The statement was signed by 28 white Methodist ministers and provoked considerable controversy among its citizens. These actions have since been chronicled in a history of civil rights advocacy in the State.
From 1978 to 1991, James served as Dean of the Candler School of Theology Emory University, the largest United Methodist seminary in the United States. While Dean of the School of Theology, he also served as the first Director of the Carter Centre in the establishment of a new institute to address issues of international and domestic policy. In addition to his administrative roles, he held a faculty appointment at Emory University at the Griggs Candler Professor of Divinity.
In 1991, James became Executive Director of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), the principal accrediting association of theological institutions in North America. As executive Director of ATS, he led the Association in the first comprehensive review of the standards of accreditation in its history. Programmes of faculty support, including the establishment of a new Faculty Resource Centre and the Henry Luce III and Lilly Theological Research Fellowships, characterized his administration. New initiative focusing on the needs of racial and ethnic minorities, the impact of technology on theological curricula, and the public character and obligations of theological schools were also undertaken.
James is a graduate of Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, and holds advanced degrees from Yale University Divinity School, and the University of Chicago in Political Science. He is the recipient of four honorary degrees. He is a former member of the visiting committee of the Harvard Divinity School, and a former trustee of the Centre of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1999, he was awarded the distinguished service award by Yale University Divinity School for his contributions to theological education. He is a former trustee of LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia, of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach Florida, and was a member of the University Senate of the United Methodist Church from 1982 to 1990. In this latter capacity, he served as a member of the Planning Committee for the newly established Africa University, focusing on the curriculum and personnel of the School of Theology.
Until 2002, James was a member of the Board of In Trust, a publication for trustees and administrators of theological schools in North America, and until 2007 served as a member of the Advisory Board of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. He is a former trustee of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions and is now Chair Emeritus of the Board of the Society for the Arts in Religious and Theological Studies (SARTS), a scholarly organization which he helped found.
In 1998, James resigned as Executive Director of the ATS to undertake new responsibilities as President of the Fund for Theological Education (FTE), Inc., a –55 year – old national fellowship programme that promotes excellence and diversity among candidates for the Christian Ministry. The FTE, with offices in Atlanta, supports a series of initiatives to encourage young people in their exploration of religious vocations and to increase the supply of racial and ethnic minority persons for careers of teaching and research in theological education. He retired from the position of President in December 2003, and was elected President Emeritus. In 2008, he was appointed Asa G. Candler Emeritus Professor of Divinity of Emory University.
In Atlanta, James served as Chair of the Georgia Prison Ministries Project, a member of the Board of Directors of the Olmsted Linear Park Alliance, and advisor to a number of non- profit agencies. Since 1992, he has served as the religion consultant to the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations in Jacksonville, Florida.
In 2012, he was elected as a member of the Board of Directors of Africa University and served on the Executive Committee. In this capacity he also co-chaired the Board’s Special Commission on the future of the University and served on the University’s Endowment Campaign Advisory Committee. He is married to Fentress Boone Waits and the couple have two adult children and three grandchildren.