With increasing faculty and student diversity, Yale Divinity School is developing a Black Church Studies program to prepare students for ministry in predominantly African-American churches.
Spearheaded by William Mathis, director of the program and pastor of the Springs of Life-Giving Water Church in New Haven, the colloquia-based program will provide students with the theological guidance and practical training necessary to lead black churches, incorporating lessons ranging from how to balance a budget to how to meet ordination requirements. Although a committee of faculty, alumni and students is still in the process of establishing the specifics of the program, Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling told the News that the general structure will resemble those of already established programs, like the Methodist Studies Certificate program.
Students in the Methodist Studies program take classes necessary for ordination, attend program-specific colloquia and receive support from both affiliated faculty and local clergymen. Upon graduation, these students receive a certificate signifying their completion of the program along with their diploma.
“The mission of [Yale Divinity School] is to train religious leaders,” Mathis said. “With this new diversity comes a responsibility that we provide diverse theological training that … makes the students of [the Div School] better prepared leaders for the global community.”
The timeline for the program’s implementation is not finalized, but Mathis said he envisions hosting the program’s first colloquium sometime this semester to connect students with local black clergy. By the end of the year, he hopes to have developed something more structured so that those graduating in the upcoming school year have the ability to receive a certificate confirming participation in the program.
In an interview with the News, Mathis stressed the relevancy of the Black Church Studies program given issues arising from the current political climate.
“The black church has historically been one of the leading organizations that has brought about justice and equality not just for black people but for people in general,” Mathis said. “Yale Divinity has positioned itself to develop and train leaders who will be able to combat these issues.”
According to Sterling, the establishment of the Black Church Studies program — which Mathis hopes will become a certificate program as well — is a direct result of the Div School’s success in recruiting faculty, staff and students from underrepresented races and ethnicities, with African-Americans comprising the largest minority group within the Div School’s student body.
Throughout the past few years, the Div School has prioritized increasing faculty, student and curricula diversity. In 2015, the Div School applied for funding under the $50 million University-wide initiative to increase faculty diversity. And the school has surpassed its goal to enroll a student population composed of 25 percent underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities for the past three years, according to Sterling: Nearly 30 percent of domestic students in this year’s incoming class are students of color.
Mathis’s vision for the program involves not only vocational training and education for students pursuing careers in black churches but also wider exposure among the Div School community to the black church’s uniqueness. Former University Chaplain and Div School professor Frederick Streets DIV ’75, who informally advised Sterling on the formation of the Black Church Studies program over the past two years, emphasized the importance of partnerships between local black churches and the Div School. Through the program, he said, the Div School and the black church community can act as “mutual teachers,” learning from each other throughout the process.
“The Divinity School, like the University, wants to be a constructive partner with the community at large in Greater New Haven or beyond,” Streets said. By having a black church studies program, this will help the Divinity School to strengthen its partnership with black churches across different denominations,” Streets said.
Mathis, who was only hired this year as director of the program, is just beginning to connect with students. But he said he already sensed excitement surrounding the program from black and nonblack students alike. He described a “gleam in the eyes” of many students when talking to them about the program at the Div School’s orientation luncheon.
Arthur Thomas DIV ’19, president of the Yale Black Seminarians, said that because the program is only in the early stages of development, gauging program popularity is difficult. However, he added that there has been a “collective desire” among the Div School community to study the contribution of black churches to American Christianity for the past few years.
“The black church is such a component of American history,” Thomas said. “It is almost an incomplete investigation into American Christianity or theology without [studying] the African-American contribution.”
Adelaide Feibel | firstname.lastname@example.org