Our History

FTE is 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.

Stones from the Jordan: The Dynamism of FTE

FTE celebrates 70 years of rich history and commemorates the impactful journey in the latest publication, Stones from the Jordan: The Dynamism of FTE from 1954-2024. Discover how historical moments shaped FTE's rise amidst theological discussions. Reflecting on our past, we stride forward with optimism, standing as a pillar of strength and hope for young leaders, adapting to an ever-changing world.

The philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller Jr. made the early work of FTE possible.


Foundation and Early Growth

In 1954, "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, influenced by a sermon given by Reverend George Docherty and lobbying by the Knights of Columbus. The new phrase reflected a surge in Christian patriotism in the United States, particularly among evangelical Protestants. The rise in church attendance led to growth in theological education and discussions on various topics. Demand for trained individuals in Christian ministry increased, with some denominations requiring seminary training for leadership roles. The long-term impact of this religious revival on theological education remained uncertain, leading to the establishment of the American Association of Theological Schools Fund to promote excellence in Christian ministry.

The Rockefeller Fellowships were “designed for a particular purpose, namely to discover and develop new talent for the Christian ministry.” .


Expansion and Diversity

The following year, in 1955, the Fund saw remarkable growth, awarding 47 fellowships from 330 nominations to Americans and Canadians, including three women and two African Americans. This diverse group represented 15 Christian denominations and 37 colleges across the U.S. and Canada. The Trial-Year award became popular on college campuses, leading to rapid nominations and the Fund's expansion. In 1958, the Rockefeller Doctoral Fellowship in Religion was introduced to support exceptional scholars during their PhD dissertation phase, aiming to enhance resources and faculty at theological institutions. By 1960, the organization changed its name to the Fund for Theological Education (FTE), reflecting its broader scope and direction.

Visionaries in Action: Melissa Wiginton, Sharon Watson Fluker, and Jim Waits are leading FTE into a new era of diversity and excellence in ministry and doctoral studies.


Leadership Transition and Innovation

In 1997, Waits stepped down from ATS, joining FTE as president and CEO a year later, alongside Costen. Together, they aimed to reinvigorate FTE's role in supporting diverse candidates in ministry and doctoral studies. With a clear focus on enhancing ministry quality, Waits secured significant grants, and in 1998, FTE reopened at the Luce Center for the Study of Religion in Atlanta. Melissa Wiginton and Sharon Watson Fluker played pivotal roles, bridging the past and present and revitalizing FTE's mission. Wiginton directed ministry programs, establishing initiatives that nurtured young leaders, while Fluker, director of doctoral programs, fostered a supportive community for underrepresented scholars. Their efforts reshaped FTE's impact and legacy, ensuring a diverse, thriving future.

Charting a New Course: Stephen Lewis, Sharon Watson Fluker, and Matthew Wesley Williams led FTE through transformative rebranding and strategic restructuring, shaping the future of theological education.


Restructuring and Adaptation

Stephen L. Lewis emerged as a potential leader for FTE, endorsed by a few within the organization. Lewis’ remarkable presence, described as authoritative yet inviting by Parker Palmer, resonated with many. Birk acknowledges Lewis's ability to foster dialogue and unite people under a shared vision.

Future Leaders: FTE Staff embark on a journey of rebranding and strategic transformation with Ministry Fellows guided by a commitment to diversity, mentorship, and relevance in 21st-century Christian ministry.


Redefining Vision and Mission

The Chair of the FTE Board, Rev. Dr. Wendy Fletcher, emphasized the need for adaptation to address the changing needs of young leaders and the evolving landscape of Christian ministry. Through listening sessions and strategic planning, FTE recognized its role in helping young adults explore vocational pathways and reverse enrollment declines in seminaries. The organization shifted from merely providing funding to fostering relationships and developing leaders. The name change marked a new phase in FTE's journey, representing its commitment to exploration and mentorship. The rebranding, informed by the listening tour, aimed to align FTE's programs and resources with its renewed mission for relevance in the 21st century.

FTE’s Leadership: President Stephen Lewis guides FTE to national prominence in Christian ministry and theological scholarship, prioritizing diversity and innovation to empower the next generation of leaders.


Continued Innovation and Resilience

Over his tenure, Lewis has proved to be a natural leader, aligning business, theology, and community. Under his guidance, FTE has become a national leader in Christian ministry and theological scholarship, adapting to the demands of the 21st century. Lewis's steadfast commitment and vision ensure FTE's continued relevance and impact, focusing on cultivating diverse young leaders and their ministry.