by Carlton David Johnson
Do something! This was the mandate facing Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary five years ago. JCSTS is one of the 10 theological institutions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the only historically African-American one.
Declining enrollment among seminaries was a reflection of the larger church, and by 2010, JCSTS was particularly embattled. When Paul Roberts assumed leadership of the institution in 2010, the school’s enrollment had dwindled to only 17 students. Something had to change.
Misinformed or selfish change was to be avoided at all cost. The apostle Paul was particularly cautious about selfish change when he composed his first epistle to the church at Corinth. Among other things, the troubled Christian community was consumed with questions about the appropriateness of eating meat that was intended as sacrifice. Paul directed the community not be divided by questions around knowledge of laws, but come together and let love be their guide. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1-6).
Paul’s ultimate desire was to help them understand their freedom in Christ and the imperative to liberate others. For Paul, liberation was a by-any-means-necessary-leave-no-child-of-God-behind enterprise, even submitting to enslavement if it allowed him access and the opportunity to preach liberation (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
Moreover, Paul taught there was no personal salvation – no “I win!” There was only the saving of the entire community. Freedom was not freedom if it was achieved alone. Along with the guidance of Holy Spirit, Paul embraced the ancient African proverb of Ubuntu: “I am because we are and we are because I am.”
One popular interpretation of this 1 Corinthian text promotes selfish change. Change without reflection and discernment. JCSTS was careful not to fall victim to the selfish inclination to “win.”
Research and recruitment conversations revealed important information for the future of the school. Potential students expressed deep concern about the rising cost of a seminary education and the declining number of opportunities that existed on the other side of graduation. With the average cost of Master of Divinity degrees easily exceeding $70,000, the math associated with the salary of pastors receiving their first call was simply not working out.
Alumni chimed in to share the lack of accessible programs to support their ministries. Available programs either required them to take extensive time away from their congregations and families or spend money that they simply did not have. Ministry leaders, such as musicians who do not particularly desire (or need) a Masters program, needed some vehicle to better understand evolving trends in worship.
Much louder than the groans of our school’s enrollment numbers was the cry of alumni, friends, pastors and congregations screaming, “Do something!”
Was this the perfect time and place to invoke “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda”?
The phrase, which seems to have first appeared in 1674 during the Dutch Second Reformation in a devotional by Jodocus van Lodenstein, has found particular popularity among Presbyterians. Its origin has been attributed to everyone from Hans Kung to Karl Barth to St. Augustine of Hippo. The phrase has an equal number of translations:
“The church is always to be reformed”
“The church is reformed and always being reformed”
“The reformed church is always to be reformed”
…and the list goes on.
Faulty translations aside, this endearing phrase is a major stumbling block when, like the apostle Paul’s message, it is taken out of context and used to expedite change that has not been accompanied by significant communal discernment.
Concise translation of the Latin verbs reveals the phrase is passive. Hence, the church is not “always reforming,” but is “always being reformed” (according to writings of Michael Horton, professor at Westminster Seminary in California).
Though The Book of Order still confuses the “voice” of the verb, it genuinely captures its intent:
The church, in obedience to Jesus Christ, is open to the reform of its standards of doctrine as well as of governance. The church affirms Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei, that is, “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit.” (F-2.02)
Hence, when JCSTS began to look at its future, the first consideration was not “How quickly can we change,” but rather, “What does the community need?” and how do we address those needs in obedience to Jesus Christ, according to the Word of God and in the power of the Spirit, while remaining true to our rich heritage and history?
JCSTS has a proud legacy of service to the Presbyterian Church dating back to 1867 and the founding of the Freedman’s Institute of Charlotte, North Carolina. Like many institutions started after the Civil War, its mission to teach reading, writing and other basic skills to formerly enslaved African-Americans rapidly expanded to, among other things, the preparation of teachers and preachers. The institute graduated its first class of three in 1872.
In 1923, Jane Berry Smith of Pittsburgh generously endowed the institution in honor of her husband, Johnson C. Smith. In recognition of this gift, the board of trustees voted to change the name of the Institute to Johnson C. Smith University.
In 1969, just two years after the university celebrated its 100th anniversary, a national effort led by alumnus James H. Costen Sr. relocated the seminary to Atlanta’s Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC).
Founded in 1958, the ITC is a consortium of historically African-American theological institutions, each with its own denominational affiliation. The ITC had established itself as a nationwide resource on the black church’s role in the renewal of American society.
Costen became president of the ITC in 1983 and, along with his wife Melva, provided years of extraordinary leadership. Beyond the institution, Costen was moderator of the United Presbyterian Church and played a powerful role in promoting the reunion of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian denomination. Melva Costen chaired the PC(USA) committee that developed the reunited denomination’s first hymnal.
Well into the mid-1990s, the overwhelming majority of African-American Presbyterian clergy was educated at JCSTS. Alumni/ae have included moderators and vice moderators, presbytery executives, dynamic preachers, pioneering pastors, missionaries, church musicians and chaplains. As the seminary’s leadership and trustees began their prayerful discernment process, each member was reminded of this legacy.
Finally, in 2014, JCSTS made the difficult decision to disaffiliate from the ITC with a new and independent vision. The new JCSTS would deliver a theological education that is more affordable, increasingly relevant for a changing world, contextual, global in perspective and innovative.
Since its launch in January of 2015, seminary president Paul Roberts and a dedicated staff have traveled over 10,000 miles, throughout the Southeast, into the New England territory and soon the Midwest and West coast. Our model has steered clear of telling leaders what we will bring. Instead, we have listened attentively to their needs, engaged the Holy Spirit and began building an institution that demonstrates that sensitivity. Individuals who are discerning enrollment in a Master’s program as well as seasoned degree-holding leaders seeking to enhance their ministries will find JCSTS appealing. In accordance to the needs expressed in our consultations, the classroom component of some courses will be as brief as the equivalent of a long weekend.
We are also excited to announce plans to begin our first institute, The Institute for Worship, Preaching, and Sacred Arts, in 2016. Pastors, worship leaders and others will learn how to create liturgies that marry worship and justice.
JCSTS has heard the voice of our tradition to “keep reforming.” Our process intentionally provides space for the voices of the community and the participation of the Holy Spirit. Accordingly, we have adopted the tagline: Called To Create What’s Next. This nimble sense of direction has served us tremendously in our first year of rebuilding. For details of our next move, Roberts has often paraphrased Abraham’s response to the specificity of the destination to which God was leading him, “We’ll know when we get there.” Until then, we trust God to continue to mold us into all that God would have us to be and to continue to speak to us through extraordinary people.
CARLTON DAVID JOHNSON serves as an associate minister at the First African Presbyterian Church in Lithonia, Georgia.