The efforts were successful. In 1955–1956, the Fund received more than 330 nominations, and awarded 47 fellowships to candidates representing 37 colleges and universities across North America. Diversity was a priority. Three women and two African Americans, including the Rev. William Gray, were among the first Fellows.
By the end of the first full year, academia, church and the public were celebrating the success of the Fund. More importantly, RBF staff was pleased with the program, recommending that the trustees renew it for another three years. It was the first of many renewals, and over the next two decades the “Trial-Year” Fellowships formed the most visible effort of the Fund.
Nominations increased steadily as the Fellows engendered a vibrant, connective community focused on vocational discernment and a “lively and probing academic atmosphere.”
An era of expansion had begun. In 1958, a request was put to the AATS board to implement a program to develop leaders within theological institutions. The Rockefeller Doctoral Fellowships were formed to support current doctoral students who exhibited “unusual promise as theological school teachers and scholars.” The program nearly doubled the Fund’s yearly budget.
As the 1950s came to a close, the original name of the Fund, the American Association of Theological Schools Fund, had become insufficient to encapsulate the work of the organization. Executive director Walter Wagoner proposed that the board revise the founding charter to become The Fund for Theological Education (FTE), reflecting its broader concerns and opening itself to new funding sources.
The board adopted the new name and charter in 1960, extending its original mission yet retaining close identification with the Rockefeller name in key programming. The first area of focus was to address the issue of underrepresentation of racial and ethnic groups in theological institutions and ministry.
During the 1960s, FTE endeavored to broaden its initiatives for historically underrepresented students, and earned a reputation for being a resource-rich, diverse community. The organization viewed this effort as important to its commitment to strengthening the Protestant ministry as a whole.
Recruitment of African Americans into theological study was the most pressing concern at the time. There was a dearth of leadership within African American churches. Students of color faced discrimination and segregation, and many were raised in a tradition of non-seminary trained ministers.
The Protestant Fellowship Program (PFP) specifically addressed the particular issues of race and ministry. PFP was designed to provide annually renewable support for 35 African American seminary students and college seniors. While recruiting efforts were ambitious, only 24 fellowships were offered that first year, reflecting a commitment to the highest standards of quality. This program would make an impact for close to 30 years, cultivating diversity in the theological landscape.
In close affiliation with the AATS, FTE grew as a catalyst for identifying and supporting gifted leaders for ministry; and for the wider inclusion of African American, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American doctoral students preparing to teach in theological schools. The founding mission was planted firmly, and thriving.