Wake Forest University announced today that its new divinity school will be led by Bill J. Leonard, professor of religion and chair of the religion and philosophy department at Samford University.
A 50-year-old Texas native, Leonard was appointed to the post following a search this spring by a committee of faculty and administrators chaired by Wake Forest Provost David G. Brown. The committee was formed shortly after Wake Forest’s trustees voted in February to open a divinity school on the campus by the fall of 2000. The school’s mission is to train men and women for careers as Christian ministers.
Leonard, a Baptist minister for 25 years, has devoted his career to the ministry, teaching and writing. He came to Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., in 1992 as religion professor and department chair after spending 1975-1991 as a professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
He has also served as interim pastor at several churches in Indiana, Kentucky, Connecticut, Alabama and North Carolina. In addition to writing, editing and contributing to a number of books, he has written for several scholarly periodicals and encyclopedias.”
Leonard earned a doctorate in American Church History at Boston University after receiving a bachelor of arts degree at Texas Wesleyan University and a master of divinity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has also done post-doctoral study at Yale University.
“Bill Leonard possesses an extraordinary understanding of the divinity school’s special mission,” said Wake Forest President Thomas K. Hearn Jr., who appointed the search committee. “As the school’s first dean, he will play an important role in developing it into a center of training for Christian ministry.”
“With his leadership, Wake Forest’s divinity school will provide dedicated men and women with superior academic and spiritual preparation for lives of service to Christian congregations,” Hearn added.
The first congregations to benefit likely will be in the Winston-Salem area. Plans call for the future ministers to gain experience in the region’s churches during their education.
The university-based divinity school, where students will earn a master of divinity degree, is expected to open with 45 students. Eventually, it will enroll about 135 students.
The school will begin with six to eight core faculty members. In addition, students will take courses taught by professors from the undergraduate college and the other professional schools at Wake Forest.
Leonard sees the school as offering an opportunity to respond to challenges facing church and society in the 21st century.
“This endeavor comes at a time when the church in America is experiencing transitions in its theological and organizational life,” Leonard said. “Divinity schools old and new must find ways to prepare ministers for the changing situation.
“At its best, Wake Forest’s divinity school should promote academic rigor while nurturing students in spirituality and formation for ministry,” Leonard said. “Classic disciplines in scripture, theology, history and homiletics should relate closely to areas such as congregational studies and pastoral care, as well as programs in rural/urban ministry and community development.”
While drawing on the best of the Baptist tradition, Leonard said, the school will operate “within the broad context of Christian community.” Although independently governed, Wake Forest continues a fraternal, voluntary relationship with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
“I hope the divinity school will serve as a resource, not only for students, but also for churches in multiple traditions,” Leonard said. All qualified students will be welcomed.
The school will be located in the university’s Wingate Hall and the adjacent Wait Chapel. A $3 million renovation of the building and chapel is planned.
Continuing fundraising for the divinity school has resulted in gifts and pledges approaching $11 million. That includes a $1 million challenge grant announced in February. The gift comes from a prominent Winston-Salem family–Thomas H. Davis; his brother, Egbert L. Davis Jr.; and their sister, Pauline Davis Perry.
The family will give $1, up to a total of $1 million, for every $2 raised in support of the school. Their gift is being made in memory of their mother, Annie Pearl Shore Davis.
Churches have shown their support by contributing more than $1 million.