When Matthew Wesley Williams spoke at his first chapel service as interim president of the Interdenominational Theological Center, it felt like a homecoming.
“I said it was good to be home and that’s how it feels,” said Williams, who earned a master’s of divinity degree from ITC in 2004.
As he looked across the room, Williams saw what he calls “prophetic problem solvers” — future leaders who could help galvanize black churches, communities and, indeed, the world.
“When you leave the ITC, if all you know is preaching, teaching and administering the sacraments, then we have failed you,” he said. “Leadership in our community has never been either sacred or secular. It’s always been both.”
Williams has come in with a plan to completely overhaul the school — dubbed “ITC 2.0” to make the institution more viable and attractive to students, faculty and donors.
For instance, Williams wants the school to build up its technology and online infrastructure to make things easier for the many ITC students who are already in ministry or other forms of leadership and often work in full-time jobs. ITC has 267 students from a peak of 400 or so in the early 2000s.
At 43, Williams is the youngest person to be at the helm of the institution, which was formed in 1958. ITC is a consortium of five predominantly African American denominational Christian seminaries and is the largest free-standing African American theological school in the nation. The denominations represented include United Methodist, Christian Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, Baptist and Church of God in Christ.
Overall, he said, the membership of those five denominations represents more than half of black American churchgoers.
Studies have shown that many younger Americans have turned away from organized religion, but that’s not so much true for the African American community.
“The future of religion in America is black and brown,” he said.
A native of Chicago, Williams grew up in a politically engaged and activist household.
His mother, the late Marcelle H. Williams, was a nurse and attorney. His dad, Dr. Reginald Williams Sr., was an educational psychologist.
They met as student organizers working with Operation Breadbasket, an economic development program launched by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
One of three children, Williams was raised in a home that married spirituality and social justice.
That union is also a vision he has for ITC, which is near other HBCUs such as Spelman College, Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown College.
“We see theological education as leadership education, done by us and for us in service to the world,” he said.
The timing has never been more urgent, he concludes.
With the rise of white supremacy and cultural and racial divisions, “it’s necessary to have leaders in place and leaders in preparation to help them imagine how the world might be different than it is now.”
Bishop Thomas L. Brown Sr., a member of the ITC board, said he was most impressed with Williams’ vision for the consortium.
“ITC is trying to survive,” said Brown, who leads the Sixth District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgia. “We’ve lost many students over the last 10 to 15 years. We are a tuition-driven institution and, of course, that means we need more students. The more students we have, the better we fare.”
He said Williams “has what it takes” to increase enrollment and set ITC on the right path.
The center has had its challenges.
In 2011, ITC was given a warning by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the regional body for the accreditation of degree-granting higher education institutions in the South.
It was placed on probation in 2013. That probation was lifted in 2015, according to the SACSCOC. A representative of SACSCOC declined to say why the center was placed on probation.
“He’s looking to brand the ITC for the 21st century,” Brown said. “We don’t want to be seen as a 1950s or 1960s institution. This is a critical transition for us.”
Previously, Williams, who succeeded Edward L. Wheeler as president, served as vice president of strategic initiatives for the Forum for Theological Exploration in Atlanta. He is also the co-author of “Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose,” which will be published by Chalis Press on Jan. 21.
His contract is for one year, with the option to renew for a second.
The Rev. Stephen Lewis, president of the Decatur-based Forum for Theological Exploration, has worked alongside Williams for 15 years.
“His strength is that he is really kind of a systems thinker,” said Lewis. “He has to go in and do a real diagnostic.”
Many seminaries, in general, are facing challenges, particularly African American ones.
They include shrinking enrollments, inadequate endowments, lack of diverse revenue streams, aging faculty and beleaguered facilities declining from wear and tear, said the Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr., the James T. and Berta R. Laney Chair in Moral Leadership at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and a former ITC president. “Seminaries that are formally attached to universities have certain advantages and will weather the storm better. Free-standing schools like ITC have no similar infrastructure for subsidies and reengineering.”
Williams is well aware of that issue. Being free-standing has been both a gift and a burden, he said.
Under this leadership, the center has adopted a new set of bylaws to restructure and shrink the board.
He also wants to expand the ITC’s presence overseas with programs in Brazil and Portugal and several African nations. Money is always needed. He wants to beef up the endowment, recruit new partnerships and build a strong alumni- and supporter-based infrastructure. “This is village work,” he said.
ITC owns 10 acres, in an area that is rapidly being gentrified. That holds some opportunities for development, perhaps with partnerships in mind.
Taking over the leadership of ITC was not part of Williams’ plan. “It was unexpected, but something I felt called to do. I love this institution.”
ITC, he said, saved his life.
At ITC, Williams said, he found his voice and finally understood his life’s purpose. “It provided the space for me to ask questions, explore the possibilities and ministries and what the church could be in the black community. It expanded my idea of what leadership is.”
When he asked students why they came to the center, their answers pleased him.
“Interestingly enough, not one said they came seeking a degree,” he said. “They said they came to find the tools and resources to lead their people.”
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