The following text was published as an article in the UM reporter.
United Methodism and Higher Education: A 21st Century Perspective
United Methodism has been an avid advocate, instigator and supporter of higher education from the get-go. Though not without occasional resistance, throughout the history of our precursor denominations, United Methodism founded and fostered the growth of numerous colleges, universities and theological schools, many of which still exist to serve both Church and society in the United States and in other countries.
Why did we do this? The reasons were theological, missional and practical; and I will argue they are still relevant, with new applications and concerns today.
The Wesleyan and German pietist theology of our denominational forebears posited a God of love who desires all the best for humanity, who calls believers in Jesus Christ to love God and to love their neighbors (defined as anyone in need) as themselves. Hence John Wesley’s directives to all Methodists to “do good” and practice abundantly “acts of charity” in the world as evidence of this love and a witness to the grace of Jesus Christ.
To do good in societies where formal education was not available for many meant to the Methodists, Evangelicals and United Brethren that they must do what they could to provide it. Sacrificially they set about founding and developing schools not only to meet educational needs in general, but also as a means for preparing persons for ministry and for the mission field, in order to extend and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. It only made sense to serve the well-being and mission of the Church by educating persons gifted and graced for these callings while also serving the welfare of individuals and the world.
In the twenty-first century, what stake does United Methodism have in higher education? Our embrace of practical and theological reasons to continue this good work remains evident. Presumably we have secured excellent educational institutions to which we may send our own and our neighbors’ children as well as our candidates for ministry. One may argue that United Methodism still regards this work as an important ministry to both Church and society and a witness to a loving God expressed in the redemptive Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The larger question is: what will United Methodism do in the twenty-first century about our stake in meeting worldwide missional needs in higher education? In what has become a largely declining and theologically divided denomination, is it within the scope of our self-understanding to be as concerned as we were in the past three centuries (eras of denominational growth) about underserved regions of the world—including parts of the U.S.—where wholesome formal education is still difficult if not impossible to access?
United Methodism possesses a compelling theological heritage and ample historical precedents in support of extending itself to serve such missional needs. My own experience in United Methodist higher education suggests that we can still make a difference in the world by overcoming some significant but not impossible challenges. These include: (1) retooling our institutions of higher education with contemporary educational technologies and methodologies that make it more possible than ever to serve the underserved, (2) moving beyond a self-fulfilling prophecy, mentality and program of denominational decline, and (3) reclaiming and proclaiming in word and deed a robust, Wesleyan and pietistic theology of personal and social holiness that boldly, sacrificially and generously expresses the incarnational love of God in the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.
Over time, some of our UM-related institutions of higher education have distanced themselves from association with faith-based foundations or purposes (except from an academic perspective). However, those of us who are leaders in United Methodist-related higher education should remember well that we are stewards not only of the resources of our respective institutions, but of a legacy of faith and sacrificial love that was never intended to serve only ourselves, our own children and churches while leaving the world around us to fend for itself.
Wendy J. Deichmann, Ph.D.
President, United Theological Seminary