The Baptist Commons

Logo for the Baptist Commons at the School of Divinity

Christian by tradition, Baptist in heritage, and ecumenical in outlook, we are Baptists committed to justice, reconciliation, and compassion.


The Baptist Commons forms students, engages alumni, and cultivates relationships with supporters to deepen the distinct Baptist heritage of our ecumenical learning community, recognizing the School of Divinity’s role as a vital institution in fostering excellence in leadership among diverse communities of Baptists committed to justice, reconciliation, and compassion.

The School of Divinity is committed to honoring and nurturing its Baptist heritage. Without the support of 19th-century Baptists in North Carolina, the nationally prestigious Wake Forest University we call home would never have been born. (Note that in 1986, the University officially broke ties with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina in order to freely choose its trustees without interference from the Convention.) WFU still honors its Baptist heritage in word and deed. For example, the school motto is “ProHumanitate” (For Humanity). The University fulfills opportunities for service arising out of that heritage.

Baptists also played a significant role in the beginnings of the School of Divinity. In 1989 the trustees of the University approved the idea of forming a School of Divinity, and Baptist churches were major financial contributors to the new school, founded in 1999. The very first gift came from the First Baptist Church in New Bern, NC, where Samuel Wait, founder and first president of WFU, once served. (We would be remiss if we did not mention the history of slavery for the Waits and Wake Forest University. WFU has begun the Slavery, Race, and Memory Project to confront its past.)

Even though Baptist heritage informs the School of Divinity, from the beginning the school has been intentionally ecumenical in terms of faculty, student body, and curriculum. It is the first university-based divinity school to begin with no formal denominational affiliation. The faculty and administration embody the traditional Baptist values of respect for individual conscience and freedom of religion. Rather than imposing a particular theological perspective on students, the faculty of the School of Divinity provides future ministers with the tools and resources that help them to think seriously about God, the church, the world, and their own vocation. In true Baptist fashion, students are challenged to internalize their education so that they can serve as effective agents of justice, reconciliation, and compassion in an ever-changing world. The School of Divinity is intentionally ecumenical and open to a variety of viewpoints, valuing Wake Forest College’s Baptist heritage that was shaped by “soul freedom.”

Common Conversations

Common Conversations Series 1

The Baptist Commons will aid in the continuation and creative imagining of how we can best support the holistic educational formation of faith leaders who embrace Baptist identities and connections. Over half of alumni identify as Baptist and the more recent classes of students average a third who enter as Baptists, though within the name “baptist” they may represent as many as 19 different fellowships, associations, or national organizations. Amidst the school’s broad, ecumenical future, its Baptist heritage holds value for students, alumni, and the institution itself. Wake Divinity graduates have thrived within Baptist life, where alumni have served in significant positions of leadership in local churches and in larger denominational bodies. Wake Divinity graduates have been among the strongest voices for progressive change and inclusion within their Baptist denominational bodies, and the school has been noted for its influence in shaping such a perspective. This success is not only a point of pride for students and graduates but also a mark of the success of the School in assisting students with meaningful opportunities post-seminary. It is an important link to the University’s Baptist roots and religious origins. The maintenance of this sense of a Baptist heritage at an ecumenical seminary is important to continuing in shaping a hopeful future.

Wake Divinity is home to the James and Marilyn Dunn Chair of Baptist Studies. Established in honor of the Dunns, influential Baptist leaders for more than half a century, the chair positions the School of Divinity as a leader in the ongoing conversation about the future of ministry in Baptist churches. James Dunn, who joined the School of Divinity faculty in 1999, was internationally known for his leadership of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and his expertise on church and state issues. Marilyn Dunn, a soprano, was a well-known Baptist musician. “In the classroom, the pulpit and the public square, James has spoken out for Baptist ideals of separation of church and state, as well as Baptist theology and history,” former Dean Gail O’Day said. “Over the past decade, James has helped to prepare dozens of new ministers for the challenges they will face as religious leaders, not only within congregations and non-profit agencies but in the political and social issues of their communities.”

The Baptist Commons is designed to provide reflective and educational spaces for students, alumni, and others who have stories to share about what it means to be Baptists committed to the common good. However, even with the investment into the Baptist Commons, our work will not only be for, from, or about Baptists. We will undergird the vision and goals of the diverse School of Divinity. The progressive Baptist heritage of the school is important, but the ecumenical character of the school is indispensable.

The School of Divinity is not a Baptist school, but it is a great place to be Baptist.

Partner Announcements

  • Baptist History and Heritage Society presents Dr. Bill J Leonard’s lecture “Hopeful Apocalypse: Charting a Baptist Future” and focuses on many of the significant changes which have taken place within American Christianity in the last fifty years. They have also created a study guide.
  • Jack & Mary Lib Causey Fund Grant Application Form from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina: For individuals who are applying to or currently enrolled in short-term continuing education programs designed to equip or strengthen lay or ministerial leadership. The amount of each grant will vary according to the scope, nature, and cost of the program. Learn more and apply.
  • Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty 
    We believe that Christian Nationalism threatens our faith and country. Join us and stand up to Christian nationalism.
  • Statement on racism in the US and anti-racism resources from the Alliance of Baptists
  • Provide urgent relief for hurting families today with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship: Your gift to CBF’s Coronavirus Emergency Relief Fund today will provide food and urgently needed items for the vulnerable families CBF serves here in the U.S. and around the world. Your gift of any amount will go a long way in meeting the needs of families who are suffering.

The Baptist Commons provides:

  • Networking and Alumni Relations –We assist Baptist students with network development and placement post-graduation, helping students to find meaningful and realistic and strategic placements of employment while supporting their long-term ministry goals. We help the school to build its network for purposes of student and donor recruitment. We maintain a healthy alumni network for Baptist graduates. We host the annual Cooperative Baptist Fellowship reception event and will develop comparable gatherings at other annual denominational meetings and gatherings. We help Baptists network the diverse Baptist community.
  • Community Building –We meet regularly with Baptist students, alumni, and supporters for fellowship and hosted conversations with invited guests on issues particular to Baptist life. We will develop service opportunities, pilgrimages, immersion events, and class trips. We will build community with congregations, renewing relationships between churches and theological schools by building trust and awareness of what we do to educate and form students.
  • Vocational Formation –We provide opportunities for mentoring, internships and relationships, including membership, with Baptist congregations and nonprofit organizations. We assist the Office of the Art of Ministry in internships and the Office of Career Services and Leadership Development in vocational programming for Baptist students. We connect students with congregational and denominational resources for Baptist practices, worship elements and traditions, and understanding and applying for ordination.


  • Education and Enrichment –We coordinate periodic events or classes each year within the scope of Baptist Studies (soon to be developed). We will develop a Baptist Studies Certificate conferred on graduates that have completed elective coursework in Baptist Studies in coordination with the Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies. To sustain professional formation, we will develop seminars, institutes, conferences, and classes as continuing education opportunities for all. We may also develop a Thriving Congregations program (grant approval pending). We provide spiritual growth and formation opportunities and experiences.
  • Peer Learning and Practical Support –We cultivate communities of practice and leadership training among peers in ministry and nonprofit work and connect them with mentors and other practitioners in their field for practical and spiritual support. We utilize Baptist clergy and laity as resources to address questions and concerns related to Baptist identity and practice.
  • Advancement –Under the direction of the Office for Advancement, we assist in the recruitment and cultivation of donors within our Baptist network that are interested in the distinctives of the School of Divinity. We will work towards additional scholarships for Baptist students. The goal of The Baptist Commons Initiative is to raise start-up funds and money to permanently endow the program. If you would like to contribute, contact Sheila Virgil, Assistant Dean of Development, at or 336.758.5872. To support Wake Divinity, give to our annual fund.

Greetings from Natalie Aho, the new program manager at the Baptist Commons!

I’m delighted to finally connect with you and introduce myself. You may know me already from my recent work the past nine years at Baptist News Global (formerly the Associated Baptist Press) where I was the Director of Audience Engagement and Annual Giving. Or you may know me from my work as a church communications consultant and presenter through my own business at DigitalClergy or with the Center for Congregational Health, the Center for Healthy Churches, or The Church Network. Or maybe you know me from my work with the Alabama Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina. Or maybe we haven’t connected yet but you know my spouse, Rev. Chris Aho, currently the pastor of Oxford Baptist Church in Oxford, NC, and previous minister at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Mobile, AL, First Baptist Church in Mount Airy, NC, and Zebulon Baptist Church in Zebulon, NC.

More likely, though, we don’t know each other yet. Here are a few other facts about me: I have an MS in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University (‘12) and a BS in Education from Baylor University (‘99); I was born and raised in Texas but after almost two decades in NC, I consider it home; and I’m a mom to two energetic and happy boys, a preteen and preschooler who keep our life grounded. I have been a Baylor Bear, a Quinnipiac Bobcat, and a Duke Blue Devil (by marriage), but I am most excited about becoming a Demon Deacon!

Over the past two decades, my career has allowed me to work with individuals and organizations from almost every major religious and Christian denominational body; however, I was raised and have chosen to remain a Baptist. I have spent most of my career involved with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Recently, I have also connected with and attended events for the Alliance of Baptists. In the past few years, I have been intentional about meeting ministers and leaders in the American Baptist Churches USA, the Baptist World Alliance, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and the Baptist Missionary Association of America, as well as those who no longer identify with Baptist denominational groups. I want to continue strengthening these relationships and be more involved in other Baptist spaces as I become a resource for all Wake Divinity Baptists.

You may be wondering about the Baptist Commons. I hope by now you have heard of this program, which was officially launched in 2017 under the excellent leadership of Dr. Bill J. Leonard, Rev. Emily Hull McGee, and Rev. Alan Sherouse. Ideas for this program began in 2009, and it was first commissioned in 2012. Maybe you have even participated in an event, like the March 2018 launch event, that the Baptist Commons advisory council hosted over the past few years (recent council members include those named above as well as Dr. Mark Jensen and Dr. Oliver Thomas).

As the Baptist Commons focuses on events, resources, and services, the council and I have many ideas. We anticipate that our events will include meals together, service opportunities, focused conversations, lectures, pilgrimages, panel discussions, seminars, institutes, fellowship opportunities, conferences, and classes. Ideas for resources include sharing and discussing books, articles, podcasts, and videos as well as sharing the resources from individuals – especially our alumni – and our partner organizations. Ideas for services include helping with internships, job placement, mentoring, and recruitment. Particularly, I want to help Baptists network in the diverse Baptist community. We will gather virtually, on-campus, at your churches, at regional gatherings, and at other partner events.

Our greatest challenge ahead of us will be to undergird the work of our ministers, chaplains, nonprofit workers, and other community leaders as we navigate an unknown future. Wake Divinity gives all of us firm ground upon which to stand; the Baptist Commons is just one of many helpers to secure our footing. I am thrilled for this opportunity to be in the trenches with our students, alumni, and supporters. I look forward to coordinating ways the Baptist Commons can support you and ways our larger Baptist family can support the School of Divinity as we collectively raise up a generation of leaders who strive daily for justice, reconciliation, and compassion.

If you would like to know more or stay informed about the Baptist Commons, please contact me at 336-758-4416 or

I look forward to getting to know you and getting to work for you.

– Natalie Aho, program manager for the Baptist Commons


Baptist Commons Advisory Council – 2021
Faculty and Staff:

  • Dr. Jonathan Lee Walton, Dean of Wake Divinity, Presidential Chair of Religion and Society, and Dean of Wait Chapel
  • Dr. Mark Jensen, Teaching Professor of Pastoral Care and Pastoral Theology at Wake Divinity
  • Natalie Aho, Program Manager for the Baptist Commons at Wake Divinity
  • Dr. Bill J. Leonard, Founding Dean of the School of Divinity and Professor of Divinity Emeritus
  • Rev. Demi “Day” McCoy, Co-Curricular Operations Coordinator at Wake Divinity

Council Members:

  • Dr. Oliver M. Thomas (‘10), Chairman of the Baptist Commons Advisory Council, Associate Pastor of Young Adult Ministry at Providence Baptist Church, Greensboro, NC, and Adjunct Faculty at North Carolina A&T State University, Greensboro, NC
  • Rev. Ryan Eller (’07), Co-Founder & Executive Director at The New Moral Majority, Louisville, KY
  • Rev. Emily Hull McGee (‘09), Pastor of First Baptist Church on Fifth, Winston-Salem, NC
  • Catherine Jackson-Jordan (’22), student at Wake Divinity, Winston-Salem, NC
  • Rev. Dr. LaTonya McIvers Penny (’13), Pastor of New Mt. Zion Baptist, Roxboro, NC, and Executive Director of Family Abuse Services of Alamance County, Inc
  • Rev. Alan Sherouse (‘05), Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Greensboro, NC
  • Rev. Lin Story-Bunce (’09), Associate Minister of Youth at College Park Baptist, Greensboro, NC
  • Captain, Rev. Justin Thomas (’13), Air Force Chaplain, Colorado Springs, CO

Stay connected with the Baptist Commons.

For more information, contact Natalie Aho, program manager of the Baptist Commons at 336-758-4416 or