On August 31st 2013, after only three years Dr. Ronald Peters will officially resign as the eighth president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. To many this may come as a surprise but for those well connected to the institution it only serves as another indication that the venerable theological institution of higher education, affectionately known as “ITC”, is suffering from a serious case of institutional dysfunction. I offer this assessment not as an outsider but as a proud alumnus who has served on the Board of Trustees of the ITC since 2011.
The Recent challenges of the ITC
Longtime readers of this blog will remember an August 06, 2010 post I wrote analyzing the Presidency of the ITC in light of the selection of Dr. Peters
as its new leader. In that post I articulated my concern for the state of the ITC and my hope that Dr. Peters’ administration would signal a new era of institutional advance and revitalization. Now some thirty months later, given Dr. Peters’ relatively swift exist from the ITC and the current perilous state of the institution, it appears my concern was well-founded and my hope has been deferred.
In 2009, Dr. Michael Battle resigned as President of the ITC to begin his tenure as US Ambassador to the African Union. Despite several noticeable accomplishments, Battle’s exist was received with joy from some and disappointment from others (read more about the Battle administration in the aforementioned 2010 post). When Dr. Ronald Peters took over the helm of leadership in 2010, the Center was functioning but still faced many looming institutional challenges.
Specifically, the ITC’s aging facilities were in need of serious repair and overdue renovation, several faculty and staff positions needed to be filled, the work of the faculty needed to be affirmed, an abundance of funds needed to be raised, the consortium agreement with the various seminaries that make up the ITC needed to be renegotiated, the financial infrastructure needed to be reframed and the nagging increasing indebtedness of the Morehouse school of Religion needed to be addressed.
Peters’ Response to the Challenges
To his credit, though Dr. Peters was not aware of all these issues before he accepted the position, he did not wither in the face of these challenges. From the onset he fearlessly sought to address many of the issues plaguing the Center in an effort to shape the ITC into the 21st century center of theological excellence that he envisioned. Unfortunately, like many of his predecessors, Dr. Peters did not understand the extent to which his vision would be dependent upon his ability to navigate the treacherous political terrain that is the ITC structure.
Over the course of ITC’s history its structure has been simultaneously lauded and lambasted. On the one hand, the structure has been celebrated as a momentous venture in ecumenism and arguably the most creative enterprise of theological education in the 20th century. On the other hand, the structure has been consistently critiqued for having a Board of Trustees that is too large and intractably divided along partisan denominational lines. These dual realities led one former Board chair to describe the ITC as “a heaven inspired institution whose structure was created in hell.”
In response to the institutional challenge of leading ITC, Dr. Peters chose to take the proverbial bull by the horns and tussle until each institutional obstacle was overcome. This approach resulted in the existing of the chief financial officer (who had become, for better or worse, an institution during her many years of service at ITC), the firing of several other significant staff persons, the hiring of a new presidential cabinet, the restructuring of the financial infrastructure, a proposed multi-million dollar campus renovation project and the dismissal of the Morehouse School of Religion from the theological consortium.
The Context of Peters’ Exit
As one might suspect, these changes were perceived by some to be necessary for progress while others viewed them as assaults to the historic legacy of the ITC. I happen to be among those who favor the progressive viewpoint. Nevertheless, these changes along with the current accreditation warning status and disagreements with certain ITC stakeholders (not least of which the Board Chair) over the use of power and financial protocols etc., created an environment that led President Peters to conclude that his charge at ITC needs to end.
Today, the ITC faces serious financial budget deficits and the threat of losing its accreditation. It's up for debate the extent to which Dr. Peters can be blamed for these challenges and reasonable people will continue to disagree on this subject. In full disclosure, I consider Dr. Ronald Peters to be a respected scholar, senior colleague and friend; and as such I make no claims to objectivity. However, my primary concern in regards to the ITC is that it live on and shine bright to the degree that its latter days become greater than its past. In order for this to become a reality there are a multiplicity of thorny issues that the institution as a whole must address and resolve.
Where Does ITC Go From Here
Obviously, the first issue that needs to be resolved is securing the full accredited status of the institution; if this does not happen the ITC will more than likely die a slow death or become a sad institutional modicum of its former self. Currently the ITC has several capable and committed persons working hard on the Center’s accreditation situation. However, questions surround the current acting President Dr. Edward Wimberly and his ability to administratively oversee the process. Though, Dr. Wimberly
is one of the most beloved, celebrated and highly regarded faculty members in the history of the ITC, some are questioning whether he is the right person to lead the institution during this critical time given his checkered administrative track record as provost. Only time will tell if he will be able to silence his critics by rising to the occasion.
Secondly, the institution must engage in a serious period of self-reflection. This is primarily the responsibility of the Board of Trustees. As Dr. Dan Aleshire, the President of the Association of Theological Schools, asserts in his book Earthen Vessels: hopeful reflections on the work and future of theological schools, “during problematic institutional times boards must do the generative work of identifying the meaning and hopes that give rise to mission.” I offered this challenge at the last board meeting and gladly the Institutional Advancement committee accepted the challenge and is organizing an ITC Summit that will bring together stake holders from among the various institutional constituencies (trustees, faculty, alumni, staff, and students etc.) to discuss the state of ITC and its relevance to the contemporary church.
Thirdly, the ITC must select a President with the requisite knowledge, expertise, experience, vision, diplomatic skill, ecumenical appreciation, scholarly aptitude, fund raising ability and sense of call necessary to lead the ITC into a striving future. This will require that the ITC be clear about its mission and structure, lest it invite another president into a dysfunctional situation. Moreover, it will require that the Board of Trustees address the long standing elephant in the room which is revaluating the role and powers of the denominational seminary executives and their accountability, or lack thereof, to the broader ITC leadership structure.
Lastly, the ITC must develop a realistic budget and a creative fundraising plan. In recent years the Center has not had a realistic budget primarily because those of us charged with raising funds have not lived up to our responsibilities. As a result, the ITC’s most prized elements, namely its stellar faculty and promising students have paid a great price insomuch as the faculty is underpaid and overworked and the students are overtaxed and underserviced.
If the ITC successfully addresses these immediate issues I believe its future will be strong. To be sure, this will depend on those of us in the leadership of ITC embracing the vision of the institution’s second president Oswald Bronson who surmised that the significance of the ITC was seen its ability to invite diverse entities to “walk together as children of God.” Frankly, given all that’s occurred in recent history it’s not apparent whether the ITC, as presently constituted, can inspire all its parts to walk together; but what we know for sure is if we don’t find a way to walk together our beloved ITC will fall apart!
Compassionately and Critically yours, Billy Michael Honor
(The dissemination of encouragement is a powerful thing, especially when you are the recipient. So let's just say I'm feeling empowered today. Yesterday, our congregation was blessed to have Rev. Dr. Ralph Watkins (Associate Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Columbia Theological Seminary) and his wife join us in worship. Though I have followed the work of Dr. Watkins for years now, I hadn't been given the opportunity to meet him until about 6 days ago when I was invited to preach at Columbia Seminary. During these brief several days knowing Dr. Watkins what's clear is his sincere love and enthusiasm for God and God's Church and his commendable willingness to encourage young preachers like myself. Evidence of this fact is his recent blog post about his visit to our church in which he shares positive insights about his experience. Because his words encouraged me so much I thought I might share them with you as we continue our endeavor to promote pastoral scholarship and organic Christian intellectualism. Read and Enjoy! Blessings, Billy Michael Honor)
--This blog post is from the site It's The Church facilitated by Rev. Dr. Ralph Watkins
The Power of Great Preaching
As our search for a church home in Atlanta continues this Sunday we visited New Life Presbyterian Church where the Rev. Billy Honor is the pastor. Rev. Honor is young enough to be my son but today he preached like he was my father. I needed a word from God in the worse way. The transition from California to Georgia hasn’t been easy. Sunday is a time for revival and key to any revival is great preaching.
What I learned today was when a pastor / preacher is prepared and they have prayed hard, studied long and put quality work into their sermon it shows. When preaching makes you think and shout simultaneously that is when preaching is at it’s best. Rev. Honor engaged culture and theology with perfect harmony and put the text in conversation with popular culture, personal struggle and God’s vision for God’s people.
When preaching is great it has the potential to grow a people, glorify God and actually grow a church. Preaching with excellence elevates the entire worship experience and moves the congregation in ways that shows the power the Holy Spirit. Rev. Honor is brilliant and he has been well trained. A mature, intelligent God led pastor makes a difference. The future of the church is good hands. Vanessa and I will be seeing New Life Presbyterian Church and Rev. Honor again! Preach preacher.
(This is a revised version of the charge Rev. Dr. Randall Bailey presented at my Ordination and Installation service this past Sunday. I hope it inspires someone who reads it. Critically and compassionately yours, Billy Michael Honor)
I charge you to be faithful to the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ and to help others to be nourished in this understanding through the best of the Black religious traditions.
I charge you to take seriously the ravages of the corporate sins of racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, ethnocentrism, and all other forms of oppression and internalized oppression, helping the congregation to become aware of these and to develop skills of resistance to the oppressive forms.
I charge you to be active in community struggles, bearing witness to God's love for the world and thereby being a sign and symbol of Emmanuel, God with us in times of trouble, standing with the least of these.
I charge you to take seriously the ministry of presence as expressed in visits to congregants in times of joy and in times of sorrow. Continue to develop a listening ear so you can be an effective pastoral counselor to those going through shadowy valleys and climbing mounts of transfiguration.
I further charge you to continue your education, reading materials which will sharpen your analyses of the world around us and the spirit within us. As you do so, share with others through formal Christian Education venues, blogs, and other forms of social media, being mindful that pictures of yourself are not necessary to get the messages across.
I charge you to take care of yourself, physically and emotionally, and to keep close those who love, nurture and support you in your career & personal development. Also, always find the time to nurture and support others with whom you share your life, whether they be family, friends, spouse and/or children.
I also charge you to keep a healthy sense of humor.
I also charge you to preach in powerful and liberating ways, bringing to the pulpit strong spiritual power, immersed in social justice, contoured by sharp intellectual and hermeneutical insights, engaging cultural criticism, pointing always to Jesus, who wants us to be responsible agents of his love and promise to always keep our back.
Randall Bailey, Professor of Hebrew Bible, Interdenominational Theological Center
Every now and then I recommend a book not because I enjoyed it or agreed with it, but simply because it disturbed me so much that I have to tell somebody. Normally this happens when I read a book that I had great expectations for but turned out to be poorly written, and/or badly conceived. Then there are other times when I just completely disagree with the entire premise of a book. These are the times when I think to myself, “this book is so well written but soo WRONG!” I felt this way recently, when I read the first chapter and premise of Dr. Anthony Bradley’s new book Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and The Black Experience.
As one might surmise from the title, Dr. Bradley
(PhD Westminster Theological Seminary) is offering the newest critique of black theology. In the text Bradley calls the theological perspectives of Professor James Cone, Professor Cornel West, and Rev. Jeremiah Wright to task for promoting victimology, Marxism, and aberrant Christian doctrine. Not unlike critics before him, Bradley argues that black theology is dangerous because it abandons “biblical orthodox Christianity.”
In the near future, I plan to write a full review of this book for the Atlanta Liberal Christian Examiner, so I’ll spare you an in-depth analysis and just say in response to Dr. Bradley and his book, “WHATEVER SIR!”
I am rarely dismissive of any ideological viewpoint, but sometimes I’m left with no other choice but to go brain dead in disbelief. I mean, really. How many more times can scholars who categorize themselves as orthodox “bible believing” Christians write off the black theological enterprise and other progressive theological perspectives because it doesn’t measure up to their assessment of what “the bible says” and what they think Christianity encompasses.
And let me be clear, Bradley’s rejection and critique of black theology is not the issue. I am not a proponent of black theology per se and I am not bothered that Bradley isn’t either. My problem is Bradley, like Thabiti Anyabwile, refuses to acknowledge the extent to which Christianity is so culturally entangled and orientated that speaking of a pure heritage of Orthodoxy or biblical faith is nearly impossible. Moreover, certain scholars in classical and contemporary times have noted that actually there are “Christianties” not one pure brand of “Christianity.”
This is a fundamental point that is often missed in conservative theological critiques of progressive (liberal) Christian religion. And this is the fundamental flaw of Dr. Bradley’s argument against black theology. You can’t dismiss an expression of Christianity for being culturally derived and antithetical to the true practice of Christianity and not acknowledge that the true practice of Christianity (as you define it) is culturally derived as well. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. The Editorial Reviews of the book are below, if you read it, tell me what you think.
Compassionately and Critically yours, Billy Michael Honor
"Anthony Bradley's analysis of black liberation theology is by far the best thing that I have read on the subject. Anthony's book is comprehensive and in-depth. He covers all of the bases, and thereby provides the reader with all of the information that he needs to understand the critical issues involved with black liberation theology. By covering such figures as James Cone, Cornell West, and Jeremiah Wright, we see all of the nuances involved with their approaches to the subject. His explanation of victimology, Marxism, and aberrant Christian doctrine make a noxious mix of ideas that would make any true Christian wary of anything even approaching black liberation theology. His keen insight into these ideas and his clarity of writing make this book a jewel. Anthony has done the Christian community a great service by writing this book. There was a significant need for a work of this type and its arrival is long overdue."
-Craig Vincent Mitchell, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
"I have read a number of books which purport to explain, define, or critique black liberation theology, but Liberating Black Theology is the easiest to understand. This is because Dr. Bradley unapologetically maintains a biblical, orthodox perspective while being sympathetic to the issues and concerns of black liberation theologians. The book should be required reading for any seminary class on biblical interpretation and for seminary students and pastors interested in understanding the history and struggles of the black church in America."
-Wy Plummer, African American Ministries Coordinator, Mission to North America, Presbyterian Church in America
When I think about the year 1983 I think of Vanessa Lynn Williams becoming the first African-American to be crowned Miss America, President Ronald Reagan signing a bill creating a federal holiday to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Jesse Jackson announcing his candidacy for the 1984 Democratic Party presidential nomination and the late great Michael Jackson giving arguably the most memorable performance of his career during a taping of a Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever television special where he dazzled 46 million viewers with his legendary moon walk while performing his now classic Billie Jean.
In addition to these major cultural events, when I think of 1983 I also think of many lesser known events, such as June 1, 1983 because it was the day I was born (obviously important to me) and I think (because I'm a pround alumni) of the election of Rev. James H. Costen as the President of the Interdenominational Theological Center(also known as ITC) in Atlanta .
The Formation of ITC and the Legacy of James Costen
Possibly many readers of this article have never heard the names James Costen or ITC, especially if they have not been exposed nor have any connection to black theological education in the US for last 25 plus years. Nonetheless, both Costen and ITC are heralded as significant institutions to the recent academic development of Black religious/theological studies.
In 1958, the Interdenominational Theological Center was chartered forming one of the most momentous ventures in the history of theological education in America. In this venture the Morehouse School of Religion(Baptist), Gammon Theological Seminary(United Methodist), Turner Theological Seminary(African Methodist Episcopal), and Phillips School of Theology(Christian Methodist Episcopal) partnered their institutions together to form one graduate school theological consortium. Eventually, the Johnson C. Smith Seminary(Presbyterian Church U.S.A.) and Charles H. Mason Seminary(Church of God In Christ) would join the venture establishing ITC as one of the most diverse and ecumenical Christian theological centers in the nation.
Twenty-five years after its inception ITC’s board of trustees elected a Presbyterian minister and seminary dean to become the institution’s fifth president, that individual was the Rev. James L. Costen. Under Costen’s administration ITC bolstered its reputation and established itself as one of the world’s premiere theological institutions for black church studies and liberating spirituality. In addition, during Costen’s 14 year tenure ITC's enrollment grew from 175 students to about 400, and its annual budget shot up from about $1.7 million to almost $6 million.
Institutional Troubles and the President Battle era
Since Costen’s retirement in 1998, the school has gone through multiple leadership transitions. In 1999, the renowned social ethicist and current President of Morehouse College Robert Michael Franklin
became President of ITC and served until 2002 before leaving for Emory University. The next two years (2002-2004) will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most difficult seasons in ITC’s history as the institution found itself in danger of losing its full academic standing and validation.
When Rev. Dr. Michael Battle
arrived on ITC’s campus as the newly elected leader in August 2003, he immediately began addressing the most pressing issues facing the institution; among them the seminary’s pending probationary accreditation status with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). According to Battle, “SACS offered a year to make things right and we fulfilled the task and were reinstated within six months.”
After stirring clear of academic catastrophe, Dr. Battle focused his attention on cultivating an administrative team that was well-versed in accreditation policies and procedures. According to ITC officials the institution continues to operate with a very secure adherence to the standards of both SACS and the Association of Theological Schools in preparation for its next review as a result of Battle’s leadership.
In 2009, the nation’s first African American President Barack Obama selected Dr. Michael Battle to be the Ambassador to the African Union. After being elected and confirmed Battle announced his intention to leave ITC after having served six years as its president.
Battle’s Legacy and ITC’s Theological Integrity in Question
Battle’s resignation was received with a diversity of emotions and opinions. Some ITC board members and employees expressed ambivalent congratulations to Battle stating that he would be missed greatly. They expressed that Battle had accomplished several significant feats including leaving a "green footprint" with the school's TheoEcology program, helping to initiate Distance Learning courses and leading business and community partnerships to help make continued leadership progress at the seminary.
Battle’s critics applauded his departure, categorizing President Obama's selection as a blessing in disguise for ITC. Interestingly, one ITC faculty member (who will remain unnamed) commented that “Obama’s appointment of Battle as Ambassador to the African Union showed that Obama doesn’t give a shit about Africans.” This faculty member’s comment demonstrates the degree of dissatisfaction that certain professors and critics felt about Battle’s tenure.
Critics of Battle’s leadership suggest that though he accomplished certain administrative goals, the scholarship and academic legacy of ITC suffered under his watch. They argue that Battle’s administration was often dismissive and unsupportive of attempts (by faculty and students) to uphold a certain standard of theological integrity and history.
Evidence of this division was clearly seen in 2006 when the graduating class invited Bishop Eddie Long (Pastor, New Birth Cathedral in Lithonia, GA)
to be its commencement speaker. The news of Long’s selection as speaker prompted 33 graduating seniors to send a letter to Battle questioning Long's theological and ethical integrity and a 29-year member of ITC's board of trustees Bishop John Hurst Adamsto boycott the ceremony. It also led the legendary theologian James Hal Cone
of Union Theological Seminary in New York to refuse to attend the ceremony (where he was scheduled to receive an honorary doctorate). Cone stated that he “didn’t want to receive a doctorate from a school that would have Long as its speaker because he didn’t want to appear to support or condone Long’s ministry.” In response to Cone’s decline and charges of institutional embarrassment Battle stated “Jim’s refusal to come does not detract from Bishop Long's ministry or message, and Jim's coming would not enhance his ministry or mission."
Many viewed Battle’s support of Long as further evidence of his disrespect for the tradition of liberation theology and progressive religion that characterizes much (but not all) of ITC’s institutional heritage. In fact, in a paper Battle presented titled “The Challenge of Historically Black Institutions in Light of the Task of Theological Education” he implied theological education that is only critical, intellectual, and deconstructing is antithetical to the cause of Christ. He went on to suggest that “the future of theological institutions depends on their ability to make themselves necessary to local churches by producing leaders who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” In response to Battle’s presentation certain ITC professors and students stated they saw Battle’s public comments as an affront to their work and scholarship.
The Election Dr. Ron Peters and the Challenge Ahead
This ideological war of method and mission will be the battle ground that ITC’s newly elected President Rev. Dr. Ron Peters
will enter this fall. Dr. Peters has served for nearly 20 years at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in various capacities as a professor and administrator. Early predictions are that Peters will do well in his new post. Like James Costen he is a trained Presbyterian minister who understands the value of theological institutions to the practice of ministry and he brings decades of relationship building between church and academy. Also, he is a published scholar who is committed to the advancement of theological thinking and dialogue which will hopefully help renew the bond between faculty and administration. Other good signs are that Peters’ scholarly interests in ministerial leadership in urban contexts and africentric ministry practice should jive well with ITC’s curriculum and pedagogical focus. In fact, in 2005, Peters edited with Marsha Snulligan Haney (ITC Professor of Missiology), a book entitled Africentric Approaches to Christian Ministry.
To be sure, Peters’ job will not be easy. Leading any theological institution of significance in this current time is no walk in the park. In the 1980’s Professor Cornel West
categorized the crisis in theological education as a crisis of mission concerning “what it means to be a Christian minister in our time.” On a similar note Dr. Robert Franklin characterized the crisis in the African American institutional church as a “crisis of mission” in his 2007 book Crisis In The Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities. Insomuch as these scholars are correct in their assessment of contemporary theological education and ministry Dr. Peters will have his hands full leading ITC. And whether he tackles this challenge by erring on the side of administrative expediency or whether he courageously chooses to pioneer new innovative ways forward that embrace administrative excellence and exemplar progressive scholarship will largely determine his success or failure.
Whatever the outcome, I’m sure the ITC board is hoping that the election of another Presbyterian will be bring the same favor it brought in the Costen era, but only time will tell.
Compassionately and Critically yours, Billy Michael Honor Jr.