One day this spring, the Rev. Paul Roberts was wrapping up his workday at Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary when the phone rang.
The seminary's development officer answered the phone, and Roberts remembers that the officer listened to the caller in shock.
"There was dead silence," said Roberts, dean of the seminary. "It's definitely the kind of surprise we want."
The surprise? A donor who had pledged $1 million to endow the dean's office decided to pay the balance of the pledge a year early, meaning the seminary would see an unexpected $400,000.
The original pledge was to be paid in installments of $200,000 over five years. Three payments had already been made, but now, instead of having to wait two more years for the rest of the money, the seminary gets it now.
And that's a great benefit for the Atlanta seminary, which is working to spread its story, encourage alumni networking and especially, recruit new students — JCSTS now has 17 enrolled students.
After the call about the early payment, Roberts got another call from the daughter of a deceased alumnus who wanted to establish a memorial scholarship fund.
Those two calls were shocking surprises and served as beacons of hope for the seminary, one of 10 seminaries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
"It was just very affirming to us and to the work that we do," Roberts said.
Spreading the word
Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary was founded in 1867 and was originally part of the Freedman’s College in North Carolina. In 1969, it moved to Atlanta, where it is one of six Protestant seminaries of the Interdenominational Theological Center.
The early payment of the pledge brings the seminary's endowment to $4 million, Roberts said.
"It's a stabilizing gift," he said. "It gives us a little more breathing room. The timing of it couldn’t be better."
The gift takes some of the stress off the seminary and provides a starting point for finding other donors, Roberts said.
And going forward, that type of networking and alumni relations will be a big focus of the seminary. Roberts said he wants to find ways for the alumni base to be more engaged with the seminary. One way to do that is to ensure there’s good communication coming from Johnson C. Smith's side.
The seminary plans to launch a new website in August, and Roberts will begin blogging. He also wants to improve the accuracy of the alumni database. JCSTS alumni are all over the country, but they’re not as engaged as Roberts would like.
"Improving community is a big deal for us," he said.
In March, the seminary held its annual Founders Day celebration, a kind of homecoming event. At the event was the Rev. Byron Wade, a 1995 alumnus and vice moderator of the 218th General Assembly of the PC(USA).
"The seminary means a whole lot to me," Wade said, adding that he values the Reformed education he got at JCSTS. "But it also taught me how to be a minister in an African-American church."
JCSTS is the only predominantly African-American seminary in the PC(USA).
The seminary has secured a volunteer to do recruitment tours. JCSTS is especially hoping to connect with historically black universities and colleges in the Southeast, which can serve as feeder institutions.
Ultimately, students come to seminaries from congregations, and the recruitment volunteer will also work with churches to find people with vocational gifts.
The seminary is also developing a core group to help tell the story of JCSTS. Roberts hopes to keep track of faculty travel and encourage them to work in a presentation on the seminary whenever they travel for other business. He sees them as engaging, empowering agents of the seminary.
Spreading the word about JCSTS will be helpful in one of Roberts' big goals — increasing enrollment. The seminary has set an enrollment goal of exceeding 50 students in the next two and a half years. That's a big change from the 17 students currently enrolled.
"We're looking at ways to recruit aggressively," Roberts said.
Leading with hope
The endowment and recruitment plans aren’t the only changes on the JCSTS campus.
Roberts, who served as interim dean for seven months, was recently named full-time dean of the seminary.
Although the deanship is Roberts’ first paid role with the seminary, he's been active since he graduated in 1996. Before accepting the interim position, he was president of the alumni association. That role was great training, he said.
"I learned my seminary all over again," he said. "I really saw the seminary grow as the alumni president."
Roberts is dedicated to JCSTS now, but his road to Atlanta wasn’t always paved.
He grew up in the United Methodist Church but stopped attending church as a young adult. In his mid- to late-20s, he started feeling an emptiness and began visiting churches in New York City. Although he’d never been to a Presbyterian church before, he knew on his first visit that he’d found his home.
"From the time the first note was sung, I knew that was my church," he said.
Roberts kept going back, but for awhile, he sat in the last pew so he could duck out without talking to anyone. He knew he was in the right place, though.
"That emptiness began to close up," he said. "It began to be filled, slowly and incrementally."
He became more involved in the church and eventually felt called to ministry. His pastor was a graduate of JCSTS and at his request, Roberts visited the campus, even though he didn’t want to leave New York.
But again, Roberts' hesitation didn’t last long.
"I came to Atlanta and fell in love with the place," he said, adding that he found the seminary nurturing and intriguing.
"The seminary continues to mean a lot to me," he said. "I believe in what it has done since 1867 and I believe in what it can do."
As for the seminary's viability, the recent gift helps confirm that people are starting to rally around the seminary. Roberts said he's gotten a lot of questions about enrollment, but the trustees feel good about the future.
"Theological institutions right now are all a little nervous," he said. "The willingness of the donor to complete the pledge would indicate some hope about the future."