Looking backward, moving forward


Black Church studies takes center stage with a new emphasis offering at Rockbridge Seminary

By RaeAnn Slaybaugh

Although the Black Church Studies Institute at Rockbridge Seminary has been in development since 2020, its real origin predates that period, to several seminary alumni group meetings led by Dr. Marlow D. McGuire, Sr. 
Among this group, a need was mutually acknowledged early on: that seminarians should be familiar with the history of the Black Church. 
“Black history has always been this oral tradition passed down,” McGuire explains. “I guess you could say we saw the need for more books, more materials, more education in that sense.”

At one point, Daryl R. Eldridge, Ph.D. — President Emeritus and Cofounder of Rockbridge Seminary and a doctoral graduate of the same seminary as the alumni group (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) — joined one of the sessions. He shared about Rockbridge, and McGuire and his cohorts shared their passion for the creation of a formal training initiative on Black Church history.

“I told him, ‘Man, it would be really good if we could partner,’ so we started talking about what that would look like,” McGuire recalls. “This emphasis came out of that.”

Getting the right people in the right seats

When Tommy Hilliker, MDiv, came onboard as president of Rockbridge in 2020, the framework of the Black Church Studies Institute was still in its infancy, but it was clearly a priority. He became much more acquainted with it at his initial meeting with Dr. Eldridge and a group assembled to design the curriculum — including Marlow McGuire.

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“As I’ve listened to Marlow, the idea of this emphasis was birthed out of a clear need to elevate and preserve the significant role of Black Church history and promote a better understanding of the meaningful impact of the African Diaspora and Black Communities on Christendom,” Hilliker says. “As we developed the courses, these needs and the commitment to equip men and women to effectively serve within Black Church contexts and communities locally and globally were center in our curriculum focus.”

It is also birthed from a need to train men and women to be servant leaders, to impact their communities positively for the gospel.”

Through this conversation and others like it, Hilliker says McGuire emerged as the clear choice to become Director of the Black Church Studies Institute.

“For us, identifying the right leader really came down to three things: we were looking for a person with conviction, a person of character, a person of competency,” Hilliker says. “Beyond that, we knew the emphasis required a person with experiences that can translate into real-world ministry application. A person who is passionate and believes in what they’re teaching — and who believes in the local church itself.” 

Last but not least, Rockbridge was looking for a person with the kind of integrity required of a pastor training pastors. 

“As we were collaborating with different people and building the courses, Marlow continually rose to the top of the list,” Hilliker says. “His character, experience and longevity in ministry, knowledge of the African American Church, and heart to train pastors made him the best choice for the Director of the Black Church Studies Institute role.”

Indeed, McGuire has 30 years of experience growing up in the Black Church environment; his father was a pastor in New York for 40 years. 

Now, McGuire has served in ministry for 22 years in various-size churches — from 30 to 10,000 — as a youth pastor, an associate pastor, an executive pastor, and senior pastor. He has also planted churches for more than a decade. “Serving in such different-sized churches has exposed me to a lot of variables in the Black Church,” he says.

Educationally, Marlow has completed extensive studies on cultural ministry related to his dissertation work since 2010, and he currently connects with African American churches doing work for a local Association engaging more than 200 churches as a consultant.

“The impact of the recent pandemic has increased the use of social media and virtual platforms by many ministries,” he points out. “It has also broadened the reach of churches and has increased their exposure; as a result, students need to be better prepared to reach diverse groups of people and to have cultural sensitivities when sharing the gospel, developing ministries, as well as contextualizing strategies for church growth.”  

Alongside McGuire is Professor Michael Hubbard, another foundational leader in the development of the Black Church Studies emphasis, who developed the Pastoral Ministry in the Black Church course.

Hubbard and other Black Church leaders continue to provide additional input in future course offerings. 

Bearing fruit

Now, with the launch of the Black Church Studies Institute in May 2022, McGuire’s and his team’s hard work has paid off with a compelling curriculum. It is the result of a continuous process of curating an emphasis that is meaningful to every student and most accurately describes the experiences, best practices, models and developments of the Black Church.

“And we were blessed to have a lot of deep guidance from Mark [Simpson, Ph.D., Vice President for Academic Services] and Daryl [R. Eldridge, Ph.D.] in terms of framing it to be consistent with the seminary’s other offerings,” McGuire adds. 

Fortunately, the emphasis is also blessed from the get-go with alumni from the group in which the concept was born — all of them pastors — willing to serve as mentees to students and walk alongside students enrolled in the Institute.

The Black Church Studies Institute’s key areas of study will be Black Church History, Pastoral Ministry in the Black Church, and Principles and Praxis of Discipleship for the 21st Century Church. 

The primary takeaways will be an understanding of the contributions of Black Americans and of those throughout the African Diaspora in the development and practice of theology in the Black Church.

“Really, we just want to fill a need to contextually educate students on the Black Church, the Black Church experience, the contributions of the Black Church to theology and church history,” McGuire says. “And we need to be that for students who are, themselves, within this context; for those who want to reach out beyond their own specific people group; or for those who want to be more effective in the Black Church community.”

Making it accessible, always

The courses in the Black Church Studies Institute will be offered fully online and designed for students to work at their own pace. 

“We really want to have an option for pastors who are busy trying to figure out how they can get this kind of education and grow, to disciple others and be better pastors for their own churches,” McGuire points out. “In that sense, being on campus can tie you down. For me, I feel like this is the best choice for people who are really struggling with, What does that look like for me, and how do I move forward?”

As the Institute nears its launch, Hilliker and his leadership team at Rockbridge Seminary feel confident that this long-held effort is in the best hands.

“Marlow is a leader with a passion and belief in unifying the Church, as well as promoting the incredible impact that the Black Church has had historically, and on present-day Christianity,” Hilliker says.

“He is a pastor who understands the complexities and challenges of balancing the ministry world and family life. He understands the incredible responsibility to shepherd and care for people as well as the demands that places on your time and energy. Who better to train other pastors than a pastor who knows what it means to love God, love people, and love the ministry of the Church.”  


Rockbridge’s new Black Church Studies Institute equips you to minister in cross-cultural and Black Church communities.

What is the Black Church Studies Institute?

The Institute weaves together courses in Black Church history, pastoral ministry, discipleship, worship expressions, and theology to provide a holistic approach to minister within Black communities.

What were the major factors behind the development of the Black Church Studies Institute?

• A desire to elevate and preserve Black Church history within the seminary setting

• An awareness of the need to educate practitioners and ministers on the meaningful impact of the African Diaspora and Black Church communities on theology

• A commitment to equip men and women to serve within Black Church contexts and communities locally and globally

What is the Institute’s Purpose?

The Black Church Studies Institute seeks to educate, elevate, and equip men and women to be servant-leaders called to minister in cross-cultural settings and Black Church communities.  

What are the Institute’s Goals?

• To design an environment that supports engagement with the biblical practices and traditions of African American churches and other Christian communities throughout the African Diaspora

• To provide seminarians of all ethnicities and backgrounds with an engaging online learning environment for theological reflection and meaningful understanding of the Black Church

• To develop a deeper appreciation and wider knowledge of the Black Church and its historical and present-day impact on Christendom

• To create an opportunity for critical thinking and the examination of practices that are contextually relevant to leaders in the Black Church and in the broader community as it relates to the development of theology

• To strengthen the contextual vocation of the school with the goal to impact people groups, congregations, and societies locally and globally.

What Does the Institute Offer?

The Institute offers a certificate option for non-degree-seeking individuals, and an emphasis focus within the Master of Ministry Leadership and Master of Divinity programs for those who are seeking a degree.

For more information, visit rockbridge.edu or blackchurchstudies.com.


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