Public theologian Yolanda Pierce named next dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School

‘I look forward to building on the strong foundation that Emilie Townes and others have established to form this treasured community,’ Pierce said.

The Rev. Yolanda Pierce, left, will be the next dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School. Emilie Townes, right, has held the position since 2013. Courtesy photos

(RNS) — The Rev. Yolanda Pierce, dean of Howard University School of Divinity and a public theologian, has been named the next dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Her appointment is effective July 1, pending approval by the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust.

Pierce, who also has been a professor of religion at Howard University since 2017, is to succeed Emilie Townes, who became the first African American dean of the divinity school in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2013. Vanderbilt announced last year that Townes would step down as of June 30 and would return to a faculty role in 2024 after a research leave.

“During the search process, Yolanda Pierce stood out for her outstanding national leadership at the intersection of religion and public life,” said Vanderbilt Provost C. Cybele Raver in a statement. “She is the ideal candidate to continue Emilie Townes’ pathbreaking work in what we boldly call ‘Schola Prophetarum,’ School of the Prophets — preparing our students to be 21st-century ministers, teachers and community leaders in a challenging world.”

Based on the Association of Theological Schools’ database that dates to 2007, “this would represent the first time that two African-American or Black women in a row have been called to lead an ATS school,” Chris A. Meinzer, the COO and senior director of ATS, told Religion News Service.

Pierce, a scholar of African American religious history and womanist theology, has taught at the University of Kentucky and Princeton Theological Seminary, where she was the founding director of its Center for Black Church Studies. She also was the inaugural director of the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

During her tenure as the first woman to lead the predominantly Black theological school at Howard University, Pierce launched a chaplaincy/clinical pastoral education program that is certified by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education and moved its residential doctor of ministry program online.

“I am honored and excited for the opportunity to become dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, an innovator in 21st-century theological education, and to work with dedicated faculty and staff in the preparation of outstanding ministers and scholars,” Pierce said in a statement. “I have long heard about the school’s rich history as an advocate for racial and social justice, and I look forward to building on the strong foundation that Emilie Townes and others have established to form this treasured community.”

Pierce, the author of the 2021 book “In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit,” has sought to teach a more expansive view of theology.

“If the only theology we have is (Martin) Luther or (John) Calvin, then we’re missing how God moves in a world for a group of people who don’t know Luther or Calvin, will never read (their) work nor are interested in the 1500s in which they lived,” she told Religion News Service at the time of the release of that book. “So I’m really trying to shift the discourse about who can do theology and what counts as theological source material.”

by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service