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Dr. Melva Costen and Dr. Cynthia Rigby selected for Excellence in Theological Education Awards

Dr. Melva Costen and Dr. Cynthia Rigby will receive Excellence in Theological Education awards at the 226th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) this summer.

Dr. Melva Costen, who died at the age of 90 in 2023, was a leading voice in church worship and song, particularly in the African American church in the PC(USA). Her recognition will be only the second person to be honored posthumously for this award. Dr. Cynthia Rigby has served on the faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas since 1995. She is a speaker, preacher, author, and lecturer who seeks to make Christian teachings clear and accessible.

The Committee on Theological Education and the Theological Education Fund will honor both with the Award for Excellence in Theological Education at General Assembly. The 226th General Assembly is set for June 25 to July 4, 2024, with committee meetings being held in online and plenaries being held in person in Salt Lake City.

The awards are subject to General Assembly approval.

Rev. Dr. Katherine Smith, Chair of the Committee on Theological Education, says both honorees have made exceptionally important contributions to theological education. “Melva Costen was an incredible leader who helped create a more creative and spacious understanding of the worship experience, placing an emphasis on sacred music,” Smith says. “She challenged the church to truly understand, embrace, and elevate African American worship experience in the worship experiences of every church. Even as we recognize her tremendous contributions, we regret that she did not receive this award during her lifetime.”

Of Dr. Cynthia Rigby, Smith says, “Cynthia Rigby’s passion for service to the academy and the Church is visible every time she preaches or teaches. She makes Christian doctrine come alive in transformative ways, inspiring, delighting, and catalyzing those who learn from her for the sake of the Church and the world. We are all better for her contributions – but not just to seminaries. She makes the entire Church better.”

Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director of funds development for the Theological Education Fund at the Presbyterian Foundation, notes that the award is the highest honor in the PC(USA) for those who teach, lead, and support theological education. “Each of these outstanding women led theological education in distinctive ways, making extensive contributions to the Church and the academy,” Hinson-Hasty says. “They join a venerable list of honorees who have faithfully served the PC(USA) and beyond, making theological education more expansive from which the whole Church benefits for generations.”

About Dr. Melva Costen

Dr. Melva Costen was an essential leader in creating a full and rich understanding of African American worship experiences in the PC(USA). She was known both as one of the foremost leaders of music and the larger worship experience, helping African Americans claim biblical truths for themselves in the worship setting.

Her professional service was largely at Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary at Interdenominational Theological Center beginning in 1973, where she became the Helmar Nielsen Professor of Music and Worship in 1987, also directing the Center Chorus. She retired in April 2005 and later became Visiting Professor of Liturgical Studies at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

Her higher education began at Harbison Junior College in Irmo, South Carolina. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in education from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte in 1953, a Master of Arts in Teaching Music degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1964, and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction with music as a cognate area from Georgia State University in Atlanta in 1978.

While attending JCSU, she met James (Jim) Costen. The two married at the JCSU campus chapel on May 24, 1953. When Jim was called to be pastor of the Church of the Master Presbyterian Church in Atlanta in 1965, Melva served as director of music.

Melva’s activities in the Presbyterian Church include service as clerk of the Session of Church of the Master Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, as vice-moderator of the Presbytery of Georgia, as an Elder, and as vice-chairperson of the Advisory Council on Discipleship and Worship. In 1983, Melva directed the choir of the reuniting service of the UPCUSA and the PCUS at the 195th General Assembly in 1983. She served as chairperson of the New Presbyterian Hymnbook Committee to develop the “Presbyterian Hymnal: Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Songs,” which was published in 1990. She also served on the committee which developed the “Directory for Worship” in the “Book of Order.”

Her husband, James H. Costen, received the Excellence in Theological Education Award in 1999, making the Costens the first couple to both receive this honor. He died in 2003.

Additionally, Melva Costen worked alongside her husband to develop and fundraise for the creation of a theological school for the Presbyterian Church of East Africa near Nairobi, Kenya. She died on September 8, 2023.

About Dr. Cynthia Rigby

Professor Cynthia Rigby joined the faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1995. She is known for making the “so what?” of Christian doctrine clear and accessible, and has spoken numerous times at conferences, events, churches, and many more gatherings at the intersection of the church and the academy. The Dallas Morning News called Professor Rigby “one of the great theologians of our time.”

Dr. Rigby’s most recent book is Holding Faith: A Practical Introduction to Christian Faith (Abingdon Press, 2018). She served as a general editor of the nine-volume lectionary commentary series, Connections (Westminster John Knox).

Rigby is also the author of The Promotion of Social Righteousness (Witherspoon Press, 2010), co-editor (with Beverly Gaventa) of Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) and editor of Power, Powerlessness, and the Divine: New Inquiries in Bible and Theology (Duke University Press, 1997).

Dr. Rigby has served as co-chair of both the Christian Systematic Theology Unit and the Reformed Theology and History Unit of the American Academy of Religion, where she has been an active member since 1993. She has been a member of the Workgroup on Constructive Theology for 16 years. She is an associate editor for the Journal of Reformed Theology and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

Dr. Rigby enjoys lecturing and teaching for academic, church, and denominational events both domestically and internationally. Dr. Rigby is actively engaged with congregations, preaching, teaching adult education classes, and leading church conferences on many different subjects. An ordained minister in the PC(USA), Professor Rigby served on the board of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation from 2014 to 2022 and served as an author of the Sarasota Statement for NEXT Church (2017).

In 1998 Dr. Rigby received the PhD in systematic theology from Princeton Theological Seminary where she was awarded a doctoral fellowship and the Wildrich Award for Excellence in Homiletics. Prior to her appointment at Austin Seminary she served several churches, lectured at New Brunswick and Princeton seminaries, and spent a year as Pastor of Special Ministries with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines in Cagayan d’Oro City, Mindanao.

In 2010, Dr. Rigby became the first faculty member elected to Austin Seminary’s Board of Trustees.

Prior recipients

Previous Recipients of the Excellence in Theological Education Award are listed below.

1997      Robert Wood Lynn

1998      C. Ellis Nelson

1999      James H. Costen

2002      Sara P. Little

2003      Jack Leven Stotts

2004      Henry Luce III

2006      Catherine Gonzalez

2008      Sara C. Juengst

2010      Barbara Wheeler

2012      John Trotti

2014      Cynthia M. Campbell and Jack B. Rogers

2016      Katherine Sakenfeld and Craig Dykstra

2018      Katie Geneva Cannon and Doug Oldenburg

2020     Elizabeth Caldwell and Darrell Guder

2022     Gayraud S. Wilmore and Frank Yamada

By Robyn Davis Sekula, vice president of communications and marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation. She is a ruling elder in the PC(USA) and active member of Highland Presbyterian Church.