Mercer professor named interim president of Liberian seminary

jmink@macon.comDecember 1, 2013 

Richard Wilson will be president of Liberian Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Richard Wilson is a risk-taker.

It’s one reason why he’s spending a year in a west African country that has been devastated by war and corruption.

Wilson, a professor and chairman of the Christianity department at Mercer University, has been named the interim president for a seminary in Liberia. From January to December 2014, Wilson will try to help the Liberian Baptist Theological Seminary get back on its feet after struggling with a series of crises.

“My responsibility will be to clear the debris and secure the foundation,” he said.

When Mercer President William Underwood suggested that Wilson take the job, he initially came up with a short list of excuses. He was 60 years old. He had just come off a sabbatical, and there were other reasons.

But in the end, the answer was yes.

“It became such a draw that I had to (seriously) think about it,” he said. “I have a certain attraction to the developing world.”

His attraction to Liberia began with a former student. Olu Menjay, a 1995 Mercer graduate, immigrated to the United States after surviving civil war in his home country. After earning several other advanced degrees, Menjay returned to Liberia and became the principal of a boarding school in the country, called Ricks Institute. When Menjay asked his former professor to visit his home country, Wilson agreed and instantly bonded with the country.

Since then, Wilson has traveled to Liberia nine times. He introduced Menjay to Underwood, who appointed Menjay an assistant professor of Christianity with the condition that he would remain in Liberia and help coordinate Mercer on Mission trips. Underwood also approved scholarships for students at the Liberian boarding school, which requires those students to return to the Ricks Institute and teach there for two years after graduating.

Mercer’s connection to Liberia was further strengthened when Menjay, who was elected president of the Liberian Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention in 2012, approached Underwood about the need for an interim president at the seminary.

That’s when Underwood turned to Wilson.

“Dr. Wilson’s exceptional and consistent commitment to teaching and leadership is a valuable gift to the Liberia Baptist Theological Seminary,” Menjay said in a statement from Mercer. “He will bring renewed urgency in our task to offer sound theological education to pastors and church leaders in Liberia.”

Huge challenge

Wilson has taken several groups of students to Liberia, where they have served at Ricks Institute. Wilson himself has become enamored with the country. He knows its history and has preached at Liberian churches, and several Liberians have dubbed him an honorary citizen.

And now, he is preparing to once again travel to the nation, where he will take on one of the most challenging roles of his career.

Wilson’s first priority is to rebrand the seminary, giving it a sense of community and making it more attractive to prospective students and faculty. He will not teach students, but will concentrate on faculty development. Many of the teachers there have not completed college.

“I’ll be helping them with, how do you plan a course? How do you write an exam,” he said.

He also will help the seminary overcome some serious issues, many of which are the result of the country’s post-war struggles.

Unemployment is about 80 percent, and the Business Insider’s latest misery index lists Liberia as the world’s second-most-miserable place to live. Wilson wants to help the seminary recognize the country’s economic situation and prepare students to work multiple jobs in addition to their ministries.

“The United Nations always puts Liberia in the top five of the most corrupt countries in the world,” he said.

At the seminary, the past two presidents were not transparent in the decisions they made, something Wilson hopes to remedy. Additionally, the school is in worse financial shape than it was when the second civil war ended about 10 years ago.

Structurally, the seminary is in decent shape compared with other Liberian buildings. Its roofs are intact and the library still stands. The seminary has the largest library in the country, but “if I asked all my colleagues to put all our books together, that library would still be bigger than the seminary library,” he said.

Once there, he will travel the country with the seminary’s board of trustees, helping detect future leaders for the seminary. Wilson also will continue to chair Mercer’s Christianity department, working with Mercer faculty via online video calling and traveling back to Macon several times during the year.

And even though he will return to Macon full time by 2015, Wilson knows he will be involved with the Liberian seminary for the rest of his life.

“I’m excited about it, I certainly am,” he said. “There is some trepidation, but I’ve always taken risks. ... And those risks have always made it possible for me to do something I never dreamed was possible.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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