The Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence at SMU has received a $250,000 gift from the Robert H. and Beverly U. Fowler Foundation of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The gift will allow the Center to launch innovative initiatives and continue its current programs from a foundation of financial stability in years to come.

“In these tough times, good preaching has never been more crucial,” said Dr. Alyce M. McKenzie, Director of the Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence at SMU.  “We are grateful for this gift, which will allow us to continue to inspire and equip those whom God has called to the preaching task through the work of the Center.”

The Robert H. and Beverly U. Fowler Foundation, established by Dr. McKenzie’s parents in 1998, generally gives gifts to non-profit organizations in central Pennsylvania that work against hunger and support literacy and the arts.  However, the trustees – Dr. McKenzie’s siblings, Susanna Weil, Robert Fowler, Jr., and Wade Fowler – saw an opportunity to make a significant contribution to the life and vitality of the United Methodist Church through this grant. They view it as a way of honoring their parents’ legacy by investing in a venture that combines elements of those things that were most important to them: their Christian faith, education, history, and community service.

Founded in 2013, the Center’s mission is to “enhance transformative preaching in local congregations.” Its motto is “Share the Story, Shape the World!”  The Center forms and supports preaching peer groups of pastors in the field, pairs experienced pastors as mentors for Introduction to Preaching students, and sponsors continuing education events for students and area clergy. Recently, it has increased its online resources to offer webinars and a series of informative interviews called “What’s A Preacher to Do?” that focuses on the challenge of preaching in a “twin pandemic” of COVID-19 and systemic racism.

The Center for Preaching Excellence at SMU was originally funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc. as part of its Preaching Initiative Grants given to several seminaries in 2013.  That Endowment has cited the Center as a stellar example of what it hoped to accomplish through the grant.

Robert and Beverly Fowler, lifelong Methodists and natives of North Carolina, met at Guilford College in the early 1950s. Their shared love of history and literature inspired a publishing venture that became Historical Times, Inc. In the early 1960s Robert (1926-2002) turned his passionate interest in the Civil War into a magazine titled Civil War Times Illustrated just in time for the centennial of the Battle of Gettysburg. As time went on other magazines were added to the repertoire including American History Illustrated, Early American Life, British History Illustrated, Fly Fisherman and Bow Hunter.  Along the way he wrote seven historical novels, most notably Jim Mundy which many critics considered on par with The Red Badge of Courage. Beverly Fowler, who passed away in January of 2020, was not only an invaluable partner in these enterprises, but also the author of a popular weekly human-interest column in the Perry County Times for 30 years, and a supporter of libraries and literacy in central Pennsylvania.

In a letter to Wade Fowler, retired newspaper editor and the executor of the Fowler Foundation, Perkins Development Director Dr. John Martin wrote: “Your gift is a sign of confidence, not only in your sister Alyce’s leadership and accomplishments, but in the importance of the ministry and mission of Perkins School of Theology in these changing times. The Center not only enhances the preaching skills of current students, it also continues to be instrumental in improving the level of communication in many United Methodist conferences and in other denominational groups. Thank you for your generosity to SMU, Perkins School of Theology, and the Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence.”

In addition to directing the Center, Dr. McKenzie serves as the Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins and as an Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor at SMU. A prolific author and popular teacher, preacher, and workshop leader, she is a former president of the Academy of Homiletics, and in 2015 was chosen to offer the prestigious Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School.

In directing the Center, she works closely with her colleague Dr. O. Wesley Allen, Jr., Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Perkins who, in her words, “acts as an invaluable consultant in both the visioning and implementation of the Center’s programs. “

Reflecting on the gift to the Center from the Fowler Foundation, Dr. McKenzie says, “I’m honored by my siblings’ generosity and look forward to living out our Center’s motto ‘Share the Story, Shape the World’ in the years to come.”