James Kenneth Echols, fifth president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, dies December 24, 2018

The Rev. Dr. James Kenneth Echols, who served as the fifth president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago from 1997 - 2011, died December 22 in his hometown of Philadelphia at the age of 67. He was the first African Descent president of a North American Lutheran seminary. His vision for theological education opened new directions for LSTC. A celebration of his life will be held at United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia on December 28. A memorial service will be held February 13 at 11:15 a.m. in the Augustana Chapel at LSTC with a luncheon following the service. He is survived by his wife, Donna Skinner Echols, and their daughters Jennifer and Courtney.

“For fourteen years, President Echols led our school during a period of accelerating change in theological education, with a vision for new possibilities that was often far ahead of his time,” said James Nieman, president. “With quiet intensity and firm resolve, he set in motion local, ecumenical, and global ventures that others had not yet imagined. He was also a person of substantial scholarly and ecclesial grounding whose very presence as a seminary leader was an inspiration to many. We are blessed to be beneficiaries of all the good to which he was committed, and saddened that his time among us has ended so soon.”

During Echols’ time as president LSTC built a new worship space, the Augustana Chapel. He also helped create A Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice, an endowed chair in Christian-Muslim studies and interfaith relations, the Albert “Pete” Pero Jr. Multicultural Center, and a program of spiritual formation for youth. Echols’ dedication to collaboration led to a closer partnership and shared campus with McCormick Theological Seminary. He also worked closely with partners within the ELCA, seeking opportunities to make leaders in the church more aware of the central role of theological education.

Kathleen “Kadi” Billman, John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry, Pastoral Theology, and Director of the Master of Divinity Program, added, “James Kenneth Echols brought to LSTC a deep concern for the spiritual formation of future ministers. During his presidency the Cornelsen Chair for Spiritual Formation was established and launched.  Establishing A Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice, along with the Vogelaar Chair, cemented LSTC's commitment to interfaith dialogue and relationships. For all the burdens he bore, his vision that changed the face of the campus, his deep Christian faith and love for the church, and his pastoral heart, I offer heartfelt thanks.” Billman served as dean and vice president for academic affairs for ten years while Echols was president.

Richard J. Perry Jr., professor emeritus of church and society and urban ministry said, “I am deeply saddened to learn that the Rev. Dr. James Kenneth Echols has walked on to join the ancestors. Jim was a giant in the world of theological education. His passion for and concern about the well-being of students, faculty, board members, and pastors within the global Lutheran communion stood well beyond his years. He was a valuable colleague who stirred many people of African Descent to aspire to be faithful in their service in the church and the world. He was the first person of African Descent to serve as an Academic Dean and President of a Lutheran seminary in North America, and he served with grace, a strong faith, and a sense of humor. His wisdom, knowledge and, indeed, his quiet personality will be missed. I thank God I had the privilege of being his friend and colleague over the last forty-three years.”

Cheryl Stewart Pero, who served as director of the Albert ‘Pete” Pero Jr. Multicultural Center from 2010-2016, said, “My friend, James Kenneth Echols, died last night. He’s been my friend since 1978. As friends we sometimes agreed to disagree, but that’s what made our relationship such fun. My colleague died last night. In September 1986, we traveled to Harare, Zimbabwe, for the first gathering of the Conference of International Black Lutherans, a place and space where Black theologians would gather normally and regularly. Jim contributed to our body of knowledge and was a true wordsmith as we sought to articulate our community’s thoughts. My buddy died last night. We discovered that we were born four months apart in the same year. I am saddened that Jim’s presence in our world has come to an end, but I am elated that he has left a living legacy in the lives of so many others.”

From 2012 until his retirement in 2015, Echols served as Director of Theological Education and Networks, Office of the Bishop, for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).    

Echols served as dean at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), now United Lutheran Seminary, from 1991-1997. He joined the faculty of that seminary in 1982 as professor of American Church History. He earned three degrees, including the doctor of philosophy in the history of Christianity, from Yale University. He earned the bachelor of arts degree from Temple University and a master of divinity from LTSP. He was ordained in the Lutheran Church in America, a predecessor of the ELCA in 1979 and served parishes in New Haven, Conn., and Hempstead, N.Y.

Globally, Echols participated in Lutheran and ecumenical conferences in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. He was a leader in the Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL) and the African American Lutheran Association. He published in the areas of church history, theology and Black American Lutheranism. He is the editor of I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Future of Multicultural America (Augsburg Fortress, 2004)

In 2017 LSTC presented him with the doctor of divinity honoris causa in honor of his more than 37 years of dedicated service in parish ministry, theological education, ecumenical and interfaith work, as well as his service to communities of color in the United States and the Caribbean and his distinctive contributions across the global Lutheran communion. The James Kenneth Echols Prize for Excellence in Preaching was established in 2008 by the late LeRoy T. Carlson in honor of Echols and to promote excellence in preaching among LSTC students, the Lutheran church and the world. In addition to honors and awards from Wagner College and Carthage College, Echols received a Luther Institute Wittenberg Award in 2000 and a Wheat Ridge Ministries Seeds of Hope Award in 2005.

Revised 1.14.19


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The Lutheran School of Theology (LSTC) is dedicated to bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. Based in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, it is the leading urban Lutheran seminary training students for purposeful vocations in the global community. Aligned with its Lutheran heritage and built on a foundation of intellectual rigor, LSTC’s innovative, nationally recognized curriculum gives students skills for visionary Christian leadership in the public sphere.

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