Consultation convened at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. The gathering brought together ministers and leaders from various Christian denominations in order to advise the Seminary on ways to continue shaping its Black Church Studies Program (BCS), which launched in Fall 2009.
“We are glad to have you as conversation partners in the development of the program,” Rev. Lewis Brogdon, director of the new LPTS program, told those gathered on February 26. “We wanted to initiate a conversation that would help us build partnerships.”
Perspectives and advice during consultation came from men and women representing a range of traditions, including Presbyterian Church (USA), United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, National Baptist, Progressive Baptist, American Baptist, Pentecostal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and African Methodist Episcopal. The attendees, who serve as pastors, scholars, and denominational leaders, also traveled from regions of Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Michigan.
“We can’t build a table unless you are at the table,” said Louisville Seminary President Dean K. Thompson. “We won’t be trustworthy if we try to put our vision on the table apart from an authentic partnership with you.”
“We are pleased that you would come and spend this time with us,” Thompson added.
The day-long consultation included a full agenda, complete with three discussion sessions, campus community worship, and an evening banquet that incorporated students. The discussion sessions, which included Seminary Professors Debra J. Mumford and Johnny B. Hill, yielded healthy conversation and suggestions for the development and growth of the seminary’s BCS program.
Rev. Willis Polk, pastor of Imani Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., emphasized that leaders are developing a growing appreciation for theological education in many black denominational and nondenominational church traditions. “The Seminary needs to cultivate an ethos that supports diversity and does not force a different culture upon black students,” he said.
Many around the discussion table mentioned the ongoing need for more flexible scheduling opportunities and the importance for offering courses in the evenings and on Saturdays.
Rev. Brian Wells, the academic dean of Simmons College of Kentucky and pastor of Westwood Memorial Presbyterian Church in Louisville, suggested that the BCS Program consider building a “public policy” component into the curriculum to “enable students to leave LPTS with practical programs and ideas that can be implemented in their respective communities.”
Other issues and trends in the black church that generated concentrated dialogue were the lack of prophetic voices and the dangers of prosperity theology. The loss of historical memory, racism, and the injustice of excluding women from ministry were also discussed. Participants agreed that theological institutions and local churches needed to work together to affect change.
The Seminary’s Black Church Studies Program, which is the brainchild of three Louisville Seminary professors who first discussed it in early 2000, kicked off last fall with an inaugural cohort of ten students. It is the first of its kind in the region and offers three tracks of study – a certificate program for students not enrolled in a degree program; a concentration in the Master of Divinity or Master of Arts (Religion) degree programs; and a concentration in the Doctor of Ministry degree program.
Central to the program are the Seminary faculty and administrators who oversee and facilitate it and the program’s full integration with the Seminary’s current curriculum. In addition to Brogdon, who shares his director’s duties with ones he also fulfills as Associate Director of Recruitment and Admissions, are six faculty members.
They are Rev. Dr. Scott C. Williamson, The Robert H. Walkup Professor of Theological Ethics; Hill, Assistant Professor of Theology; Mumford, The Frank H. Caldwell Assistant Professor of Homiletics; Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Johnson Walker, Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling; Rev. Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes, Assistant Professor of Worship and Preaching; and Rev. Dr. Dianne Reistroffer, Professor of Ministry and Director of Methodist Studies.
Consultation participants applauded Louisville Seminary for its efforts to train students to effectively serve the black church, but also urged the Seminary’s leadership to be mindful that that context is broad and diverse.
Often, “we are put in one broad category,” said Rev. Jamesetta Ferguson, Pastor of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Louisville. Yet, “we don’t do things the same; we have differences among the black churches.”
“I would hope that there would be some recognition that we are different, [that] there is some diversity,” said Ferguson, who earned a Master of Divinity degree from LPTS in 2007.
Rev. Dr. Eric Johnson, Pastor of Greater Galilee Baptist Church in Louisville, echoed that thought, saying that in the common experience that is the black church, “there are many other kinds of experiences.”
The leaders present, whose own seminary experiences ranged from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to the Perkins School of Theology, encouraged Louisville Seminary officials to consider such things as the historical underpinnings of the black church and its evolution to where it is today.
“We have to go back to slavery,” said Rev. Altonnette D. Hawkins, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Louisville “That is part of our culture. That is what makes the church what it is today.”
Bishop Fred Brown, Pastor of the Faith Center Church of Bluefield, Va., and Charlotte, N.C., stressed the importance of preparation of ministers that helps address “the real issues of African American people.”
For many, the church is going to be the only organization they listen to, so leaders need to be prepared to deal with major issues relevant to the community such as education and economic empowerment, he said.
Others talked about the need for Louisville Seminary’s Black Church Studies Program to address church administration and management, social networking and online giving, to post-denominationalism and the emergent church movement.
Ultimately, “You should be envisioning now what 2025 will be,” said Greater Galilee’s Johnson.