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A Higher Calling

Nation’s oldest freestanding African American seminary focuses on its future

The origins of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) may be centuries old, but the events that led to its formation feel very relevant today—standing up for what you believe, making a new way when the old way no longer works, and fighting on behalf of those experiencing inequality.

When officials at St. George’s Methodist Church in Philadelphia pulled a group of Black church members, including Rev. Richard Allen, off their knees while praying during the late 1700s, Allen and others realized the extent of the church’s racial discrimination and broke off to form the first national Black denomination, now known as the AME.

Michael Joseph Brown, PhD, President of Payne Theological Seminary 

Now global, the AME has deep roots in Ohio. In 1844, the church decided to form a school to train people for ministry. The Payne Theological Seminary, originally part of Wilberforce University, was later separated from the school and incorporated in 1894. It’s the oldest freestanding African American seminary in the country.

“Access has always been part of the story of the school,” said Michael Joseph Brown, PhD, President of Payne Theological Seminary. “Wilberforce was opened to give access to African Americans who didn’t have access to education. We were opened up to train people for ministry who didn’t have access to the other theological schools.” The enrollment at Payne dwindled during the early 1980s, when Brown recalls a conversation at the AME general conference about shuttering the school because it only had four students. It wasn’t until 2000 that enrollment ticked above 50. In 2008, the school made the decision to go online, increasing its student population to a little over 100.

When Brown came on as academic dean in 2014, it was his mission to increase enrollment. Today’s student population is nearly 240, with a goal of 300–350.

Through its online program, Payne is home to students from all over the world.

“ We are a global seminary for a global church.”


In 2017, the board at Payne established the Payne Theological Seminary Endowment Fund, an Organization Endowment Fund at the Foundation, to ensure ongoing growth and honor the stewardship and legacy of a significant gift made to the school. In 2020, five additional funds were added, four of which are scholarship funds, to help defray the cost for those called to the ministry.

“That’s been at the heart of what we do—granting access to high-quality education for people who otherwise might not receive it,” Brown said.

“We sat down as a leadership team and thought about our greatest need, and it’s student scholarship money,” he explained. With 80 percent of students receiving some sort of financial aid, scholarships are critical. “It’s not necessarily a lot of money,” Brown said. “But we’ve found that $3,000 can make the difference between ‘I can do this’ and ‘I can’t.’”

Brown sees a bright future for the growing seminary.

“I want to see our international footprint grow,” Brown said. “I would like to see enrollment grow to a peak point. I also want us to be more of a voice in the Southwest Ohio community. There are issues around food insecurity here. I think we have an obligation not only to educate an international audience but also be advocates on behalf of our community.”


Payne Theological Seminary Endowment Fund



Organization Endowment Fund