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Trailblazing Achievement: First Student Defends Dissertation in PhD in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric


In a historic moment for Christian Theological Seminary, Nicole McDonald has become the first student in the world to successfully defend a dissertation for a PhD in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric. This groundbreaking achievement marks a significant milestone not only for McDonald but also for the institution, which pioneered the program to address a critical gap in academic scholarship and theological education.

The PhD in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric program at CTS was established with the aim of advancing scholarship in an area of profound cultural and spiritual significance. Rooted in the rich tradition of African American preaching, the program seeks to explore the theological, rhetorical, and cultural dimensions of preaching within African American communities. “The successful defense of the first PhD in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric marks a pivotal historical moment in the scholarly exploration of African American religious traditions. This achievement not only honors the rich heritage of African American preaching but also signifies a critical step towards inclusivity and recognition within the academic realm of theological studies in the United States,” says Dean Francisco Lozada, Jr.

CTS Dean Dr. Francisco Lozada, Jr. (left) poses for a picture with Nicole McDonald to celebrate her successful defense of her dissertation.

Nicole McDonald’s journey to becoming the first student to successfully defend her dissertation for the PhD Program is one marked by resilience, passion, and unwavering determination. Her dissertation represents a culmination of years of rigorous research, critical analysis, and deep engagement with the traditions and practices of African American preaching. “Nicole is the first of what I anticipate will be many scholars to matriculate through CTS’s AAPSR Program. We are committed to studying Black preaching and sacred rhetoric at the highest levels of inquiry and transgressing scholarship that minimizes the contributions of Black preaching luminaries. I am honored to do this work with these amazing practitioner-scholars,” shares Program Director Dr. Courtney V. Buggs.

Hailing from Hampton, Virginia, McDonald’s academic pursuits began with a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Virginia, where she distinguished herself in the field of Civil Engineering. However, her true calling emerged during her time at Virginia Union University, where she earned a Master of Divinity degree. It was here that McDonald’s passion for theology and preaching blossomed, setting her on a transformative path towards doctoral studies. Nicole’s journey to her PhD was not without its challenges. Despite facing setbacks in her previous attempts to gain acceptance into PhD programs, her perseverance and determination ultimately led her to the inaugural cohort of the PhD in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric at CTS.

Armed with a diverse educational background and a fervent desire to delve deeper into the intersection of faith, rhetoric, and social justice, McDonald embarked on her doctoral journey at CTS. Her dissertation, titled “Yvette A. Flunder: The Apocalyptic Prophet,” explores the prophetic preaching of Reverend Dr. Yvette A. Flunder and its impact on African American religious discourse. Through meticulous research and critical analysis, Nicole illuminates the profound significance of Bishop Flunder’s preaching in challenging societal norms, advocating for LGBTQ+ inclusion, and fostering spiritual liberation.

Reflecting on her CTS experience, Nicole emphasizes the transformative power of scholarship and community. “My CTS experience has been invaluable,” she shares. “Moving to Indianapolis for a year allowed me to immerse myself in a supportive community of scholars and clergy who nurtured my intellectual and spiritual growth.” Nicole acknowledges the pivotal role of scholarship support in enabling her doctoral pursuits, stating, “I would not have been able to pursue this PhD without the generous scholarship assistance provided by CTS. It relieved me of financial burdens and empowered me to fully dedicate myself to my academic endeavors.”

Students in Cohort 1 of the PhD in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric pose for a picture together while on campus at CTS. Nicole McDonald is pictured second from the left.

Throughout her tenure at CTS, the supportive community of faculty, mentors, and fellow students have deeply influenced McDonald. Individuals such as Monique Crain Spells, Sheila Spencer, Aimee Laramore, Amelia Walker, and Chesla Nickelson played instrumental roles in guiding and encouraging her along her academic journey. The unwavering support and mentorship of the CTS community helped shape Nicole’s scholarly pursuits and nurtured her growth as a scholar and a leader.

In addition to her academic pursuits, Nicole serves as a Pediatric ICU Chaplain in Atlanta, where she provides spiritual care to critically ill children and their families. Drawing upon her background as a hospice chaplain, Nicole brings compassion, empathy, and a profound sense of presence to her ministry, guiding families through moments of profound grief and uncertainty.

CTS Associate Dean of Student Life Rev. Ayanna Garrett (left) and Rev. Monique Crain Spells (right) pose for a picture with Nicole McDonald to celebrate her successful defense of her dissertation.

As the first student to successfully defend her dissertation, she paves the way for future scholars and practitioners to delve into this important field of study. Her work not only contributes to the academic discourse surrounding African American preaching but also offers valuable insights into the role of rhetoric in shaping religious identity, community formation, and social justice activism.
In May, three additional students are set to defend their dissertations and graduate from the PhD in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric program, further cementing CTS’s commitment to advancing scholarship in this vital area. Together, these four trailblazing scholars represent the vanguard of a new era of academic inquiry and theological reflection.

Their collective achievement underscores the significance of diverse voices and perspectives within theological education and reaffirms CTS’s mission to foster inclusive learning environments that honor the richness of religious and cultural diversity. Program founder Dr. Frank A. Thomas reflects, “From an idea sketched on a yellow notepad to now, our first PhD graduates – this is the vision come to fruition. I am so proud of Nicole’s work, and all of the 2024 graduates, and how their work significantly contributes to the landscape of homiletics and rhetorical studies. These new scholars chart an intentional path of centering the genius of African American preaching as a credible field of study and exploration.” As they prepare to graduate and embark on new chapters in their academic and professional journeys, they carry with them the legacy of excellence and innovation that defines the PhD in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric program at CTS.

Looking ahead, McDonald offers words of wisdom to current and future PhD students at CTS. “Trust the process,” she advises. “Find your rhythm of writing, stay committed to your goals, and pursue topics that ignite your passion and purpose.” She emphasizes the importance of authenticity in scholarship, urging students to “risk it all and go as deep as you can.” In doing so, she believes, scholars can unlock new insights and make meaningful contributions to their fields.

As Nicole McDonald prepares to make history as the first PhD graduate in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric at CTS, her journey serves as an inspiration to aspiring scholars and clergy alike. Her dedication to scholarship, coupled with her unwavering commitment to social justice and spiritual care, exemplifies the values upheld by Christian Theological Seminary. As she blazes the trail for future generations, Nicole’s legacy will endure as a testament to the transformative power of education, faith, and perseverance.