- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) - One of the oldest Presbyterian Church seminaries in the country will for the first time in its 196-year history be led by a black pastor.

Supporters hope the Rev. Brian K. Blount will as head of the Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education shape everything from recruitment to curriculum and nurture the next generation of minority pastors.

The denomination has 2.3 million members but is losing parishioners, and 92 percent of the denomination is white.

Mr. Blount, 51, embraced the challenge.

“Are we ready to be more diverse?” he asked to applause at a May 7 inauguration ceremony. “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 Presbyterian Church (USA) has fewer than 80,000 black members. They are concentrated in the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia.

The number of black ministers in 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. Mr. Blount will try to increase the number with a plan to examine, among other things, the cultural sensitivity of school curriculum.

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

The school’s shifting focus comes as PCUSA struggles to plug leaking membership.

Experts say traditionally white mainline Protestant groups are struggling with empty pews, in part owing 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. She is a black theologian and seventh-generation Presbyterian.

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 past three years, with 64 black candidates in 2008.

To reverse that trend, Mrs. 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.

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.

Mr. Travis said evangelicalism’s typically less rigorous path to becoming a pastor appeals to minorities who cannot 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.”

Mr. 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,” he said.

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