Building a Sustainable Future in Theological Education

2022 Distinguished Alumnus Frank Yamada is a scholar, teacher, minister, pioneer, and champion for the future of seminaries in the U.S.
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Frank Yamada, PhD ‘05, MDiv '95, and his wife consider their seven years living and raising their children on the Princeton Theological Seminary campus as some of the best times of their life together. “Back then, the apartments were cinderblock and the basement would flood when it rained,” he muses. “Our classmates would often lament about it, but we thought the entire experience was great. We were in a wonderful learning environment with some of the most prestigious faculty in the world, in an amazing community for our growing family.”

In 1999, while he was writing his dissertation, Yamada was hired for a full-time teaching position at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary (now Bexley Seabury Seminary), and went on to lead an anti-racism initiative with students that ultimately trained the entire administration, faculty, staff, and board, in addition to a wide swath of students.

In 2007, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary was experiencing financial difficulty. Exactly 13 minutes and 45 seconds after being granted tenure and promotion (the first person of color to achieve this in the school’s history), the school declared financial exigency, and the faculty was terminated. It changed Yamada’s trajectory entirely. “This shaped me deeply and got me thinking that theological schools need to change,” he says. “They need to think about building sustainable futures, and I wanted to play a role so things like this didn’t have to happen again.”

He joined the faculty at McCormick Theological Seminary in 2008, where he also served as director of the Center for Asian American Ministries, before being named the seminary’s tenth president in 2011; this made him the first person of color to hold this position at McCormick, and the first Asian American to lead a Presbyterian Church seminary in the United States. During his time as president, Yamada made it his mission to increase the school’s diversity and, under his leadership, it almost exclusively hired faculty of color and grew its Black student population from 35 percent of the student body in 2008 to over 50 percent by the time he left in 2017.

At that time, Yamada was named as the next executive director of The Association of Theological Schools (ATS). In less than five years under his leadership, ATS has been granted about $17.5 million to invest in the future of theological schools, and the Commission on Accrediting led a two-year process that culminated in the approval of new accrediting standards in 2020 — a once in a generation accomplishment. He credits these achievements to the successful teamwork between staff, member school administrators, board members, and leaders from partner organizations.

“I hope my legacy at ATS will be remembered as helping schools innovate for the future while giving them the resources they need to move forward in this rapidly changing and challenging environment,” he says. “I don’t think I would have ever imagined that this is where I would end up, but my time at Princeton Seminary and formation was my first step toward the leader I’ve become.”

Yamada will be honored at Reunion 2022 as this year's Distinguished Alumnus on May 24, 2022.

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Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Youth Minister at Busbridge and Hambledon Church, Surrey, U.K.

Antonin Ficatier, Class of 2016

“What I like about working in an international church is that I’m always reminded that I’m a foreigner, that the land is not mine and I’m just a passenger on this journey.”