The Rev. James K. Echols, the first African-American scholar to serve both as a dean and president of an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) seminary, died on Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018. He was 67.
Echols was a Philadelphia native who grew up as a member of Immanuel Lutheran Church in West Philadelphia. Frequently urged by peers and church leaders to consider an ordained ministry career, Echols was a reluctant candidate for the ministry, preferring instead to focus initially on a career in law.
He became the first African-American seminary professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, (now United Lutheran Seminary) in 1982. From 1991-1997, he served the seminary as its dean, again the first African American to hold this office. In 1992 he led the first seminary Globalization trip to Namibia and South Africa, prior to the end of apartheid.
He was chosen in 1997 to head the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) and held the position for 14 years, again serving as an African-American trailblazer in the ranks of the ELCA.
“For 14 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 of the LSTC.
“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.”
In 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, a school of the Presbyterian Church USA. 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. Prior to retirement, Echols served as director of the Theological Education and Networks Office of the Bishop of the ELCA.
Echols was educated in Philadelphia public schools, graduated cum laude from Temple University; the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, earning the master of divinity degree; and Yale University with studies in psychology, religion, theology and church and society, earning master of arts, master of philosophy and Ph.D. degrees. He was awarded honorary doctorates from Carthage College in 1999 and the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in 2018.
Echols served as an elected member of the Executive Council of the ELCA and the ELCA Commission for Multicultural Ministries Steering Committee/Advisory Committee. He served as a member of the ELCA Task Force on Race, Ethnicity and Culture; the ELCA Division for Ministry Board; and the board of directors for the Deaconess Community.
As a leader in theological education, Echols served on numerous re-accrediting teams to review seminaries in the United States and in Africa. 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.
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, and 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.
Echols served a number of churches in various capacities after his seminary graduation, including Bethesda Lutheran Church of New Haven, Conn.; Lutheran Church of the Epiphany of Hempstead, N.Y.; Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church; St. Michael’s Evangelical Lutheran Church; and Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church.
He is preceded in death by his parents, Harry Echols and Edith McGruder Echols, and brother, Harold Echols.
He is survived by: his wife, Donna Skinner Echols; daughters, Jennifer H. Echols and Courtney L. Echols Penn (Eric); granddaughter, Charlotte R. Penn; brother, David Echols; nieces: Lauren Echols, Joy R. Blalock, Lesli A. White and Cameron N. Skinner; great-niece, Jordan A. Sell; nephews, Phillip Echols, Harold Echols, Charles H. Blalock and Trevor S. Blalock; sisters-in-law, Gloria L. Echols, Beryl Blalock Humes, Bobbi Skinner-White and Sylvia Fulford Skinner; brother-in-law, James H. Skinner; and godchildren, Kari Ingrid Beck, Bethany Hopkins, Nathaniel Peterman and Laura Rivera.
Services will be held Dec. 28 at 9 a.m. at the United Lutheran Seminary, Schaeffer-Ashmead Chapel, 7301 Germantown Ave.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the United Lutheran Seminary or the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.