Last summer, Howard University installed Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce as the 16th dean of the School of Divinity, making her the first woman to serve in the role in the university’s 150-year history.
As her first anniversary approaches, Pierce acknowledged the significance of her accomplishment and said she hopes she isn’t the last.
Pierce said less than 50 percent of Howard’s students are going to do primary parish ministry — a sign that many are eschewing the ministry for careers in chaplaincy, hospice work or nonprofit management.
The school offers two joint master’s program in either social work or business administration, with theological education as the foundation. This format works for people who are called in vocation but not to become a minister.
Pierce said the university prepares students to transition into work in their professions at congregations that are not predominantly African-American after their training, adding that Black people know how to navigate in majority-White environments.
However, she said, the challenge is with predominantly White seminaries and divinity schools that have failed to provide the cultural for students to exist and thrive in African-American spaces.
“Sunday morning is still a segregated time and it is much easier for students to come to Howard to have the knowledge for them to thrive in these spaces,” she said, adding that the divinity school also has Asian and Latino students.
The school is also preparing students for ecumenical and interfaith engagement. For example, all students are required to do field education at a religious site such as a church, a nonprofit organization or social service agency that is not of their own faith tradition. In addition, the school offers a program track in Islamic studies.
Recently, the school revamped its Doctor of Ministry program that is designed for professionals that are already in the field. It will be offered this fall in a module format instead of the traditional semester system. Students will come on campus three times a year and the first cohorts will start the program in October.
Pierce expressed her enthusiasm about the opportunity to be engaged at a historically Black university. Before coming to Howard, she spent 10 years at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she served in various roles, including associate professor of religion and literature and director of the Black Church Studies program. Her expertise includes African-American religious history, womanist theology, African-American literature and race and religion.
Pierce earned her undergraduate degrees in English and religion and graduate degrees in English and Africana Studies from Princeton University. She received a doctorate in religion and literature from Cornell University. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and an ordained Christian minister, with deep roots in the Church of God in Christ.