Thirty years ago, Brian Blount spent many nights as a student on William and Mary’s campus studying in the empty classrooms of Morton Hall. Now, he spends his days and nights on a campus of his own as president of one of the country’s oldest Presbyterian seminaries.
Blount (‘78) was recently inaugurated as the president of Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va. The former pastor and professor is the first African-American to serve as president of a theological seminary of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Blount said that that distinction is significant in the sense that it represents a part of the history of the Presbyterian denomination as it seeks to mirror expectations of how God is operating in the world.
“In that sense, it’s really an outgrowth of the vision and mission of the church as a whole,” he said. “But what I think is really more important is that the members of the search committee and members of the board here, and the faculty and students who received me after I came here, appreciate the kind of background I bring from the church and from my own academic work.”
He added, “What mattered was that they got the right person – or who they thought was the right person for this – and I’m kind of appreciative of being in that position of being chosen on those merits and then being able to realize there is a giftedness of diversity that comes with that.”
A native of Smithfield, Va., Blount grew up in the church and knew he wanted to go into the ministry before he started at William and Mary in the 1970s. A double-major in psychology and religion, Blount said he strived for academic excellence.
“I came from a context where I had a very good high-school experience, but I think there were many who had come from schools that were a bit stronger in terms of preparation for college,” he said. “I had a little catching up to do. I spent a lot of time in the library and in Morton Hall where I did a lot of studying in empty classrooms in the evening.”
Blount said that much of what he learned from his classes and professors gave him direction and influenced how he would later approach ministry.
“(One former professor) was really instrumental for me in opening up the sense of the connection between what one teaches about one’s faith and how one puts that into action,” he said. “The courses were very instrumental in helping me learn how to think more in terms of how the way a person thought could then be put into action, in particular in relationship to religious thinking.”
Prior to his graduation, Blount was inducted into the Alpha Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. Though he did not know it for certain until many years later, Blount was the first African-American to ever be inducted into the chapter.
After graduating from the College in 1978, Blount went on to Princeton Theological Seminary where he received his master of divinity degree in 1981. He then served as pastor of Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church in Newport News, Va., from 1982 until 1988. In 1992, Blount received his doctorate in New Testament studies at Emory University and, that same year, he returned to Princeton to teach.
In 1998, Blount became the first African-American to be tenured in the Department of Bible at Princeton’s seminary. His research has focused on the Gospel of Mark in the area of cultural studies and hermeneutics, and he has written numerous books, including Cultural Interpretation: Reorienting New Testament Criticism (Fortress, 1995), Go Preach! Mark’s Kingdom Message and the Black Church Today (Orbis, 1998) and Then the Whisper Put on Flesh: New Testament Ethics in an African-American Context. He has also co-edited and co-written several books and other volumes.
Blount began serving as president of Union-PSCE in July 2007. Founded in 1812, the seminary has approximately 375 students and operates an extension program in Charlotte, N.C. It is one of 10 theological institutions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and it offers graduate-level degree programs to prepare men and women as pastors, educators and scholars.
Blount was formally inaugurated as the school’s president on May 7, 2008, the same day as his 25th wedding anniversary. Blount’s wife, Sharon, and his children, Joshua and Kaylin ,participated in the ceremony, and Blount’s father R. Edward Blount helped lead the worship service. As more than 800 people cheered, Blount asked if the seminary were ready to be turned into the kind of “change-maker” that could bring life back into the shrinking Presbyterian denomination, which has lost almost a million members since 1983.
“My fear for the church and for the seminaries that educate its leaders,” Blount said in his inauguration address,” is that we’ll get too used to being ill and dying, that we’ll get seduced by the calm and peace of the tomb, that we’ll start decorating in there, make ourselves at home with our own decay, ignore the stench of stale approaches, and ignore the call to get up from that deadness and come out!”
Among his goals, Blount hopes to build diversity in the seminary’s community. According to an Associated Press article, the school had 30 African-American students among its student body in 2006. Overall, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is largely white (92 percent), and only 3.6 percent of its ministers are black, according to the denomination's Web site.
"If we're going to transform a multicultural world, we must be a multicultural seminary," said Blount during his address.
Blount also said he hopes to get the school’s financial infrastructure firmly in place and help develop a vision for the future of the school with strategic planning.
“It’s a wide-open agenda with a lot of opportunity and possibilities,” he said.
As he begins working on that agenda, Blount said he will draw strength, ideas and advice from his relationships with his colleagues, students and family.
“I honestly believe that no matter what position you have in life, one of the key things is the ability to hear and listen to those who are around you, because in many cases they have more experience and insight than you yourself have despite the position that you hold,” he said.
Despite all the roles he’s had in his life, Blount said he has always considered himself to be primarily a pastor.
“As a teacher, I felt that I was a pastor to students. I felt that a part of my role in teaching was to nurture, develop, push and encourage the same way a pastor does with his congregation,” he said. “That’s certainly a part of this role here now (as seminary president). Being in this community with this particular function, it’s much like being a pastor of a church with different kinds of communities. It’s a broader community than a local church, but it’s still a very similar kind of function, it seems to me.”
As president of Union-PSCE, Blount finds himself now back in the area that he thinks of as “home,” just miles away his alma mater and a short drive from where his parents still live in the house he grew up in. Though his job as a seminary president keeps him understandably busy, Blount still finds time to sometimes walk through William and Mary’s campus. Despite all of the learning that he did here, he said it’s not the books or the late-night study sessions that he remembers most.
“I remember the friends that I developed, and the people I built relationships with in other areas,” he said. “It’s the people I remember the most.”
He hopes that current William and Mary students and his seminary students can find a vision and mission for their lives, but not necessarily from their coursework.
“When I was a student, I made the mistake of thinking I could do the courses and find a mission and focus from that,” he said. “I think it’s much more directing and helpful if one can think about one’s mission and focus for life and then build coursework and activities in line with that vision.”
Blount said part of finding that vision came with the help of mentors.
“There are people who are able to help us see from the outside the gifts and abilities we have and help us understand how we can use those sometimes in a more objective way than we can ourselves,” he said.
One of Blount’s own William and Mary mentors made a surprise call to him last year. Sam Sadler, the College’s long-time vice president for student affairs, invited him to join Omicron Delta Kappa, a national leadership honor society. Blount and his wife came down for the induction ceremony.
“It was a really nice moment,” he said.
Though Blount said he loves his new position at Union-PSCE and can see himself staying there until he finishes his vocational career, he is open to what God will do in his life.
“I believe that we follow God’s lead in life and we often can’t determine where that lead would call us,” he said. “I never would have anticipated that I would end up being a seminary president. I’m here because I’m following the direction and calling for my life that I believe comes from God.”