By Brian C. Richardson & Mark E. Simpson
Dr. Dennis E. Williams (1934-2023) is a recognized professor, scholar, and administrator in both the church and in Christian higher education. His career has included serving on church staffs, providing leadership for several Sunday school organizations and conventions, leading the education departments in schools of two major seminaries in the United States, and serving as Executive Administrator for the North American Professors of Christian Education (NAPCE). In 1991 Williams received the "Distinguished Educator Award" from the Southwestern Baptist Religious Education Association, and in 1998 he was honored by NAPCE with the Distinguished Christian Educator Award.
Early Life and Education
Dennis was born in 1934 in Toledo, Ohio. He was the youngest of 3 children, with two brothers.
Dennis met his future wife, Cornelia Coker, while they were high school seniors. They graduated together from Bob Jones Academy and went on to attend Bob Jones University. Cornelia described Dennis' formative years in a video presentation at his retirement dinner in his honor at Southern Seminary:
During his collegiate years band and orchestra studies were Dennis' primary interest and major. He often was first chair, and played the cornet for jail ministries, churches, college vespers, and other music performances. He also directed music in evangelistic tent meetings. He excelled in athletics, including soccer and wrestling.
In the 1950's Dennis' expressed his interest in helping Christians understand the scripture better to his pastor, but did not feel led to pulpit ministry. His Pastor encouraged him to pursue educational ministry as his vocation, even though very few evangelical churches had ministers of education in those days. Dennis finished his music degree, turned down an opportunity to direct a U.S. Marine Band, and moved with his wife Cornelia to Arizona where he served the First Baptist Church of Tempe as Minister of Education, Music and Youth from 1957-1959. He then moved to Flagstaff, Arizona to serve as Minister of Education, Music and Youth at the First Baptist Church from 1959-1966. While there he finished his second masters degree in music at Northern Arizona University. During his college and graduate training he felt a call to teach Christian education, but wanted to gain several years of practical church ministry experience prior to enrolling in a doctoral program. Also during these years Dennis became aware of the need for churches to have a better understanding of Sunday school curriculum and sound educational practices. After the birth of their daughter Jean and son Michael, the family moved to Texas so that Dennis could pursue another master's degree and a doctorate from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. While in Fort Worth he served in two churches as Minister of Education and Music.
During his studies at Southwestern Dennis experienced a ruptured appendix resulting in nearly two years of hospitalization and thirteen surgeries. It was later determined that Dennis had Crohn's disease. But Dennis endured and persisted in his academic studies, completing his doctorate with the writing of his dissertation on "Motivational Factors in Adult Learning."
With his doctoral studies completed, Dennis accepted a teaching position at Denver Theological Seminary where he served on the faculty for twenty-three years. While in Denver Dennis led in the development of Denver's Christian Ministries Convention, and served on the National Association of Professors of Christian Education board. Later Dennis would become the Executive Administrator of the renamed North American Professors of Christian Education organization.
The Christian Ministries Convention in Denver grew to be one of the largest in the United States. At one time it drew 7,000 leaders for training in Christian education. Nearly every aspect of training was provided for those serving in church ministry. The Christian Ministries Convention helped to start the Christian Ministries Convention Network with the purpose to provide communication and assistance to the nearly 200 conventions meeting each year.
In 1994 Dennis left Denver Seminary to become the Dean of the School of Christian Education at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. During his tenure at Southern Seminary, Dennis worked with the faculty to change the nomenclature of the Ed.D. program to that of Ph.D. since the former degree was truly a research doctorate. Working together with Dr. Jack Cunningham and Dr. Mark Simpson, Dennis helped the School of Christian Education pioneer the first ATS accredited seminary Internet-enhanced Doctor of Education in Leadership degree program.
In 2000 Dennis became Dean of Institutional Assessment and led Southern Seminary in their ten-year reaffirmation of accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). By 2002 the role of Director of Extension Center Programs was added to his job description, which involved overseeing fourteen centers. In 2005 Dennis retired from full-time teaching at Southern Seminary, but continued to teach doctoral seminars and supervised doctoral students.
Dennis holds memberships in many educational organizations, including the North American Professors of Christian Education (NAPCE), the Religious Education Association, the Association of Professors and Researchers in Religious Education, and the Baptist Association of Christian Education to name a few. In 2010 Dennis retired as Executive Administrator of NAPCE after 24 years of service to the organization. (Williams, 2005a)
Dennis earned the BS degree and MA degree from Bob Jones University, an MA degree from Northern Arizona University, and an MRE degree and a PhD degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Although his ministry experiences were mostly in the United States, he spent a year in Asia, primarily in the Philippines, with ministry travels to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Borneo and Korea. He also has ministry experiences in seven African countries as well as Peru and Cuba (Williams, 2005b).
On his second trip to the Philippines he taught in the Doctor of Education program sponsored by the Asian Theological Association. Here he met and interacted with current and future educational leaders in Asia. He also provided recommendations to the accrediting association for this unique program and made contact with other United States professors to assist. He was able to arrange for some of these Asian leaders to come to the United States to attend the North American Professors of Christian Education annual conferences. A professional association was started in Asia similar to NAPCE.
In Korea he met with deans and presidents of several seminaries in order to assess their programs and facilitate possible transfer credit. Several of his doctoral graduates from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary were serving in administrative and teaching positions in these schools.
In his retirement, Dennis enjoyed interacting with colleagues and former students. He eventually struggled with end stage kidney and liver disease, passing away on October 19, 2023.
Contributions to Christian Education
Dennis Williams co-authored Volunteers for Today's Church with Kenneth Gangel in 1993. This text provided a formative and foundational understanding of working with volunteers in the local church. The text was used in several colleges and seminaries in ministry leadership education programs.
What is an enduring legacy of Dennis Williams? His love for learning, the church, and his students is reflected in the lives and ministries of those whom he has served. Throughout his ministry Dennis demonstrated both in and out of the classroom a keen insight for educational administration and following sound educational practices while remaining faithful to the Word of God. He has trained hundreds of masters and doctoral students during his tenure as a faculty member at Denver Seminary and Southern Seminary. Many of these students have gone on to lead churches as pastors or education ministers, denominational organizations as staff members or senior leaders, and at academic institutions as faculty or administrators. He also has an enduring legacy in the friendships and collegial relationships he has developed over the years in churches and academic institutions literally world-wide. Dennis is a strong believer in teamwork and team ministry, and his skills as an educational administrator have impacted the ministries of the many key leaders he has trained in Christian higher education.
Dennis' willingness to go the second mile to help people is characteristic of his life and is what has endured Dennis to so many, particularly other professors and students. One former student, Craig Williford, President of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, said of Dennis, "Dennis Williams recognized leadership potential in my life and nurtured that potential during my time as a student at Denver Seminary, giving me increasingly more responsibility outside of the classroom."
When Dennis was elected President of NAPCE and then Executive Administrator, he often found a way to help professors who could not afford to attend by putting several of them in hotel rooms he was able to obtain as comp for hosting the conference at the hotel. Dennis was always trying to help fellow professors who were struggling financially. Both Dennis and Cornelia Williams also demonstrated Christian love for students by having them stay in their home. The non-traditional Doctor of Education program at Southern Seminary had students coming to the campus three times a year for two weeks. In the first cohort three students stayed in their home for three years on this schedule. Students who graduated always knew that they had a place to stay if they returned to campus. On several occasions they had international students live with them for periods of time.
Dennis' contributions to Christian education have been recognized by various agencies. In 1991 Dennis was presented the Distinguished Educator Award for outstanding service in vocational religious education by the Southwestern Baptist Religious Education Association. In 1998 he was presented with the Distinguished Christian Educator Award by the North American Professors of Christian Education. Dr. Brian Richardson, a former President of NAPCE and long-time colleague and friend of the Williams presented the award.
Williams, Cornelia Coker. (2005a). Dennis Williams' ministry. Unpublished script of the video presentation on the life of Dennis Williams at his retirement dinner at Southern Seminary, March 2005.
Williams, Dennis E. (2005b, March). Trends of Christian education for the 21st century. Address presented to the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Louisville.
- Williams, Dennis E. and Kenneth O. Gangel. (1993). Volunteers for today's church. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1985). Curriculum planning for evangelical churches. Unpublished manuscript.
Chapters in Books
- Williams, Dennis E. (2005). Conducting effective meetings. In Michael Anthony and James Estep (Eds.), Management essentials for Christian ministries (pp. 190-200). Nashville: Broadman and Holman.
- Williams, Dennis E. (2001). Recruiting, training and motivating volunteers. In Michael Anthony (Ed.), Introducing Christian education: Foundations for the twenty-first century (pp. 167-175). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
- Williams, Dennis E.. (1996). Church staff relations. In David P. Gushee and Walter C. Jackson (Eds.), Preparing for Christian ministry: An evangelical approach (pp. 261-274). Grand Rapids: BridgePoint Books.
- Williams, Dennis E.. (1996). Share learning, not ignorance. In Deena Davis (Ed.), Discipleship Journal's 101 best small-group ideas. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
- Williams, Dennis E.. (1994). Sunday school ministry. In James D. Berkley, (Ed.), Leadership handbooks of practical theology, Vol. 2: Outreach and care. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House/Christianity Today.
- Williams, Dennis E.. (1990). The Board of Christian education. In Robert E. Clark, Lin Johnson, and Allyn K Sloat (Eds.), Christian education: Foundations for the future (pp. 443-454). Chicago: Moody Press.
- Williams, Dennis E. (2009). Response to the closing of seminary Christian education programs: Four Case Studies. Christian Education Journal. Spring, Series 3, Vol. 6, Supplement, PP. S 160-S 164.
- Williams, Dennis E..(2001). Christian Education. In Michael J. Anthony (Ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Christian Education. Grand Rapids: Baker. PP. 132-134.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1989). Focus on the Mountain Area Sunday School Association. Christian Education Today. National Christian Education Association.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1989). Job Description for a Sunday school teacher. In David C. Cook Resources (Ed.), Super Sunday school source book. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook Publications. PP. 13-14.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1990). Age and gender differences for Christian education practitioners. Christian Education Journal. Winter, Vol. X Issue 2, pp. 9-16.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1987). Spotlight on NAPCE. Christian Education Today. National Christian Education Association.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1987). Keep exact accounts. Key to Christian education. Standard Publishing.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1986). What about intergenerational education? NCEA Quarterly. National Christian Education Association.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1986). Using group dynamics in Bible study. Small Group Letter. Navigators.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1986). Balancing structure and freedom in small group Bible study. Small Group Letter. Navigators.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1984). Suggestions for seminar leaders. Innovations for the church leader. David C. Cook Publications.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1983). Create a Climate for staff Motivation. Leader Idea Bank. David C. Cook Publications, PP. 55-56.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1983). Does Your Teaching Give "Heartburn"? Success for Workers in Christian Education. Accent Publications, Volume 35, Number 2, PP. 4-6.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1975) Back to the Fundamentals in Church Growth. Success for Workers in Christian Education. Accent Publications, Volume 28, Number 1, PP. 4-6.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1975) Develop Your Teachers Through Training. Success for Workers in Christian Education. Accent Publications, Volume 27, Number 2, PP. 4-6.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1974) Visitation â€“ The Key to Growth. Success for Workers in Christian Education. Accent Publications, Volume 26, Number 4, PP. 11-13.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1974) Do We Really Need the Sunday School? Success for Workers in Christian Education. Accent Publications, Volume 26, Number 3, PP. 4-7.
- Williams, Dennis E. (2005, March). Trends of Christian education for the 21st century. Address presented to the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Louisville.
- Williams, Dennis E. (2000, October 29) Trends for Christian education in the 21st Century. Paper presented for Chinese Christian Education Workers in Toronto, Canada . Unpublished.
- Williams, Dennis E. (1986). Dynamic discussion video. Evangelical Teacher Training Association. Wheaton: Evangelical Training Association.
- Numerous adult Sunday School curriculum lessons for David C. Cook Publications, LifeWay Christian Resources, and Union Gospel Press.
Excerpts from Publications
Williams, Dennis E. (2005). Conducting effective meetings. In Michael Anthony and James Estep (Eds.), Management essentials for Christian ministries (p. 200). Nashville: Broadman and Holman.
It has been said with a great deal of truth that people working together can accomplish much more than a single person working alone. But the difficulty lies in the fact that many people are not used to working together in groups. Because of this, they do not see the benefit of teamwork. Leaders need to practice and teach this approach as they lead groups of people working together for ministry purposes.
Conducting effective meetings is not as difficult as quantum physics. Much can be accomplished with some forethought and prior planning. When this is done well, people will not resent having to attend a meeting and will begin to value the use of this time as an integral part of conducting ministry. They key to developing this attitude is being able and willing to apply the principle highlights in this chapter.
Williams, Dennis E. (2005, March). Trends of Christian education for the 21st century. Address presented to the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Louisville, KY, p. 3.
Taken literally, Christian education means education for Christians, but it is much more. In includes pre-conversion, conversion and post-conversion learning experiences. It is not a one time learning experience, but a lifetime dedicated to learning more about God and His Word. It includes the application of this truth in the life of the learner so that it can be passed on to others in service and ministry. Christian education is designed to bring people to faith, to develop people in their faith and to lead people to minister to others through the ministry of the church.
Williams, Dennis E. (2005, March). Trends of Christian education for the 21st century. Address presented to the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Louisville, pp. 9-10.
Though I strongly believe in Sunday school with its potential for effective ministry, it is still a means. If a better strategy comes along to carry out the purpose of Sunday school, then we who are leaders should make it possible to move to the new strategy. The same should be true for every other ministry program.
Williams, Dennis E. (2005, March). Trends of Christian education for the 21st century. Address presented to the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Louisville, p. 13.
Sunday school for adults is in critical condition in many of our churches. Poor teaching, no purpose and lack of dedication account for much of the problem. Some older adults continue to attend because of habit or guilt, knowing that this is what they ought to do. Boomers are not as tied to the church and though some predicted that after their children came along, they would return to the church, this did not prove to be true. Their children are less involved in church and some predict that this may be a lost generation to the Gospel. The current situation is not good and the future is frightening.
Williams, Dennis E. (2005, March). Trends of Christian education for the 21st century. Address presented to the faculty of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Louisville, p. 14.
A problem that Christian education must address is that there is very little distinction in the lifestyles of "born-again Christians" and those claiming to have no relationship with God. Recently a church held a revival where the evangelist was a self-proclaimed missionary to "churched" believers. A Russian pastor said that it was easier to be a Christian under Communism than under democracy. When asked how this could be, he replied, "Under Communism a Christian cannot ride the fence, He is a Christian or he is not."
Williams, Dennis E. (2001). Recruiting, training and motivating volunteers. In Michael Anthony (Ed.), Introducing Christian education: Foundations for the twenty-first century (p. 167). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
One of the true tests of a successful church is the ability to involve others in the work of the ministry. This statement is much more than a simple call to action. It forms the foundation for a biblical philosophy of volunteerism.
Unfortunately, today some affluent church members would prefer to pay others to do the work that they themselves should be doing as volunteers. Two things are wrong with this approach. First, it is a violation of the biblical mandate for everyone to get involved in using their spiritual gift(s) to build up the local body of Christ. If one is not serving somewhere, he or she is out of God's will. It's as simple as that. Second, when paid professionals do all of the work themselves, they are preventing others from a path of spiritual growth. Leaders are to equip others to serve and give them the opportunity to do so.
Williams, Dennis E. (2001). Recruiting, training and motivating volunteers. In Michael Anthony (Ed.), Introducing Christian education: Foundations for the twenty-first century (p. 173). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
To accept a position of ministry requires that the person be willing to be trained to do that ministry correctly. The tragedy is that many churches do very little if any training for their ministry positions. Recent surveys indicate that most churches are so involved in finding people for ministry positions that they have no energy left to provide the training and equipping necessary for effective ministry. Remember Ephesians 4, where the leaders were instructed to equip God's people for works of service. Without proper equipping, many volunteers will falter and fail in their ministries. Unfortunately, this is one reason for the poor quality of ministry in many of our churches. The situation does not have to be so bleak, however, there are ways to train and equip workers to do effective ministry, even with today's ultra-busy schedules.
Williams, Dennis E. (2001). Recruiting, training and motivating volunteers. In Michael Anthony (Ed.), Introducing Christian education: Foundations for the twenty-first century (p. 174). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
There are certain basics that people need and expect in their work. They want recognition as persons and fair treatment. If volunteers are treated merely as a means to get a job done without consideration of what is will do for them, it will affect their motivation. Leaders who play favorites by giving recognition to some and not to others will find disruption in their ranks.
Williams, Dennis E. (2005). Conducting effective meetings. In Michael Anthony and James Estep (Eds.), Management essentials for Christian ministries (pp. 190-200). Nashville: Broadman and Holman.
One of the challenges faced by a minister is conducting effective meetings. Too often church meetings devolve into personality conflicts and differences in opinion and agendas on leading and developing the church. In this chapter Williams describes the elements of a good meeting that can help church leaders work together to advance the ministry of the church.
Williams, Dennis E. (2001). Recruiting, training and motivating volunteers. In Michael Anthony (Ed.), Introducing Christian education: Foundations for the twenty-first century (pp. 167-175). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
Recruiting, training, and motivating volunteers is a key task of educators in the church. In this chapter Williams defines obstacles to recruitment, how to overcome those obstacles, and best practices in training equipping workers for ministry. Emphasis is also placed on the important role of motivating workers for service.
Gangel, Kenneth O. and Dennis E. Williams. (1993). Volunteers for today's church. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
Volunteerism is at the heart of the educational ministry of the church. Through volunteers the church is able to staff the multitude of ministry opportunities that help a congregation grow in the Word and deploy ministry gifts in serving the Lord. Gangel and Williams explore the challenges of working with volunteers in today's church, and suggest practical ways that church staff can develop and maintain volunteers for ministry.
Brian C. Richardson
Brian Richardson (Ph.D. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Basil Manly, Jr. Professor of Leadership and Church Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (KY). He formerly served as Chairman of the Ancient Languages, Biblical Studies, and Philosophy Division at Bryan College in Dayton, TN. Dr. Richardson served as president of the North American Professors of Christian Education, working with Dennis Williams over a period of several years. He was also a classmate of Dennis Williams at Southwestern Seminary
Mark E. Simpson
Mark Simpson (Ph.D. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) served as Associate Dean for Doctoral Studies and Digital Learning at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (KY) from 1995-2005 while Dennis Williams was Dean of the School of Christian Education and Leadership. He also was a teaching assistant for Dennis Williams at Denver Seminary. Simpson served as Dean of Innovative Learning at Trinity College of the Bible and Trinity Theological Seminary (IN) from 2006 until 2011. In 2011 he began serving as Coordinator of Online Learning at Oakland City University (IN) where he also teaches as a full professor in the university's Chapman Seminary.