In 1997, while attending a meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in Vancouver, Canada, a group of Baptist leaders from the Northern Virginia area, decided that God was leading them to launch an evangelical seminary to prepare both men and women to become Christian leaders in ministry. After returning to the D.C. area they quickly enlisted the help of other key ministers and lay leaders and developed the vision for a seminary that would focus its preparation on those who already lived in the D.C. area. Classes would be held mostly at night, allowing those with full-time day jobs to enroll in the school. They also decided to seek the highest possible academic standard for seminaries—accreditation by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). The leaders named the school after John Leland, a Virginia Baptist minister of the late 1700 and early 1800s. The school was named for him for three reasons: because he was a pastor and evangelist, leading hundreds of people to accept Christ; he opposed slavery; and he worked strongly to establish religious freedom for all people.
Dr. Randel Everett, one of the visionary founders of the school, became the first president, and Dr. Jeff Willetts became the first Academic Dean. Mrs. Sheila Everett became the first Dean of Students. To emphasize the need to be prepared for global ministry, the school began to recruit an international faculty. Their first hire was Dr. Daniel Carro, a Baptist leader from Argentina. Later he was joined on the small but academically stellar faculty by Dr. Daniel Dapaah from Ghana, Dr. Tarmo Toom of Estonia, Dr. Andrey Shirin of Russia, and Dr. John Lee, a Korean-American, who eventually became the school’s second Academic Dean.
Columbia Baptist Church provided the space for classrooms, offices and library from the day the first classes were held in 1998 until 2002. Then the seminary moved to the Church at Clarendon where it occupied 11,000 square feet of that church’s educational building. The school achieved full accreditation from ATS in 2006, allowing it also to join the prestigious Washington Theological Consortium. Dr. Everett resigned shortly thereafter, believing he had helped birth the school and guided it through the crucial early years. In 2007, the trustees called Dr. Mark Olson to serve as the school’s second president, and he continues to serve in that office today.
As Virginia Baptists called for the school to offer classes at other key locations in the state, Leland eventually opened satellite locations at the First Baptist Church of Newport News and at Bonsack Baptist Church in Roanoke. As people with no college education sought out Leland and asked the school to help prepare them for ministry, Leland developed its School of Ministry, featuring Diploma classes pitches at the undergraduate level.
The school initially offered an innovative Master of Divinity (M. Div.) degree to those who planned to become pastors and a Master of Theological Studies (M.T.S.) degree for those who eventually hoped to become theological professors. In 2009 the seminary sought and won approval from ATS to offer the Master of Christian Leadership (M.C.L.) degree, designed to help people prepare to become youth ministers, children’s ministers, directors of women’s ministries and other ministries outside the local church.
The biggest upheaval in Leland’s young life came in 2009 when the host church, the Church at Clarendon, launched a massive rebuilding campaign. This initiative caused Leland to move into temporary quarters at the Baptist World Alliance building in Falls Church. Leland’s offices and library were quartered at BWA from 2009-2011, while classes were held across the street at Columbia Baptist Church. In 2011 Leland returned to Clarendon, signing a 15-year lease to return to the second floor of the Church at Clarendon’s educational building. The newly renovated building featured all new windows, flooring, dropped ceilings, lighting fixtures, sprinkler systems, elevator, and a keyless “fob”-style entry. In 2012, Leland was awarded a 10-year reaccreditation by the Association of Theological Schools, highlighting the school’s academic and institutional progress.