2023 Vanderbilt Divinity School and GDR Distinguished Alumni/ae named

Four Vanderbilt alumni who devoted their lives to ministry, scholarship and social justice issues have been recognized as the 2023 Vanderbilt Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion Distinguished Alumni/ae.

Joe E. Pennel Jr., MDiv’64, DMin’77, and the Rev. Julius R. Scruggs, MDiv’68, DMin’75, are this year’s recipients for Vanderbilt Divinity School. The late Bishop William DeVeaux, MA’76, PhD’79, and Paul Lakeland, PhD’81, are the recipients for the Graduate Department of Religion.

“These notable alumni—nominated by their professional colleagues, former teachers, parishioners and friends—are the very embodiment of our leadership and service mission, and their lives and work have had immeasurable impact on their churches, communities and the world,” Yolanda Pierce, dean of the Divinity School, Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair and professor of religion and literature, said. “We’re immensely proud to call them our own and privileged to honor them as Distinguished Alumni/ae for 2023.”

Joe Pennel (submitted photo)
Joe Pennel (submitted photo)

Pennel has exemplified social justice, pastoral care and church administration throughout his career. He began his academic path at Lambuth University then continued his education at Vanderbilt Divinity School, earning a master’s in divinity in 1964 and a doctorate in ministry in 1977.

Shortly after, Pennel transferred from Memphis to the Tennessee Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Upon earning his doctorate, he pastored Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, where he served for 11 years, and then transitioned to Brentwood United Methodist Church, the largest church in the Tennessee Annual Conference, which he pastored for eight years before being elected to the Episcopacy in 1996. Pennel was then assigned to serve as bishop of the Virginia Annual Conference, the largest conference in the United Methodist Church. Pennel retired as bishop in 2004 and returned to Vanderbilt to join the Divinity School faculty as professor of the practice of leadership, a position in which he served until his retirement at the end of the fall 2022 semester.

In addition to his pastoral career, Pennel has published five books and numerous op-eds in The Tennessean. He is founder and chair of Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Schola Prophetarum giving society and provides leadership to the school’s Board of Visitors. A Divinity School scholarship has been endowed in his honor. Pennel continues to share his wealth of experience and heart for ministry with a new generation of church leaders, embodying the spirit of lifelong learning and service.

Julius Scruggs (submitted photo)
Rev. Julius Scruggs (submitted photo)

Scruggs has dedicated his career to fostering social consciousness and contributing to religious and community causes. He earned his bachelor’s degree from American Baptist College, followed by his master’s in divinity in 1968 and doctorate in ministry in 1975 from Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Scruggs’ pastoral journey began in 1965. In 1977 he started his service as pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. FMBC appointed a task force in 1981 to determine if an African American church-sponsored child development center and academy was needed in Huntsville. Soon after, Scruggs founded the Julius R. Scruggs Child Development Center and Academy, which provides a quality educational program with an emphasis on Christian education. In 2009 he led the church in creating the FMBC Foundation, which strives to perpetuate Baptist faith and discipleship through the support of biblically based initiatives. Scruggs served FMBC as senior pastor for 42 years, uniting nearly 5,000 members at the church during his tenure, until his retirement in 2019.

Scruggs has served as a member of the Board of Trustees at American Baptist College, as a member of the National Board of Directors for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and as a member and former president of the Greater Huntsville Interdenominational Ministerial Fellowship.

In 2009 he was elected president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the oldest and largest African American religious convention in the nation, where Scruggs provided support to establish disaster and emergency relief initiatives for poor communities of color across the country through the end of his term in 2014. In addition to his pastoral and community service, he has authored four books and received numerous academic accolades and awards. Throughout his career Scruggs has been a sought-after preacher, with his teaching firmly rooted in biblical principles, doctrinal soundness and a life-centered approach.

Bishop William DeVeaux (submitted photo)
Bishop William DeVeaux (submitted photo)

DeVeaux left an enduring legacy of faith, service and education throughout his storied career serving the church and society. His academic path began at Howard University in 1962, where he showcased not only academic prowess, but also social activism. Answering the call to ordained ministry while at Howard, DeVeaux served in the United States Army as an African Methodist Episcopal chaplain during the Vietnam War. His service extended beyond the pulpit to bring comfort and solace to troops in combat. After Vietnam he attended Vanderbilt Divinity School, earning his master’s degree in 1976 and his doctorate in theological ethics in 1979. While working on his degrees, he served as pastor of an AME church in Nashville.

DeVeaux was named executive director of the Fund for Theological Education, where he fostered scholarships that supported Black, Hispanic and Native American students’ theological education. Following his years at the fund, DeVeaux was appointed pastor of the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, D.C., arguably the most significant congregation in the AME denomination. During his tenure at the church, he also held a leadership role in the larger Washington, D.C., religious community on issues related to HIV/AIDS and racial tensions in the city.

Consecrated as the 113th bishop of the AME Church in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1996, DeVeaux served in various Episcopal districts, leaving an indelible mark on each. He then served as the presiding bishop of the Sixth Episcopal District of the AME Church and then the Second Episcopal District, with his leadership again extending to multiple Episcopal districts until his retirement in 2016. Beyond pastoral commitments, DeVeaux’s influential role as chairman of the Board of Trustees for Morris Brown College and Turner Theological Seminary at the Interdenominational Theological Center solidifies his legacy of transformative contributions to the church and society.

DeVeaux died in 2021 at age 80. He left a profound impact on the AME Church and the communities in which he served, a testament to a life dedicated to faith, service and social activism.

Paul Lakeland (submitted photo)
Paul Lakeland (submitted photo)

Lakeland’s esteemed career has spanned more than four decades, with contributions to Catholic studies that include scholarship, teaching, research and collaborative leadership. He began his studies at Oxford University, earning a master’s in English language and literature in 1976, then continued at the University of London, completing his bachelor’s in divinity in 1977. Lakeland rounded out his academic studies at Vanderbilt University, earning his doctorate in religion in 1981.

Upon earning his Ph.D., he began teaching at Fairfield University in Connecticut. There he served for 10 years as chair of the Department of Religious Studies and six years as director of the honors program. In 2004 he was named the inaugural Aloysius P. Kelley, S.J., Professor of Catholic Studies and the founding director of the Center for Catholic Studies. During his time at Fairfield, he taught courses in liberation theology, Catholic ecclesiology and religion and literature. Lakeland retired from Fairfield in spring 2023.

Beyond his academic achievements, Lakeland has received numerous accolades and awards, including the Monika Hellwig Award for contributions to the Catholic intellectual tradition from the Association of Catholic Universities. The author of numerous scholarly articles and 10 books, Lakeland’s most recent work, The Wounded Angel: Fiction and the Religious Imagination, received the 2018 College Theology Society Award for the Best Book in Theology. Lakeland is a member of several prestigious organizations, including the American Academy of Religion, the American Theological Society, the College Theology Society and the Catholic Theological Society of America, where he served as president in 2018–19.

With Lakeland’s years of innovative dedication and service to Fairfield University and numerous achievements and contributions to the Catholic Church, he leaves a legacy that will undoubtedly continue to shape the landscape of Catholic studies for years to come.

Vanderbilt Divinity School is honored to celebrate these distinguished alumni/ae, recognizing their diverse journeys, commitment to theological service and significant impact on society. As these individuals continue to inspire current and future generations, their stories become an integral part of the Divinity School’s legacy.