Oldest African American seminary in U.S. continues during pandemic

In 1895, the department of theology separated from Wilberforce University becoming Payne Theological Seminary, named in honor of AME Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne.

Today, Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce is the oldest free-standing African American seminary in the United States.

Like many education institutions, the seminary is preparing to reopen its campus and continue operations following the recent closure during the coronavirus pandemic. Because of its unique educational model, Payne did not furlough staff in the past three months. In fact, the institution plans to make a few hires over the next three months.

Several years ago, the seminary made the transition from residential to online distance education, leaving it on the cutting edge of education and peer competitiveness, according to Kim King II, executive assistant to the president.

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“With little disruption to our educational model, we are fortunate not to have furloughed any faculty or staff, never mind let anyone go,” King told the Dayton Daily News.

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King said Payne brings students into the classroom by educating them where they physically live.

“Core faculty trained extensively on, and became certified in E-Learning,” King said. “Presently, in fact, Payne is the only African American seminary granted permission by the Association of Theological Schools to offer a Master of Divinity degree fully online.”

The teaching and learning at the seminary has remained largely uninterrupted in the face of the vast grip of the coronavirus pandemic because of the institution’s dedication to the online learning model.

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“Who would have ever surmised that distance education would be the lifeblood holding together educational systems worldwide?” noted the Rev. Dr. Betty Whitted Holley, director of the Master of Divinity degree program. “This situation reminds me of Psalm 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

Like many other schools in the area and across the country, seminary officials decided to postpone this year’s commencement. Payne is carefully instituting safe-distancing policies as it plans to re-open campus on Monday, May 18.

The pandemic has not stopped the seminary’s momentum as the institution held one of its largest alumni gatherings in recent years, even if facilitated by the social distancing of Zoom.

Payne is embarking on a crucial initiative to help Black Methodist congregations find their own continuity during the disruption of COVID-19.

Over the next three to five years, having received a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, Payne will work with national and international congregations from the African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Zion Church, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church to map the future of Black Methodism.

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