Roberts has been serving as interim dean and as pastor of Church of the Master Presbyterian Church in the Atlanta area. His last Sunday as pastor of the church will be May 16. The Jane Berry Smith Fund to endow the office of the dean was established as a $1 million endowment by an anonymous donor. The provision of the last $400,000 was received last week. The permanent deanship existed prior to the gift, but it provides the seminary with greater stability and coincided with the trustees’ prior decision to name a new dean. Roberts holds a bachelor of arts degree in architecture from Princeton University; a master of divinity degree from Johnson C. Smith, and is an academic fellow of the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey in Switzerland. OUTLOOK associate editor, Martha Skelton, talked to the new dean about his challenges and vision for the seminary.
M.S. Tell us about your relationship to the seminary over the years and how these contacts have informed your plans as dean.
P.R. In addition to being a student and graduate, I was president of the alumni association. It was a great experience. I returned to the campus for events. I thought I knew the seminary well. Through the contacts with alumni, I began to appreciate the changes in the wider church. … Even though I as a pastor know the issues facing my congregation, it helps to have an opportunity to compare notes. We discovered commonalities among fellow graduates. The larger church (not just Presbyterian) is changing. It helped me understand what a seminary does — it doesn’t only prepare ministers with academic tools, but with practical tools to relate to the needs of the Lord’s service in the wider culture. I knew this on an intellectual level. It was overwhelming to see it in (graduates’) faces. Seminaries must prepare leaders to address needs as they arise – they are always arising!
M.S. What is an example of how you plan to implement this vision?
P.R. Leadership is a word used regularly – I don’t know how well we understand it. In this context, I see it as how we prepare people to lead a church as it is re-shaped, as it is re-forming, as we Presbyterians say. We need to look at ways to critique the culture and equip our students with the tools necessary to design ministries, to meet head-on what their congregations are dealing with, what issues.
An example: An historic African-American institution looks at informing the hip-hop culture. What has historically connected the institution to the culture? How does the institution engage the hip-hop generation? My generation speaks a different language than hip-hop. We need to teach our students to listen, to know what to listen for, how to speak without being judgmental, dismissive.
Johnson C. Smith has a long history. We need to build on what we’ve done historically — nurturing and empowering people.
M.S. How does the seminary relate to the Interdenominational Theological Center?
P.R. ITC has the responsibility to the six constituent seminaries for needs as such as campus facilities, faculty, and other administrative and support services. (Each seminary) is responsible for the student body, and denominational affiliations. Johnson C. Smith right now was 17 students; ITC approximately 400. We are looking to aggressively increase our level of enrollment.
M.S. You have indicated that more vibrant worship experiences in churches is a particular conviction of yours. How did it develop into a ministry/pastoral training focus?
P.R. Here is my own experience — I grew up in church (United Methodist) and as a young adult, I stopped going to church. In my late 20s, I became increasingly aware – intuitively aware – that something was missing. I was living in the New York City area at the time. I decided with a friend to start going to church, visiting randomly. We visited a church in East Orange, N.J. — a Presbyterian church. From the first note, I knew this was my church. It was orderly, but a lot more lively. It was a combination of energy, great preaching, spirituality, intellectualism; it was my church. (If this had not happened), I would not have found my call to the ministry. Within three-and-a-half years of joining, I discerned my call to ministry. At ITC I learned the words to express what I had experienced. I was taught the importance of charisma, the way to draw strength to reach a certain demography, unwrap the strategy, theological underpinnings for a worship service decidedly Reformed, integrated into the African-American experience.
M.S. In this context, how would you define charisma?
P.R. Others have the practice of discussing the movement of the Holy Spirit. The African-American church looks for demonstrations of the Holy Spirit. Historically within the African-American worship traditions are very visible outpourings of praise and all kinds of manifestations. It is a demonstrative style of worshipping God. The theological understanding that the Holy Spirit moves strikes different people different ways — tears, silence, joyously holding hands. It was decidedly different from what I was used to — worship the same way (with) a pressure to conform. People are free to express God’s Spirit in a way that is authentic and transforming to them.
M.S. How can this practice of worship be taught at seminary, or applied by graduates?
P.R. One of our graduates, Andrew Stephens Jr., in Nashville is developing a dynamic congregation (Village Presbyterian Church) in a depressed area of Nashville, empowering people with a strong sense of identity as “creatures of our God and King” — as African-American individuals, male and female, young and old. It is Afri-Centric or Afrikan-Centered and it is working marvelously well. “Afri-Centrism” helps people understand the origins of culture, especially the African-American culture as it relates to Africa. It is helping people understand the cultural richness of Africa and appreciate the cultural richness around the globe. It is a continuum, a process.