In 1997, a group of Baptist leaders from Northern Virginia, while attending a meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in Vancouver, Canada, decided that God was leading them to launch an evangelical seminary to prepare both men and women for leadership 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. The seminary would focus on serving persons living 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 from Estonia, Dr. Andrey Shirin from Russia, and Dr. John Lee, a Korean-American, who eventually became the school’s second Academic Dean. Many excellent and diverse adjunct professors have also served the seminary through the years.
Columbia Baptist Church in Falls 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 educational building of the Church at Clarendon, located in the heart of the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington just two blocks from the metro subway station. The school achieved full accreditation from ATS in 2006, allowing it 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. Dr. Olson resigned in August 2017 to accept a call to pastor the Haymarket Baptist Church in Northern Virginia. The Rev. J. Brent Walker served as interim president from 2017 until January 2019. In late January 2019, Dr. William H. (Bill) Smith became the president and Michael (Mike) Hines became the provost.
As Virginia Baptists called for the school to offer classes at other key locations in the state, Leland opened satellite locations at the First Baptist Church of Newport News and at Bonsack Baptist Church in Roanoke. More recently, Leland further expanded its satellite locations to Parkwood Baptist Church in Annandale, First Baptist Church of Ashland, Memorial Baptist Church of Staunton, Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Troy near Charlottesville, and a Spanish language program at Groveton Baptist Church in Alexandria. 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 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 leaders of other ministries outside the local church. Through the years, programs were also developed providing for Graduate Certificates in Theological Studies, Leadership Studies, Theology and Public Life, Spiritual Formation, Justice Formation (Fall 2020), and Theology and the Arts (Fall 2020).
In 2009, the host church, the Church at Clarendon, launched a massive and innovative rebuilding campaign that provided affordable housing in an apartment building built above the church. This initiative caused Leland to move into temporary quarters at the Baptist World Alliance building in Falls Church. Leland’s offices and library were housed at the 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 educational building. In 2012, Leland was awarded a 10-year reaccreditation by ATS, highlighting the school’s academic and institutional progress.