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Leadership and Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 20, 2014
Lallene J. Rector

MLK Jr"In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher."  Martin Luther King, Jr., 1958[1]

On this anniversary of what would have been Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 85th birthday, it is a “good and right” thing to pause and reflect upon leadership and its relationship to who we understand ourselves to be. 

For many years, there has been an explosion of publication on leadership - both monographs and journals dedicated to it. Our neighbors at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management contribute excellent thinking, research, and teaching on the topic. They are “leaders” of leaders. And thanks to the support of Mr. Jerre Stead, the Chair of our Board of Trustees, our newest elected United Methodist Bishops benefited from studying with this premier faculty last January. The business world, however, does not have the last or most exclusive word on leadership. The world of theological concerns has also recognized the explicit importance of studying leadership. In 2002, the Academy of Religious Leadership launched its Journal of Religious Leadership, peer reviewed and published semi-annually ( The journal focuses on leadership, administration, and finance. I commend it to you.

Even more powerful than books and journals is the opportunity to learn from the actual lives of great leaders. This past week, I convened our Leadership Team at the school for a half-day retreat to consider how we each came to the seminary and what keeps us here; to identify our concerns and hopes going forward in our service together; and, to share our goals for the coming months. As we reflected upon the quotation above, we thought about the incredible leadership Martin Luther King, Jr. provided in helping to initiate the Civil Rights Movement and in helping this country begin to move out of at least some of its long-standing racial injustice against black persons. The photo here is of MLK's, age 29, visit to the historic black women’s college, Bennett College in 1958, the same year as the quotation above.

Letter from Martin Luther King, Jr.
to Dwight Loder, President of
Garrett Biblical Institute

The Leadership Team also discussed a precious letter MLK sent in 1958 to Dr. Dwight Loder, the then president of Garrett Biblical Institute (you can read the entire letter in the link to the right). President Loder, later elected a Bishop of the United Methodist Church and for whom our “Loder” Hall is named, had invited MLK to become a faculty member at the seminary. MLK was struggling at that time with his vocational call and the particular manifestation of leadership it would take. Though he felt a strong inclination toward teaching, MLK discerned as best he could and without absolute assurance he had made “the right” decision, that his pastoral leadership necessitated he remain at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church:

As you know, I am deeply entrenched in the rising tide of racial conflict here in the deep South. My congregation and members of the community are also involved.  And they look to me to guide them spiritually and otherwise, as they move with uncertainty through this maze of racial tension.  I have a deep sense of responsibility . . . doing all in my power to alleviate the tensions that exist between Negro and white citizens.

MLK, of course, paid for this dedication with his life.  He was not a perfect man and we are not perfect people, but his life and his leadership show that we do not have to be perfect to effect truly transformative change for the wellbeing of all persons.  As Christians, we belong to and join in the strength of a committed community, together responding to God’s call to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). 

The invitation, alone, from Dwight Loder to Martin Luther King, Jr. to join our faculty makes me so very proud to be part of Garrett-Evangelical. This kind of leadership made it possible to establish the Center for the Church and the Black Experience. For more than 40 years, Garrett-Evangelical and the community beyond us have benefited from CBE’s leadership. The legacy continues now under the guidance of Dr. Angela Cowser, Director of CBE and Assistant Professor of Sociology of Religion. We stand on the shoulders of visionary leadership at the seminary and we are inspired by the public theology of Dr. King – a kind of public theology that changed the world.

"In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher."  MLK knew who he was and to whom he belonged. 

Who do you understand yourself to be “in the quiet recesses of your heart”? How does this inform your identity as a leader and inform the shape of your leadership?  Whatever you may discern for your own life at this time, I believe our mission to “prepare bold, spiritual leaders for the church, the academy, and the world” meaningfully participates in the broader call of God to do justice, kindness, and humility wherever our leadership takes us.  I encourage you to spend some time with God in the “quiet recesses of your heart” so that you may, with confidence, claim the leadership to which you are called.

[1] The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol. 1.  Edited by Clayborne Carson and Ralph Luker, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 19921, p. 1.


# Alva Caldwell 2014-01-20 15:51
Thank you, President Rector, for your words of insight and affirmation. You have chosen wisely to respond to the "quiet recesses of your heart" from Dr. King. You are a wise and skilled leader yourself, and i am glad that the seminary is being led by such a gifted person. I will, in the quiet recesses of my heart, pray for the seminary and for your leadership. thanks be to God.
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