When the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary pulled out of the Interdenominational Theological Center this past June 30th, disapproval poured in from pockets of alums and other befuddled seminary supporters. However, the consortium shared with five other historically African- American seminaries in Atlanta was moving in a direction dissimilar to JCSTS’ own sense of call, says president Paul Roberts. The schools — representing the United Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the Baptist Church — had been functioning as a partnership since 1958. Presbyterians joined in 1969.
But JSCTS had been around a long time before that consortium was formed. Johnson C. Smith University campused (and still does) in Charlotte, N.C. It developed a theological department (i.e., a seminary). By the 1950s the seminary was floundering. The trustees decided to close it, but alums proposed that the graduate school move to Atlanta to join the ITC. It became a reality in 1969.
However, in recent years, it became increasingly difficult to recruit new students to JCSTS. Due to radical, well-publicized shifts in demographics in the PC(USA), JCSTS realized a declining pool of prospective students. Concurrently, the jobs available to seminary graduates shrank while their student loan debt skyrocketed. These dynamics are felt even more keenly among African-Americans who make up a mere three percent of PC(USA) membership. The current model of theological education is not a sustainable one for JCSTS, says Roberts. Consequently, JCSTS felt compelled to approach the endeavor of theological education in a radically different way.
“The decision to terminate the current relationship with ITC was made based on discernment about the ways in which God is calling JCSTS to more fully realize its mission and vision for the future,” said Martin Lehfeldt, board chairman, in an announcement made after the April 30th board meeting. “JCSTS has been exploring ways to be a new kind of Presbyterian seminary that best meets the needs and challenges of a new generation of Christian pastors and leaders in a rapidly changing Church and global society. Building on the black church and Reformed tradition, the mission of JCSTS is to equip innovative leaders to participate in God’s reformation of the church and the world.”
Now, Johnson C. Smith Seminary is without the fixed costs of buildings and grounds, tenured faculty and diversified staff. The seminary, whose tagline is “Called to Create What’s Next,” can afford to be nimble, to retool and to develop an educational model that is more affordable and more accessible to a diverse student body. Currently, JCSTS resides at the offices of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta.
Previous JCSTS students have been encouraged to continue their matriculation at ITC, says Roberts. Since most of them are far along in their studies, it makes economic sense for them to stay where they are rather than transfer to another institution. JCSTS still will give them financial assistance and will provide ongoing guidance so they can best fulfill their presbyteries’ requirements for ordination.
JCSTS has a $4 million endowment, a $500,000 annual budget, consistent support from the PC(USA) and an intact donor base. JCSTS currently is engaged in a professionally facilitated self-study and strategic planning process. Roberts is excited about what lies ahead and expects to announce the seminary’s new direction in early 2015.