Phillips to attend Columbia Theological Seminary

Phillips to attend Columbia Theological Seminary

May 20, 2019 

As the son of a Presbyterian pastor, it’s not surprising that Sam Phillips ’19 chose to pursue ministry after graduating from Maryville College.

Phillips was accepted to Columbia Theological Seminary and will begin studies there this summer.

But his path was not linear.

During high school, Phillips knew he wanted to do something with ecology, but he wasn’t sure how to explore that interest. Ministry was in the back of his mind, but his father encouraged him to look at other options. He enrolled at a large, state university to study environmental science but quickly learned that a large school was not for him.

“I just didn’t fit in there,” said Phillips, who is from Knoxville and a graduate of Bearden High School. “I was looking for a bigger sense of community, and I couldn’t find a faith group.”

Through connections at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, of which Phillips’ father is senior pastor, Phillips was encouraged to check out Maryville College. During winter break, Kathleen Farnham, director of church relations at MC and a member of Westminster, showed him around campus and arranged for him to sit in on classes.

After that visit to MC, Phillips quickly knew he’d found the right place – and he enrolled at MC that spring.

“Maryville College is blessed by broad and deep relationships with the larger community of faith,” Farnham said. “When pastors and lay leaders are knowledgeable about the unique experience of learning, faith and service at MC, they are better able to connect their outstanding young leaders with the College. The mentors understand the needs and interests of the students, as well as the character and programs of MC. This was certainly true for Sam and his home church, who knew that Sam would flourish in a place where he could explore, grow and commit.”

Ecology and Religion

His first philosophy class with Dr. Bill Meyer, MC professor of philosophy and the Ralph W. Beeson Professor of Religion, reaffirmed his decision to attend MC and helped him see that his initial academic interests – ecology and religion/ministry – could go hand-in-hand. He decided to major in religion.

“I learned about ways that religion and ecology can interact with each other and how we interpret the Hebrew Bible to address ecological crisis,” Phillips said. “It was the academic side of religious studies that brought me back to the Church.”

Meyer’s class also influenced Phillips’ Senior Study, which is titled “Reading the Hebrew Bible with Ecological Eyes.”

Phillips also immersed himself in campus life, joining student organizations, such as the Progressive Christian Community, and attending weekly chapel.

“With the Progressive Christian Community, it was so nice to have a group of peers and students who support and look out for one another,” he said. “Chapel provided opportunities to hear a diverse range of speakers, and it helped me mold my sense of calling and my expression for what God is.” 

Hands-On Experience

Through his Church and College Fellowship, which is awarded to students who are active members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and who are committed to providing volunteer service to local Presbyterian churches, Phillips worked with several local churches, including Concord Presbyterian Church and New Providence Presbyterian Church as a youth pastor and Fountain City Presbyterian Church as a youth intern.

A summer internship at Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Ala., was “one of the most foundational things” Phillips did during his MC career. The internship is part of Maryville College’s “Training Future Church Leaders Project,” which is funded through a grant from Independent Presbyterian and aims to prepare students for ministry and church leadership.

“Since sophomore year, I had been on the verge of deciding to go into seminary, and this experience solidified the things that were important,” he said.

In addition to getting experience with preaching and chaplaincy, Phillips worked with the church’s urban farm ministry.

“The urban farm ministry helped me find the connections between my interests, and I became interested in working with food insecurities in an urban setting,” he said. “Instead of only seeing the traditional forms of ministry, I was able to explore nontraditional forms of ministry and ways it can be expanded.”

Graduate School Plans

Phillips was accepted – and received a full scholarship – to Princeton Theological Seminary, but he decided to pursue a Master of Divinity degree at Columbia Theological Seminary for several reasons. He liked the institution’s urban setting near Atlanta, Ga., and he was interested in studying with some of Columbia’s faculty, including Dr. William Brown, whom Phillips cited in his Senior Study.

 “Sam possesses the perfect mix of intellectual acumen and spiritual curiosity to become an excellent graduate student in theology,” said Meyer, who served as Phillips's advisor. “Furthermore, he has the right blend of personal, emotional, psychological, moral and intellectual qualities to become an outstanding minister––one who can listen attentively, feel compassionately, discern wisely, judge fairly, think critically and communicate effectively.”


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2018 semester is 1,154.