Rebounding from Crisis, United is Among Fastest-Growing Theological Schools in U.S.

Originally posted in the Dayton Daily News
Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Seminary to Build Student Apartments in Dayton for Those Who Feel Called to Urban Ministry
Posted: 12:05 a.m. Sunday, June 23, 2013
By Ron Rollins- Staff Writer

Focus on Education Q&A with Wendy J. Deichmann

“People have to respond to God’s call in their lives in their own way. But when you’re not even willing to get up to go to church, if your faith is not making a difference in your life, then what good is it?” asked Wendy J. Deichmann, president and CEO of United Theological Seminary.

A few Sundays ago, we featured a conversation with Antioch College President Mark Roosevelt about his efforts to revive the school that closed in 2008 and reopened in 2011. There is another local higher-education president who has been given the charge of restoring her once-ailing, very historic institution to health: Wendy J. Deichmann, the president and CEO of United Theological Seminary in Trotwood. The school, affiliated with the United Methodist Church, was founded in 1871 by Bishop Milton Wright, the Wright brothers’ father. Since 1920, it was located on a historic campus in West Dayton. In 2005, it bought a modern campus from the Dayton Jewish Federation and moved there in 2005. The move crimped United’s finances and caused problems Deichmann inherited as she also was attempting to advance the school in a time when membership in the United Methodist and other mainstream, middle-of-the-road denominations is falling. We caught up with her a few weeks ago to talk about these issues and more.

Q: How did you end up here? What was your path?

A: My first connection with United was Leonard Sweet. He was my pastor in Genesee, N.Y., at the state university there. He came to United years later and served as president, and I moved to Ohio to complete my Ph.D. and we stayed in touch. He called when he needed an adjunct to teach church history back in the mid-’90s. One thing led to another — when United opened it extension program in Buffalo, which was where my family was, I got on faculty there. When that program was closed, they brought me to this campus to teach church history. I moved here in 2004, and no sooner had I arrived, they were looking for an academic dean and I was invited to apply. My timing was great. We had our 10-year accreditation review and hired three new faculty, so it was nuts. Two years later, the president resigned. Here at United, the academic dean is first vice president, so I became acting president for a few months, and the board of trustees asked me to apply for president. I had no interest whatsoever, but they liked what they had seen and really wanted me to do it. It was becoming evident the school was struggling, and I was here anyway, right?

Q: How’s it gone?

A: I have learned that I really enjoy large challenges, and this work. Things are going well, and I think there is nothing so important as what we were doing here. We have a great team.

Q: Was there a precipitating event that made you change your mind about wanting the job?

A: Well, part of it was that the seminary has endured some extreme hardships during a crisis from before I took over as president. We’re still in recovery, but we’re out of the crisis as of, say, a year and a half ago. After one has gone through the valleys I’ve gone through to build up a historic institution that has great value, it’s not something you want to let go of easily. It matters too much. And I feel I’ve been given a gift by God for this work and to be able to do it. It’s a calling.

Q: Recap the crisis for us.

A: When the seminary relocated from its old campus to this campus, despite a quite successful fundraising campaign, it incurred a significant mortgage it could not really afford. At the same time, we had a precipitous drop in enrollment; when the school moved, a lot of people thought it had closed and disappeared. It was hard to get information about the school. That went on for about four or five months. There were internal issues as well. When I became president, I had to make staff changes. We rebuilt the enrollment team to be one of the best, honestly, in theological education. It’s one of the reasons we’re one of the fastest-growing theological schools in America, and bucking every trend. The trend overall in theological education enrollment for several years has been gradual decline, but we have tripled our enrollment in the last four years. Back to our previous situation, the big mortgage and the enrollment drop put us in a financial-aid danger zone that triggered alerts with our creditors and our sponsoring denomination, which triggered all kinds of investigations and false assumptions of wrongdoing. That wasn’t true; we were just poor. Then the recession hit.

Q: What did you do?

A: We had to cut 20 percent of the budget as soon as possible, so that we could move forward. We had to find every dollar we could. We cut every staff salary, including my own. Faculty salaries were frozen. Everyone had to participate in the turnaround for it to work. We’ve gradually restored all the salaries. We did lose one non-tenured professor during the cutbacks, so we were down to a bare minimum faculty and student body. Meanwhile, we were working with the faculty on a curriculum based around church renewal — trying to deal with a denomination in sharp decline. We realized that in 20 or 30 years, none of us might have jobs. We believe God is always working to being hope, new life and renewal to the church, so if it’s struggling, then something is wrong and we have to address it.

Q: What does renewal mean, in this context?

A: It’s emotional and practical — how can we be both spiritually healthy and theologically credible?

Q: So, the decline is mostly happening among mainstream, traditional denominations such as United Methodist that are less evangelical. Why do you think it’s happening?

A: Well, God is still God, so it’s probably us humans who have stopped stepping up to the plate. We need to look at what we’re doing that we need to do differently. That starts with humbling prayer. But then we need to look to the Bible and see what it teaches about renewal — how in our teaching of theology do we address issues of how God is teaching us to run our finances, how we preach, how we worship, how we demonstrate the ethics of what we regard as Christian, and put those things at the core of our curriculum. There are lots of examples of renewal in the history of the church. And we can look around and see great examples of renewal in the life of the church today — there are strong, healthy churches in mainstream denominations. How can we learn from them, and bring their leaders in to speak to our classes?

Q: What are some of those churches doing right?

A: They have dynamic, relevant worship services that are attractive to young people, they have sound biblical and theological preaching and teaching and are committed to ministry among the poor — so they act to do something that makes a difference in the world, and people care about that. Young people care about that. If they go to church, they want to hear a message that speaks to them at their age level, and hear prayers and music that speak to them where they are. Why go to church if it doesn’t speak to your life and have meaning in the world? It helps to have a state-of-the-art staff and marketing capacity. But it also matters that you are making a sacrificial engagement on the part of the church and on behalf of the world — look at what you’re doing in Dayton, but also in Darfur. Lots of churches have mission projects, but are they setting out to change a whole city, a whole nation? This is really about taking the gospel seriously enough so that you’re willing to give everything you’ve got to take God’s will and change the world to make it a better place.

Q: Can you bottle that?

A: You can’t bottle it, but you can teach it when you bring the academic, the practical and the spiritual aspects of ministry together. But you have to start with the spiritual, and keep God at the center of everything you do. If you don’t, it’s all a sham. You have to ask, what does it mean that God has called me to be in this ministry? Then how do I become a pastoral person, ministering to the sick, preaching in a way that brings people to church, and marshaling the resources of the church to help the community? But it’s a business, too — just as what I had to do at this school was business. We have to teach that, too. When people ask me what’s going on at United, I say it’s a miracle — but we also had to have a business plan. We set goals that seemed unrealistic at first, we had some hard conversations with our board, and we overachieved all of them. But I do believe it’s about the renewal of the church. The church is a mess, and we are ripe for an awakening in the church and its place in the world.

Q: You mean, like the Great Awakening movements of the 18th century?

A: I think it’s time for a cultural shift in the life of the mainline denominations. The holiness and pentacostal churches are doing just fine, they’re growing. I don’t always agree with their theology, but they’re thriving. We should be thriving, too. They do lots of things very well — they believe in the power of God and the life of the believer to make a difference, and they have passion. They will sacrificially follow what they believe to be true, even to the point of taking risks and being criticized by those who disagree with them. Their goal is to convert as many people as possible to Christianity, and believe this is their calling.

Q: So, how do you address that?

A: It’s a lifestyle thing — a lot of the folks in mainline denominations feel they would go to church if they got nice music, good preaching and feel affirmed and edified with nothing to offend them. Maybe they’re a little stretched to challenge their faith, but not too much — then they want to go home to dinner, football and back to work on Monday. A comforting, vague sense of God rather than something that compels you to get out of bed with joy and forgiveness and changes your mind about how to spend your week and recharges your faith.

Q: Is there a happy medium?

A: Sure, there’s a whole spectrum. People have to respond to God’s call in their lives in their own way. But when you’re not even willing to get up to go to church, if your faith is not making a difference in your life, then what good is it?

Q: What you’re talking about is relevancy as you move into the future. What is United doing to stay relevant?

A: Well, based on the demographics of the Spanish-speaking Latino and Hispanic communities growing as quickly as they are in this country, we launched a program in February to prepare their leaders for ministry in their communities. I wish I could say we’d done it sooner, but it’s something established theological education institutions have struggled with. But it’s a very growing need. Also, there is our use of technology in theological education. We wanted to serve underserved populations in remote regions, and we’re using online teaching for that, developing hybrid programs. The whole universe is online now, and it’s where young people spend their time. God needs to be there, too. We’re teaching our students how to use technology and the Internet in advancing their churches and their ministries — blogs, websites, teaching, marketing. Letting the world know what you’re doing in your church. Some of our graduates are creating online worship services.

Q: What other programs?

A; We’ve also started a sports chaplaincy program. What is more important in our culture than sports? A lot of churches are concerned about the distraction from church that sports can be, but I say, yikes, it’s such a huge part of our culture, and athletes are the superstars of our culture, so what happens when you can engage them with faith? Why not do something so these icons can be encouraged to be positive role models for our kids?

Q: Do you think United lost something when it moved out of Dayton View to this new campus?

A: We are about to address that, with a homecoming of a sort. We all know there are very difficult problems with urban decline and decay throughout our nation and world, and United was given the opportunity to receive a gift of property in Dayton last year that we’ve accepted. We needed more space, and we were really interested in re-entering the urban setting and developing a lab for our students to learn about issues of urban ministry and urban renewal. So the gift was the old First United Methodist Church on Salem Avenue, where we’re going to build student apartments for those who feel called to urban ministry for their learning. We’ll develop partnerships with other churches and organizations in the neighborhood, and our students will be prepared to be change agents for renewal. There’s a movement called the New Monasticism, in which growing numbers of young people feel called to ministry in a stark community and will choose to go into a setting of poverty where they can make a difference. So this is under way. We’re very excited. There is so much urban blight and decline in cities across America, and I don’t think we should wait for some politician or big company to come along and do something about it. Really, people at the grassroots level can know they are valued, that they are the children of God, and that people are the best resource we have for renewal.

Q: What’s one thing you’d change about Dayton to make it a better place to live and work?

A: I am really concerned about the vacancy and the poverty, and I think we need to address that. And I think we can. I think we’re going to, all of us, as a larger Dayton community. We’re included in that. No entity can do it alone. I feel a real surge of collaboration to strengthen Dayton’s self-image and its image in the world. But to deal with the poverty and rundown, vacant buildings, I think we need to create more green space, create more programs for children, do more to support arts and music. We need to make all the resources of the regional available for our young people so that they want to stay here. And I fully expect United to continue to be a part of the renewal and well-being for this city. A lot of people don’t know about United, but we are a great resource for the community. I’ve spent most of my first five years here in crisis management and I’ve been limited in how much I’ve been able to get into the public and be that kind of presence. But I see that as my next phase.

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