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Dean of Wake Forest's Divinity School to step down as dean in 2010


March 5, 2009

Bill J. Leonard, the founding dean of the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University, will step down as dean on June 30, 2010.  Leonard will remain at Wake Forest as Chair of Church History in the divinity school and the religion department.

A national search for Leonard’s successor will begin later in the year. 

Leonard joined Wake Forest as dean on July 1, 1996, as the university was developing the divinity school.  The school welcomed its initial class in the fall of 1999.

With its opening, the Wake Forest School of Divinity identified itself as Christian by tradition, ecumenical in outlook, and Baptist in heritage, one of only five divinity schools in the United States with no formal denominational affiliation. 

Since assuming leadership of the Wake Forest School of Divinity, Leonard has recruited a faculty that has developed an interdisciplinary approach to educating ministers, drawing widely on the academic resources of the university.  In addition to its full-time faculty, the school benefits from adjunct colleagues from Wake Forest’s undergraduate College, business schools, School of Medicine and School of Law who teach divinity students.  Additional guest faculty come from a variety of national and international institutions.

Opening with a three-year Master of Divinity program, which remains at the heart of the school’s offerings, the school has steadily expanded its list of degree programs during Leonard’s tenure.  Today, the school also offers several dual degree programs including a a Master of Divinity/Master of Counseling and a Master of Divinity/Juris Doctor (law), as well as a Certificate in Spirituality and Health open to School of Divinity and School of Medicine students.

The School of Divinity has graduated 163 students.  It has 104 students enrolled.

“The opportunity to work with Wake Forest undergraduate and divinity students has been one of the highlights of my time as dean and I look forward to continuing those classroom relationships,” Leonard said.  “When I hear the seniors preach in weekly Divinity Chapel I know that this endeavor was worth the effort.”

Wake Forest trustees approved the start of the School of Divinity in 1989, but the idea for such a school had deep roots. Talk of opening a professional school of theology had surfaced at Wake Forest in the 1940s.  A half century later, the idea made a major step toward reality.  Wake Forest introduced Leonard as dean in May 1996 and he began work that summer. 

“The opening of a School of Divinity introduced a new, vital program of professional education at Wake Forest consistent with our commitment to academic excellence and the spirit of the university motto, Pro Humanitate,” Provost Jill Tiefenthaler wrote in a letter e-mailed March 5 to Wake Forest faculty and staff announcing Leonard’s plans.  “Its stated mission is to prepare ministers for congregations and community agencies in a program that blends academic rigor with the practice of ministry and a concern for justice and reconciliation in church and community life.  I am grateful to Dean Leonard for his diligent work in shaping the vision of a divinity school at Wake Forest.”

In addition to instilling an interdisciplinary approach to educating ministers, the school established a comprehensive, three-year vocational program, in which area ministers guide students in internships, together with multicultural ministry courses centered in rural, urban and international settings.

After receiving the Bachelor of Arts degree from Texas Wesleyan University and the Master of Divinity from a Baptist seminary, Leonard received a doctorate from Boston University in 1975.  That same year, he joined the faculty of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., where he served as professor of church history until 1992.  From 1992 to 1996, he was professor of religion and chair of the religion and philosophy department at Samford University in Birmingham.  Leonard has also taught courses at Yale Divinity School and at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka, Japan.  A Baptist minister, Leonard served a number of interim pastorates at churches in North Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana and Connecticut earlier in his career.  While studying at Boston University, he also served as pastor of First Community Church in Southborough, Mass.

A scholar of church history, Leonard has dedicated much of his extensive, multi-faceted career to the study of the Baptist church.  In addition to writing or editing 16 books, he has written for several scholarly journals.  He has also served on the editorial and advisory boards of numerous publications.  Among his most recent books are “Baptists in America” (Columbia University Press, 2005) and “Baptist Questions, Baptist Answers” (Westminster/John Knox, 2009).  He has presented papers and delivered invited lectures at a variety of schools, conferences and churches, nationally and internationally, and is a frequent commentator on American religious life.

Press Contacts:

Kevin Cox
(336) 758-5237


Cheryl Walker
(336) 758-5237


Dean Bill Leonard
Dean Bill Leonard
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