Schools, churches forge stronger connections

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When students head to college, they usually leave behind their home church. But the connections United Methodist-related colleges, universities and seminaries are building with local churches offer congregants the opportunity to pursue knowledge, while students find fresh ways to live out their faith.

“The work that higher education institutions and churches are doing together proves the value of the United Methodist connection,” said Melanie Overton, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry assistant general secretary for schools, colleges and universities. “I only wish we could highlight what is being done at every college, university and all 13 theological schools, instead of just a few.”

Supporting churches’ intellectual life

Projects in Denver and Boston illustrate how United Methodist seminaries work with churches.

“’Iliff on the Road’ is about empowering the laity and furthering the intellectual life of the church,” said Albert Hernandez, senior vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Iliff School of Theology. Faculty members teach Sunday school at churches within 60 miles of Denver.

The series offered by Iliff at Trinity United Methodist Church is the most popular Sunday school offering the Denver church has, said the Rev. Michael Dent, senior pastor. He said the classes offer a deeper study of the Bible, Christian theology, and the modern world religious landscape.

“We have 119 people on the roll, with an average attendance of 62 this fall. People pay $50 tuition,” Dent said. The tuition provides the professors with a small honorarium. Scholarships are available.

Undergirding church plants, revitalization

At Boston University School of Theology, students have worked on multiple projects in new church development and church renewal in New England through the Center for Practical Theology or the Rev. Bryan Stone’s evangelism, new church development and church renewal classes.

Stone said students have been involved in varying degrees of intensity with at least a dozen new church starts over the past 15 years.

“I teach evangelism each year, and students are required to do a major study, either of an existing congregation or some social ‘context.’ They analyze the context, think theologically about evangelism and the mission of the church in that context, and then strategize practices of outreach and renewal in that context,” Stone said. Many students work with United Methodist churches.

“The benefit to the students is probably much greater than to the churches,” he said, “but that is not always the case, and often the students doing the research are the pastors.”

The Rev. Mary Elizabeth Moore, dean of Boston University’s School of Theology, said it trains mission groups and offers workshops for churches. Many individual faculty and students serve in churches. University centers conduct studies, such as the clergywomen’s retention study done by the Anna Howard Shaw Center with the Board of Higher Education and Ministry. In addition, the local district superintendent plans to have office hours on campus so she can be available to United Methodist candidates for ministry.

Creating leadership opportunities

Worship outreach teams from Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., go into nearby churches and lead worship at denominational events such as Imagine What’s NEXT – an event for the United Methodist Student Movement.

“For me, the goal of worship outreach is to connect people to God through music,” said Lindsey Graber, a worship outreach team member and a United Methodist. “I have grown a lot through this program.”

Some church-related colleges and universities have leadership institutes, such as the Reynolds Institute for Church Leadership at Greensboro College in North Carolina.

As one of the many initiatives intended to strengthen the school’s ties with United Methodist churches and educate leaders, the Reynolds Institute strives to be the model of church-related higher education in the area by figuring out how it can help meet the needs of local churches with its own set of resources as an academic institution.

Forging partnerships with congregations

Church-related schools often form a close relationship with a particular church. DePauw University’s partnership with Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church in Greencastle, Ind., is a good example.

The Rev. Kate Smanik, assistant dean of students for spirituality, service and social justice at DePauw, said the school continues to build a relationship with the church.

Two years ago, she was invited to join a committee considering better ways to serve the community. One result was a mentoring program for children that meets the needs of the community and connects DePauw students to Gobin. This project and others continue to serve the Greencastle community.

“Other students partner with the church in service projects that benefit the community,” Smanik said. “For some students, their participation in the Gobin community may be their first experience of being a part of a church as an adult, separate from their family connections to the church. The experience helps the students grow and allows Gobin to offer programs that the congregation would not be able to support on its own.

“Creating these connections strengthens the university’s ties to the community and helps students explore and imagine their future roles in the civic square,” said Smanik.

Adapted from an article by Vicki Brown that first appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Interpreter magazine.

Updated by Natalie Bannon

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