Rev. Dr. James Thomas: A Remarkable Journey from Seminex to Global Ministry
When Rev. Dr. James Thomas, a 1976 graduate of Seminex (Concordia Seminary in Exile), comes to LSTC in Spring of 2024 to preach for the highly anticipated 50th anniversary Seminex event, he will bring to bear a lifetime of service, academic innovation, and global commitment to Lutheranism. Indeed, over the last five decades Rev. Dr. Thomas has embarked on a remarkable journey of faith, education, and service that spans continents and cultures. His path to ministry, shaped by a commitment to learning and a dedication to community, offers valuable insights for prospective seminary students seeking to navigate a rapidly changing world.
Born and raised in Opelousas, Louisiana, Dr. Thomas grew up in a Baptist community. His journey towards Lutheranism began in high school. “I was writing a paper for a World Civilization class, and I wrote about the Lutheran Reformation, and I ended up speaking to a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor about the Reformation. And all the long and short of it is that I ended up a member of that Missouri Synod church,” he said. This encounter marked the beginning of his spiritual journey within Lutheranism.
Rev. Dr. Thomas’s theological education evolved further when he became a part of Seminex, a seminary born out of the schism within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The struggle for theological integrity and biblical interpretation shaped his seminary experience, where uncertainty and challenges were ever-present. “The experience at Seminex was something unlike anything any of us were prepared for,” Rev. Dr. Thomas says. “But as an African American, for me, it was all the more complicated because what happened in the Missouri Synod often resembled a family struggle. These were people who knew each other. These were sisters and brothers who were taking sides against one another. And for somebody who had just set foot in Lutheranism in high school, the struggle was a bit alien.” Despite these realities, studying as a Seminex student became a pivotal chapter in his life, equipping Rev. Dr. Thomas with the resilience needed for the many different ministerial roads that lay ahead.
Upon graduation with an MDiv, Rev. Dr. Thomas accepted a pastoral call to The Lutheran Church of Our Savior in the Bronx, New York. However, the congregation’s post-Seminex affiliation with the Missouri Synod proved untenable for him, leading to a challenging decision to move on. Like many Seminex graduates, he embarked on a years-long journey searching for the right place to serve.
During this time, he also explored bivocational practice, building his skills as a professor and educational leader as well as a pastor. His journey ultimately led him to serve as a professor at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina for thirteen years. “While I was at Southern Seminary, I believe the year was 2013 that I took a sabbatical,” Rev. Dr. Thomas says. “And my sabbatical was at this seminary, good News Theological Seminary in Accra, Ghana.” This initial experience forged a deep bond with the Ghanaian community, and he has since returned to teach. The rich Christian culture in Ghana, where churches are brimming with devoted worshippers, provided a spiritual awakening for Dr. Thomas. “I feel like I’m home. I told my wife, ‘If I should die, just bury me right here,’” he says. His work in Ghana demonstrates the global reach of Lutheran education and the importance of cross-cultural connections in ministry.
While contributing to Global Lutheranism through his work in Ghana has been foundational to his current work, Rev. Dr. Thomas has also explored African descent participation in North American Lutheranism as a writer and researcher. His upcoming book, A Rumor of Black Lutherans (Fortress Press, 2023), delves into the lives of African-American Lutherans who played significant roles in shaping the faith community; it’s also a role with a deep connection to LSTC. “Two of the subjects of the book are related to LSTC, Dr. Alba Perro and Dr. Cheryl Perro, both graduates of LSTC, both having done their PhDs at LSTC. So there is a connection there also,” Rev. Dr. Thomas says. This work exemplifies the importance of preserving and sharing the diverse history of Lutheranism and the possibilities that exist for changing the historical narrative around Black contributions to Lutheran systematic theology.
Dr. Thomas offers valuable advice to prospective seminary students, emphasizing the importance of being bivocational in today’s changing world. He encourages students to equip themselves with a range of skills, recognizing that ministry may require more than traditional roles; in fact, the ability to adapt and serve diverse needs within and beyond the church is vital.
Rev. Dr. James Thomas’s journey from Seminex graduate to global minister is a testament to the power of faith, resilience, and adaptability in the ever-evolving landscape of ministry. His life and work inspire seminary students to embrace a multifaceted approach to service, as they navigate the challenges and opportunities of the modern world.