YDS: an incubator of theology school leaders

By Kathrin Havrilla-Sanchez

With his appointment as President of Chicago Theological Seminary, Stephen G. Ray, Jr. ’93 M.Div., ’00 Ph.D. has furthered an unmistakable trend in theological education: the outsized presence of Yale Divinity School alumni/ae leading top schools around the country.

At any given time in recent years, a dozen or so YDS graduates could be found at the helms of theological institutions—Duke Divinity School, Andover Newton Theological School, and Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, to name a few—helping to shape the future of theological education. Numerous others have served as deans of faculty or in analogous positions.

“Yale University has in its DNA a tradition of shaping great leaders, including among its graduates five U.S. presidents, civil rights leaders, Pulitzer Prize winners, medical pioneers, and more,” YDS Dean Greg Sterling says. “The Divinity School is proud to play our part by producing so many heads of seminaries and divinity schools. I believe that there is a special environment here that emboldens people to take initiative.”

As demonstrated by Ray’s story, and by the stories of others including Serene Jones ’85 M.Div., now the President of Union Theological Seminary, it’s more than coincidence that so many YDS alumni are heads of seminaries and divinity schools.

More likely, as Sterling suggests, it’s in the makeup of the School and the students it attracts, educates, and forms.

‘God is trying to tell you something’

Ray’s pathway to YDS—and, eventually, to the CTS presidency—was indirect.

“I had visited Yale Divinity and was thinking about entering the ministry,” Ray recalls, “but I wasn’t 100 percent sure I was ready to make that move. Then, I lost my job, and I sought counsel from my pastor and mentor. He said, ‘Stephen, maybe God is trying to tell you something.’ The application to YDS was due within the week, while the deadline for all of the other schools I was considering had already passed.

“Sometimes, you can’t see God’s help until you look over your shoulder.”

After graduating from YDS in 1993, and then from Yale’s Religious Studies-African American Studies joint Ph.D. program in 2000, Ray served as Associate Professor of African-American Studies and Director of the Urban Theological Institute at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia; Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; and Lecturer at Yale Divinity School and Hartford Seminary.

Ray has been a productive scholar as well. He has penned numerous articles on Christology, race, and the Black experience while publishing one book, Do No Harm: Social Sin and Christian Responsibility (Fortress 2002); co-authoring another, Black Church Studies: An Introduction (Abingdon, 2007); and contributing to Constructive Theology: A Contemporary Approach to Classical Themes (Augsburg Fortress, 2005, edited by Serene Jones ’85 M.Div.).

He has also received numerous awards from the University, including YDS’s Hooker Fellowship for Excellence in Theological Studies and Yale’s University Fellowship.

“From my perspective, this next step of my career is the fulfillment of my calling in theological education,” says Ray. “I am dedicated to helping to honor the history and passions of CTS, while also having the opportunity to live out my vocation—it is what gives me life and fulfillment.”

Mentors, leaders, and creators of change

During his time at YDS, one of Ray’s pivotal experiences was a conversation with Serene Jones. A member of the School’s faculty at the time, she was encouraging him to write his first book, and it was in that moment that he realized he could embark on a unique and nontraditional path.

“From the first time I met Stephen as a student, he would come up to me after class with a series of very seriously asked, thoughtful questions about what we’d been discussing that day,” Jones remembers. “He truly wanted to go deeper around the big theological questions and their relationship to marginalized communities. For both of us, it wasn’t just about kindling the fires of ambition, but about our callings and how we could best pursue the faith-grounded justice to which we were committed.”

Now, Ray and Jones rub elbows on the list of YDS alumni who lead theological institutions: Jones is the 16th President of historic Union Theological Seminary in New York, as well as the first woman to head the 180-year-old institution.

“When I was a student at YDS, I found my voice as a leader,” Jones reflects. “When I arrived from the small town of Enid, Oklahoma, I was terrified to even ask questions at first. Soon, though, I learned to speak theologically about deeply felt convictions on social issues, both in the classroom and outside of it. Then, I couldn’t stop asking questions.”

During her time in New Haven, Jones was Titus Street Professor of Theology at YDS and Chair of the University’s Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She had always felt called to teach, not administer. But when she was offered the Union presidency, she realized she could have the same profound theological conversations she was having in New Haven, but with a bigger impact.

“The fundamental and reflective questions were formulated for me at Yale Divinity,” Jones says. “Here at Union, I’m seeking the answers.”

‘Calibrated for transformation’

As a student at YDS, Ray was pleasantly surprised to find virtually everyone—from faculty to his fellow students—shared his love of questions.

“From examining Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith and Gutierrez’s A Theology of Liberation in class, to experiencing the social activism of my peers of all races, I found myself inspired everywhere,” Ray says. “There was a religious passion in everyone, and I began to see up close how theology can live in the public sphere. It gave me the confidence to think about the possibility of changing the way in which we think about religion as human beings.”

This love of questioning and exploring, Dean Sterling believes, is a large part of the reason YDS has become an incubator of theology school leaders. When Sterling first arrived at YDS in 2012 after more than two decades at the University of Notre Dame, including serving as the first dean of the independent Graduate School, he recalls being struck by the unique atmosphere.

“YDS feels like an undergraduate college in the sense that is calibrated for transformation,” Sterling says. “Students here are encouraged to rethink themselves, to explore and be open to change and creativity. This kind of adaptability and energy is a shared characteristic found in many vibrant leaders, and it’s one that the world of theology longs for.”

Sterling has met or worked with many of the Yale Divinity School alumni in leadership positions around the country, finding them all to be passionate self-starters who understand the freedom they have to explore different career paths and creative solutions to theological, civil, and social issues.

“While attending a conference in San Antonio for the Association of Theological Schools recently, I ended up at a table for lunch with several other attendees,” Sterling says. “As we got to talking, we realized that almost all of us had a connection back to Yale Divinity School. At this incredibly important conference for theological leaders, there I was, sitting with Riess Potterveld (’69 B.D., President of Graduate Theological Union); Kenneth Cukrowski (’87 M.Div., ’88 STM, ’94 Ph.D., Dean of the College of Biblical Studies at Abilene Christian University); Thomson Mathew (’75 M.Div., ’77 S.T.M., the Dean of the School of Theology at Oral Roberts University at the time), and Stephen Murray (‘98 M.Div., then the President of Ecumenical Theology Seminary).

“It was a wonderful coincidence, but also indicative of the School’s reach and influence on theological education and the future of theology.”

Beyond the transformative atmosphere, Yale Divinity School directly encourages leadership at many turns throughout students’ academic careers. One expression of this commitment is the three-year-old Transformational Leadership program, which brings in guest lecturers who often lead and operate outside the academic or church world. Among these instructors have been DeRay Mckesson, civil rights activist and a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement; U.S. Senator Chris Coons ’92 M.A.R.; and G. Scott Morris ‘79 M.Div., a medical doctor and founder of the nonprofit Church Health in Memphis.

“Through the Transformational Leadership program, we hope our students will be inspired to do things unconventionally in their own lives,” says Sterling. “At YDS, we fully support the notion that everyone can be called to make their impact in different ways.”

Yale Divinity School is proud to see Ray become the latest YDS alumnus to continue the tradition and become the head of a theological school.

“My main goal as President is to help accentuate all of the passion and contribution that Chicago Theological Seminary can make to the world,” Ray says. “We all have inestimable value as human beings, and as part of one of the most powerful societies on the planet, we have a responsibility to transform society and the world for the better.”

Kathrin Havrilla-Sanchez is a freelance writer specializing in higher education.

A (non-comprehensive) list of YDS alumni/ae heading theological institutions


Name and Degree(s)


Abilene Christian        Kenneth Cukrowski ’87 M.Div., ’88 STM, ’94 Ph.D.

Dean, College of Biblical Studies

Andover Newton Martin Copenhaver ’80 M.Div. President
Chicago Theological Seminary  Stephen G. Ray, Jr. ’93 M.Div., ’00 Ph.D.   President
Drew Javier A. Viera ’00 STM Dean
Duke Richard Hays ’70 BA, ’77 M.Div. Dean (retired, 2016)
Ecumenical Theological Seminary Stephen B. Murray ’98 M.Div.  President
Graduate Theological Union Riess Potterveld ’69 B.D. President
Mercer Jeffrey G. Willetts ’88 MAR Dean, James and Carolyn McAfree School of Theology
Oral Roberts Thomson Mathew ’75 M.Div., ’77 STM Dean, School of Theology
St. John’s Seminary and School of Theology William J. Cahoy ’76 MAR, ’89 Ph.D. Dean (retired 2015)
Union Serene Jones ’85 M.Div., ’91 Ph.D.        President

Editor’s Note: List includes recent as well as current institution heads. If you know of someone missing from the list, please inform us by sending a message to tom.krattenmaker@yale.edu.

July 15, 2018