The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, the farmer knows not how.Mark 4:26–27
The Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) is rooted in an unwavering mission to cultivate quality and diverse leaders for Christian ministry and theological scholarship. Since the 1950s, FTE has pioneered fellowship resources, and sought actively to identify and inspire passionate, diverse, talented young leaders to become pastoral leaders and theological educators.
The core of what would become FTE began on April 27, 1954. The formation of this group was prompted by a conviction that the church deserves the best possible leadership. There was a rising concern that the brightest Christian youth increasingly were pursuing careers outside of ministry, creating a talent deficit within the church.
The organizers of this group included some of the most influential seminary educators, clergy and philanthropists of the time; including John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Robert Rankin, who took a leave absence from his position as chaplain of the Associated Colleges of Claremont to serve as founding executive director. Other founding members included Harvard President Nathan Pusey and Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays, who remained a leading voice through the early 1970s.
The board outlined a three-year program, calling it the Rockefeller Brothers Theological Fellowship Program (RBF). The organization began as the American Association of Theological Schools (AATS) Fund. Referred to familiarly as “the Fund,” it would cover one “Trial” year of tuition and living costs for a seminary student.
The program is designed for those who are not already committed to the Christian ministry. It is intended for students who are uncertain in regard to their vocation, young persons preparing for careers in other fields, and recent graduates presently in other occupations or in the military services, who are interested in giving serious consideration to the possibility of entering the ministry. It is not a general theological fellowship program, but one designed for a particular purpose, namely to discover and develop new talent for the Christian ministry.
Stated intent of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund
In its very existence, RBF was reshaping theological education. The board held a shortened application process for the first academic year of 1954–1955, and approved five Fellows. Strategies and resources were put into place to recruit ten times as many candidates in 1955–1956.
The efforts were successful. In 1955–1956, the Fund received more than 330 nominations, and awarded 47 fellowships to candidates representing 37 colleges and universities across North America. Diversity was a priority. Three women and two African Americans, including the Rev. William Gray, were among the first Fellows.
By the end of the first full year, academia, church and the public were celebrating the success of the Fund. More importantly, RBF staff was pleased with the program, recommending that the trustees renew it for another three years. It was the first of many renewals, and over the next two decades the “Trial-Year” Fellowships formed the most visible effort of the Fund.
Nominations increased steadily as the Fellows engendered a vibrant, connective community focused on vocational discernment and a “lively and probing academic atmosphere.”
An era of expansion had begun. In 1958, a request was put to the AATS board to implement a program to develop leaders within theological institutions. The Rockefeller Doctoral Fellowships were formed to support current doctoral students who exhibited “unusual promise as theological school teachers and scholars.” The program nearly doubled the Fund’s yearly budget.
As the 1950s came to a close, the original name of the Fund, the American Association of Theological Schools Fund, had become insufficient to encapsulate the work of the organization. Executive director Walter Wagoner proposed that the board revise the founding charter to become The Fund for Theological Education (FTE), reflecting its broader concerns and opening itself to new funding sources.
- Walter Wagoner - Former FTE Executive Director, Walter Wagoner (1955-67)
The board adopted the new name and charter in 1960, extending its original mission yet retaining close identification with the Rockefeller name in key programming. The first area of focus was to address the issue of underrepresentation of racial and ethnic groups in theological institutions and ministry.
During the 1960s, FTE endeavored to broaden its initiatives for historically underrepresented students, and earned a reputation for being a resource-rich, diverse community. The organization viewed this effort as important to its commitment to strengthening the Protestant ministry as a whole.
Recruitment of African Americans into theological study was the most pressing concern at the time. There was a dearth of leadership within African American churches. Students of color faced discrimination and segregation, and many were raised in a tradition of non-seminary trained ministers.
- C. Shelby Rooks (Former Associate Director 1960-67, and Director 1967-74) led FTE’s programs for African Americans
The Protestant Fellowship Program (PFP) specifically addressed the particular issues of race and ministry. PFP was designed to provide annually renewable support for 35 African American seminary students and college seniors. While recruiting efforts were ambitious, only 24 fellowships were offered that first year, reflecting a commitment to the highest standards of quality. This program would make an impact for close to 30 years, cultivating diversity in the theological landscape.
In close affiliation with the AATS, FTE grew as a catalyst for identifying and supporting gifted leaders for ministry; and for the wider inclusion of African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American doctoral students preparing to teach in theological schools. The founding mission was planted firmly, and thriving.
Between 1959 and 1965, FTE experienced a surge in funding and quality of nominees that Wagoner referred to as “an embarrassment of riches.” The reputation of the organization was never higher.
As the mid-1960s approached, however, challenges arose. The number of African American seminary students continued to decline, despite the vast resources put into PFP. Concerns about the spiritual development of seminary students and the community within theological schools also were coming to light. Wagoner described life within many Protestant seminaries as “bland, stale and archaic.”
Based on the concept of spiritual formation, the Spiritual and Devotional Life Program was put into place to encourage theological schools to enhance religious life among faculty and students. This program was far more than a source of funding for students. It sought to improve the community, uniting Fellows to explore their passion and vocation together.
In the face of this focus on community, the late 1960s and early 1970s were fraught with upheaval and cultural challenge. There was turnover in key FTE leadership, and North America was experiencing a drop in church attendance due to waning religious devotion and the draft.
For the first time, FTE saw an oversupply of seminarians. Adding to the challenge, tuition costs had risen, straining the Fund’s resources and its abilities to support Trial-Year Fellows.
This was an era of reorganization for FTE. In order to continue to support excellence and diversity in Christian ministry and scholarship, the organization turned to fundraising from a broader spectrum of foundations, donors and denominations.
In the early 1980s, without sufficient endowment income or outside funding, FTE curtailed programming, offering fewer fellowships each year. The bright spot in the programs was the Benjamin E. Mays ministerial fellowships and the Black Doctoral Program, which was fully funded by the Lilly Endowment.
- Bishop William Deveaux (Former Associate Director 1980-82, Executive Director 1982-86) and Marvin McMickle, Final Selection Committee of the Benjamin E. Mays Fellowship
As the middle of the decade approached, the financial situation remained tight, but diversity was thriving. The FTE board had more women and people of color in its ranks than ever before; and in 1985, FTE began its first program specifically for women. Additionally, in 1988, the Pew Charitable Trust initiated a large grant to offer continued support for Hispanic ministerial and doctoral initiatives. A focus on urban ministry also had begun to take hold. By the end of the 1980s, FTE counted a number of successes.
- A Joint African American and Hispanic Doctoral Conference in 1992. Dr. Justo Gonzalez and Dr. Clarice Martin pictured at the front table.
As it had before, the 1990s brought renewed concern for the state of Christian ministry. Theological education had changed significantly since 1954, and FTE recognized an imperative to reevaluate its role in cultivating diverse leaders for ministry. Compounding the need for change was a new shortage of church leadership and a decline in the quality of those entering the ministry. It was almost as if the issues that had spurred the creation of FTE had come full circle.
Facing internal struggles and a lack of funding sources, FTE no longer was positioned to make the kind of impact it had in the past. In 1995, the FTE board voted to close operations and affiliate with the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), in order to retain its assets and funds. This move meant a fundamental ceasing of operations. It also marked a period of measured and powerful rebirth for the organization.
The crisis of the 1990s was met with fresh endeavors from philanthropic organizations. By 1997, a renewed and reorganized FTE entered into a new era with the support of the Lilly Endowment and other foundations.
FTE again was able to provide crucial resources and support to nurture diverse leaders, pastors and theological educators. Programs like the Partnership for Excellence and Expanding Horizons would encourage qualified diverse young leaders to pursue ministry and theological studies.
- FTE Alumnus, The Reverend Dr. Jonathan Walton, talking with participants at the Expanding Horizons Summer Conference at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, 2003
In 2003, FTE expanded its work with young leaders to congregations and church-related organizations that support them. Since then, FTE has accelerated grassroots initiatives like Calling Congregations, which assist congregations and church institutions to reclaim their role to “notice, name and nurture future leaders for the church.”
Though the theological and cultural landscape have changed since the 1950s, FTE continues to offer the next generation of Christian leaders resources and a forum to explore a call to ministry. FTE has expanded its programs far beyond the original vision of its founders, and remains committed to the stalwart goal to strengthen Christian ministry by recruiting and nurturing talented young leaders.
- Participants from the 2013 FTE Leaders in Ministry Conference
Rooted in the wisdom that it is more than a source of funding for theological education, FTE continues to evolve. It is emerging as a catalyst through which diverse young leaders explore a call to Christian ministry and theological scholarship.
- Mentor Pastor and FTE Alumnae Annie Selak and FTE Alumni Jennifer Bailey, Maggie Chandler, Robert King, Kenneth Clewett and Grace Vargas
Rebranded in 2014 to account for the organization’s evolving work and focus into the future, the board decided to repurpose the FTE acronym, which now stands for the Forum for Theological Exploration. Moving forward, FTE will position itself as a leadership incubator that provides community and resources for young adults and leaders to explore where they might fit in the work of the church and the academy, and in turn, inspire faith communities to participate in God’s work in the world.
More than 7,000 fellowships have been awarded to diverse young adults and students answering the call to ministry and theological scholarship. These Fellows represent some of the most accomplished pastors, scholars, and leaders in North America.
1,560 young Christian leaders have received mentoring and financial support as Ministry Program Fellows since 1999.
More than 550 FTE Doctoral Program Fellowships have been awarded to students of color since 1999.
Supported by a strong community of mentors and peers, FTE Doctoral Program Fellows have a retention rate of more than 90 percent, compared to a national Ph.D. attrition average of 50 percent.
FTE has become a significant catalyst for identifying and supporting diverse, gifted ministry leaders and doctoral students preparing to teach religion, theology or biblical studies in theological schools.