Distinguished Lutheran educator, LTSP Graduate and Dean James Echols Dies


With heavy hearts, we announce that James Kenneth Echols, a graduate and dean of one of United Lutheran Seminary’s predecessor institutions, Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, passed away Dec. 22, 2018, in his hometown of Philadelphia. He was 67.

Rev. Dr. Echols had a distinguished career as a pastor and educator in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, serving parishes in Connecticut and New York after his ordination in ELCA precursor, The Lutheran Church in America, in 1979. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Temple University in Philadelphia, a Master of Divinity degree from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), and a Doctorate of Philosophy in the History of Christianity from Yale University.

Rev. Dr. Echols served on the LTSP faculty as a professor of American Church History from 1982 to 1997. He was unanimously elected Dean of the Faculty at LTSP in 1991 — the first African-American dean of any ELCA seminary.

Rev. Dr. Katie Day, The Charles A. Scheiren Professor of Church and Society at United Lutheran Seminary, was a contemporary of Echols on the LTSP faculty. “Jim radiated a depth of wisdom and clarity of perspective that we all recognized, whatever our level of seniority,” Day wrote. “The choice for him to become Dean of the Faculty was unanimous. Not only was he unique as the first Dean of color, he especially distinguished himself as a strong and gifted leader. Jim had the ability to see through complex institutional dynamics to what really mattered, what value was at stake. For example, Jim could call out racism in its myriad manifestations in ways that could be heard and addressed. He would present his perspective in a steady and clear manner, persuasively, yet through dialogue. Because Jim was such a good listener, had a gentle sense of humor and was truly friend as well as colleague, he helped the faculty move from an earlier period of division to a time of solidarity.”

Said Rev. Dr. Richard Stewart, ULS Professor Emeritus:

“Jim, as the first African American Scholar of Color at LTSP, was mentored by Clarence Lee and others who nurtured him in his seminary career. As the second scholar of color and not an LTSP graduate, he nurtured and encouraged me as I started and completed my graduate education here in Philadelphia…. Jim could walk in multiple circles with great respect.”

Rev. Dr. Echols was the first African-American president of a Lutheran theological institution in the U.S., being called to lead The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, from 1997 to 2011. While in Chicago, he built a new worship space, the Augustana Chapel. He also helped create A Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice, an endowed chair in Christian-Muslim studies and interfaith relations, the Albert “Pete” Pero Jr. Multicultural Center, and a program of spiritual formation for youth. He also worked closely with partners within the ELCA, seeking opportunities to make leaders in the church more aware of the central role of theological education.

United Lutheran Seminary Interim President Dr. Richard Green valued Echols as a colleague. “Although I had been familiar with Rev. Echols’ contributions as a professor and dean and president in the ELCA, I only met him after my appointment as Interim President at ULS. His portrait is located in a very prominent place among other historic firsts for seminary leaders on the third floor of the Brossman Center on the Philadelphia campus of ULS. He made significant contributions to the ELCA and he will be missed. We were blessed by his presence; we are saddened by his passing so soon,” Dr. Green said.

Globally, Echols participated in Lutheran and ecumenical conferences in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. He was a leader in the Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL) and the African Descent Lutheran Association. He published in the areas of church history, theology and Black American Lutheranism. He is the editor of “I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Future of Multicultural America” (Augsburg Fortress, 2004). 

After serving at LSTC, Echols retired early to become an assistant to the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA in 2012 as Director of Theological Education and Networks. He retired from that position in 2015, and moved back to his hometown of Philadelphia.

He died after a fall in his home, surrounded by friends and family at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. Rev. Dr. Paul Rajashekar, Luther D. Reed Professor of Systematic Theology and Director, Asian Theological Summer Institute at ULS, reported that “Claire Burkat, a classmate of Jim at LTSP, conducted a Service of Commendation in the presence of [Echols’ wife] Donna Echols, Rene and Phil Krey, Linda Beck and [Dr. Rajashekar and his wife, Esther].”

Dr. Rajashekar asked that the ULS community “Please uphold Donna Echols and their children Jennifer and Courtney in your prayers during this time of grief and sorrow. May God grant peace and mercy to our beloved colleague and brother in Jesus Christ.”

A celebration of Echols’ life will be held at ULS on December 28 (details below). He is survived by his wife, Donna Skinner Echols, and their daughters Jennifer and Courtney.

Visitation and Funeral Service

Funeral Service will be December 28, 2018 at The United Lutheran Seminary, the Schaeffer-Ashmead Chapel, 7301 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19119 at 9:00 am. Clergy are invited to vest and process. Color of the day is white.

Clergy processing are asked to arrive by 8:15 a.m. Repast after interment in Benbow Hall, Brossman Center, United Lutheran Seminary.

Visitation will be on Thursday, December 27, 2018 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. at the Chapel of United Lutheran Seminary, 7301 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19119.


For more information, please contact:

Barry Hill, Jr.
Chief Communications Officer, United Lutheran Seminary

Joseph A. Carlucci
Chief of Staff, United Lutheran Seminary