WFU comes full circle as Divinity School celebrates first graduates

By Vanessa Urruela Willis
Posted May 20, 2002

Bill Leonard
Bill Leonard

Twenty men and women made history May 20 when they became the first graduates of Wake Forest University Divinity School. In the coming weeks, some of the students will be ordained and become congregational ministers while others will begin work in social ministries or continue their education.

The Divinity School opened in 1999 as the first university affiliated theological program in the nation without a denominational tie. The new graduates studied full-time for three years to earn the master of divinity degree. They are from six states and represent seven denominations.

“In a sense, this brings Wake Forest full circle from its heritage as a school that first opened to educate ministers, to a liberal arts university that today sees the need to examine spirituality and vocation in a variety of ways,” said Bill J. Leonard, dean of the Divinity School. “It is a time of great celebration and challenge because our students are going out into a variety of ministries and activities in the church and in the world.”

The Divinity School has evolved since it opened in 1999, Leonard said. The school has added Baptist and Presbyterian studies programs that help students work toward ordination and a comprehensive vocational education program that encourages students to explore a variety of ministry opportunities. Professorships in Jewish studies and homiletics (the art of preaching) also were added.

The new graduates also leave behind a student government and weekly newspaper that they created.

“It was really great to be on the front end of the creation of a new school,” said graduate David Brown. “Sometimes we’ve debated if we were guinea pigs or pioneers, but it was very exciting to get to experience the newness of it all, help shape what the school is turning into.”

Brown, a Baptist from Greenville, S.C., said he hopes to become an associate pastor or minister of missions at a church. He is also considering work in nonprofit social ministry.

Stan Cross, a fellow graduate who is from Roanoake, Va., will work for the Roanoke City Rescue Mission. Cross, a Baptist, will coordinate the mission’s recovery program for transient men.

Stephanie Wyatt, a Baptist from Knoxville, Tenn., will work for the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit group that deals with issues of religious liberty and separation of church and state.

Several of the graduates soon will begin work in clinical pastoral care programs in medical settings like the one at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. This summer, Joanne Swanson, Kristin Gerner and Linda Browne will enter the program there. Swanson and Browne are Baptists and are from Winston-Salem. Gerner, a member of the United Church of Christ, is from Salisbury.

Some students will use their master of divinity degree to continue work they began before coming to the Divinity School.

Jennie Hemrick, a Presbyterian from Danbury, was a victims’ advocate in the court system for 18 years before coming to the Divinity School. For her senior project, she worked with the Center for the Prevention of Violence Against Women in Seattle to create training materials to help clergy respond to survivors of violence like rape and domestic abuse. She is now working toward ordination, and hopes to work in ecumenical social ministry.

The Divinity School curriculum includes instruction in traditional seminary subjects like biblical studies, church history, theology, homiletics, spirituality and pastoral care taught by full-time Divinity School faculty. Because the school is set within the larger context of the university, students are also able to study under other Wake Forest faculty. Divinity students have taken courses in the religion and classics departments, at the School of Law and in Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Clinical Pastoral Education program.

For more information about the Divinity School, visit its Web site at