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Presbyterians Pick Black Leader for Seminary


For the first time in its 196-year history, one of the nation’s oldest Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminaries will be led by a Black pastor, a triumph for African-Americans who hope he’ll use his position to nurture the next generation of minority pastors.

Brian Blount, the head of Richmond’s Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, is positioned to shape everything from recruitment to curriculum for the institution.

Supporters hope Blount’s high-profile position will inspire Black students to attend the school; later, as pastors, those students could draw a more diverse group of parishioners desired by this shrinking 2.3-million-member denomination, which is 92 percent White.

Blount, 51, embraced the challenge at a May 7 inauguration ceremony.

“Are we ready to be more diverse?” Blount asked, to applause. “If we’re going to transform a multicultural world, we must be a multicultural seminary.”

He takes on the role in the former capital of the Confederacy, at a seminary where one Civil War-era professor boldly spoke in favor of slavery.

“It is a historic moment,” said the Rev. Gregory Bentley, head of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus in Charlotte, N.C. “The symbolism of it, I think, is powerful in that it points the way to the possibility of an inclusive and diverse future.”

The nation’s largest body of Presbyterians, the Louisville, Ky.-based PCUSA has fewer than 80,000 Black members. They are concentrated in the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia.

The number of Black ministers in the PCUSA largely mirrors those numbers; about 3.6 percent are Black, with deacons and elders following similar patterns.

Union-PSCE’s roughly 365 students included about 30 Blacks in 2006, the most recent year data was available. Blount will try to increase that number by crafting a strategic plan examining, among other things, the cultural sensitivity of school curriculum.

He’s also boosting recruitment. In June, Union-PSCE will send recruiters to the Hampton University Ministers’ Conference, an influential gathering of current and future Black clergy that last year drew Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

“We’ve already started to try to be more visible, myself and others, in undergraduate institutions and churches,” Blount said.

The school’s shifting focus comes as PCUSA struggles to plug leaking membership. The denomination has lost about 13.8 percent of its membership in the last decade.

Black membership has hovered around 3 percent between 1999, when the church began keeping its most comprehensive racial statistics, and 2006, the most recent year for which such data has been compiled. Small populations of other minority groups also have remained steady — not the best news for a denomination with a goal of roughly 20 percent minority membership by 2010.

Experts say traditionally White mainline Protestant groups are struggling with empty pews, in part, due to an inability to remain relevant among increasingly diverse communities.

Mainline denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have responded with gospel-infused church services featuring the type of freewheeling praise many Blacks enjoy.

Union-PSCE professor Katie Cannon said drawing more Black pastors, valued among minority churchgoers for their cultural bonds, is the key. A seventh-generation Presbyterian, Cannon is one of a number of graying Black theologians in the denomination concerned they won’t be replaced.

The number of Black ministerial candidates in the PCUSA has varied over the past nine years, peaking at 84 in 2000. The numbers have declined the last three years, with 64 African-American candidates in 2008.

To reverse that trend, Cannon responded this month by inviting hundreds of theologians to Richmond to identify and cultivate ministers to serve the Black Presbyterian community. The conference was the first in a four-year series.

“Our numbers are dwindling, our churches are getting smaller. We have so many pulpits that are vacant,” Cannon said. “We have more churches than we have people to lead those churches.”

But PCUSA officials face tough competition from evangelical churches and denominations, said Dave Travis, who tracks church growth trends with Dallas-based Leadership Network, which promotes innovation in churches. Travis said evangelicalism’s typically less rigorous path to becoming a pastor appeals to minorities who can’t afford the years of expensive seminary training mainline churches require for ordination.

“The trailblazers and mentors that have risen to prominence came through the entrepreneurial side of denominations, meaning the evangelicals,” he said. “Those that come behind look to the leaders and begin to emulate.”

Blount, who was raised Baptist, became a Presbyterian by happenstance.

A strong student, he was encouraged to attend Princeton’s academically rigorous, Presbyterian-affiliated seminary. By 1982, he was working as an educator at a Newport News, Va., Presbyterian church; soon, church members asked him to fill the vacant pastor’s seat.

“I saw it as a way in which to contribute to the way the larger church saw its mission, and its calling,” Blount said.

He has welcomed his latest role as an icon for minority students at Union-PSCE. At his inauguration, Blount urged rows of Blacks and whites to embrace a new, diverse Union-PSCE.

“This is not that old seminary,” Cannon said. “We’re trying to put some of those ghosts to rest.”

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