Roadmap for Renewal

John Southwick

John Southwick

In United Methodist circles there is much talk about turning the denomination around. We have heard of the Four Areas of Focus and the 7 Pathways, Path1, and the Call to Action, and the Vital Congregations initiative. Time will tell if any of this makes much of a difference. Perhaps we should look at a situation that really has experienced renewal and turnaround within the UM camp and learn from it, especially if this was among the least likely, while at the same time, most significant contexts to find renewal.

When pundits attempt to describe what has led to decline in the UM Church, a long list of factors is usually suggested: demographic shifts, birth rates decreasing, cultural antagonism, poor church locations, and the list goes on. Some of these may have made a difference. However, a case can be made that when our denomination ceased to be a movement and became institutionalized, much of the fire left.

Nowhere is that more evident than in our education. When we had lay preachers on the frontier we grew tremendously. Once we became more established and created formal schooling, the fire diminished. The final blow was the encroachment of the liberal European theology and near total capitulation of our seminaries to it. Therefore, if one of our seminaries was to show dramatic renewal that could only be attributed to a supernatural move of God, perhaps this could be a sign to United Methodism and a source of hope. That has happened at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

The turnaround story begins at the bottom, as they usually do. The renewal at United was marked by a number of coincident events beginning in 2005. For one, the old campus was sold and UTS moved to a new facility. The former campus had old buildings that were expensive to maintain, and funds were tight. However, the move to the new building incurred substantial renovation costs that added to the squeeze. About this time, many of the faculty saw the writing on the wall and left.

Photo courtesy of United.

Photo courtesy of United.

Enter Dr. Wendy Deichmann. More correctly, enter into prominence, Dr. Deichmann. She was already part of the staff and had started on the satellite campus in Buffalo, but moved to Dayton when the satellite was closed. As vacancies opened, Deichmann filled them, and eventually became dean. She was on the search committee for a new president in the height of the crisis and then was named as interim president. Her fine performance led to her becoming president in 2008. During this time, critical hires were made – including Dr. David Watson (hired as a New Testament professor and subsequently promoted to Academic Dean and Vice President) and Dr. Jason Vickers (the prolific now Associate Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies).

That period of time was marked by desperation and new beginnings. “The great thing about being left dead in the water is that anything you try will be OK as one last shot before turning out the lights,” Vickers observed.

“From a marketing point of view, here is what happened. About seven years ago, the faculty at United Theological Seminary made a conscious decision to be more inclusive,” Vickers wrote in his blog several months ago. “In our case, being more inclusive meant being more hospitable to evangelicals, Pentecostals, and charismatics. We didn’t have many students, but the majority of our students at the time could be categorized as center-left mainline liberal-progressive. We were committed to diversity in theory but not in practice. The reality was that we were neither warm nor welcoming to the majority of Protestant Christians in the world, which is to say, to evangelicals, Pentecostals, and charismatics. From a business point of view, this was, in a word, stupid. We were fighting for a share of a rapidly shrinking pool, namely, center-left mainline liberal Protestants!



“We knew that if we were going to ‘reach out’ to evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic Christians, we were going to have to rebrand ourselves (note the crass language of business). And so we agreed as a faculty to focus our branding on three things: 1) basic Christian Orthodoxy; 2) holiness; and 3) church renewal. Gradually, prospective evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic students began to inquire about our school, and within a year, they began to show up. Of course, we did more than just paste these labels on our website. We also revised our curriculum to reflect these commitments. And we began to reach out to groups like Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (a charismatic oriented United Methodist renewal group).”

Vickers chronicled the difference he found on campus. “From a theological point of view, there is a very different story to be told. I arrived at United Theological Seminary when it was on death’s doorstep,” he wrote on his blog. “Faculty and staff were leaving, and new people were coming on board. We knew that the school was in trouble, but we came anyway. What we didn’t know is that God was at work behind the scenes. We didn’t realize that the Holy Spirit was already assembling a group of people who were all committed to 1) basic Christian Orthodoxy; 2) holiness; and 3) church renewal. We didn’t foresee that God was about to bring to United not only evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic students, but also evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic faculty and staff.”

From her perspective, Deichmann believes that the United turnaround was more of a sovereign work of God than a smart plan. “It’s all God at work: the Holy Spirit bringing opportunities to be Light to the World,” she told Good News. This statement was reflective of her demeanor as she shared the story. It was as though she was in touch with something too big to fully appreciate.

There would be challenges. A short time into her presidency, the recession hit. Many times she was forced to say “this is not possible.” But, “God worked a miracle. This is a miracle,” Deichmann repeated. She came up with a five-year plan which the trustees judged “was not possible.” “It was never really all about finances.” Five years later, nearly all the points of the five-year plan had been over achieved.

Vickers had asked Deichmann two probing questions. “What would it mean to be agents of renewal for The United Methodist Church? What does it take to have that commitment and prayer?””

It soon became clear to the leadership that everything begins with prayer. United then added a required course in church renewal and made curriculum revisions as well. Many of the faculty had to retool – and did.  She then started a rebranding initiative around a powerful tagline: United is “Spirit led, renewing the church.” She believes this is a prayer.

Dr. Pete Bellini, Assistant Professor in the Practice of Missiology, has identified three kinds of renewal United engages. Each has key visionary, “can do” leaders. The first is theological and consists of claiming the historic faith, cultivation of holiness, and the work of the Holy Spirit in renewing the church. The second is technological, and includes the online classes and degrees, as well as hybrid programs. The third is cultural and is reflected in the make-up of the student body. For example, 80 percent of Doctor of Ministry students are African American.

United’s tag line, “Spirit led, renewing the church,” includes not only an emphasis upon renewal, but also the work of the Holy Spirit. United has embraced this in stunning fashion for a United Methodist seminary. Not only has it welcomed Pentecostals and charismatics, it has hired them as faculty. Bellini said they now have a handful of “Charismethodists” faculty. The Holy Spirit emphasis is lived out in practice as well. Bellini said that many of the faculty open class with prayer and worship and have the ministry of laying on of hands during class. One student described it to me as being in a revival meeting.

Jason Vickers

Jason Vickers

United has also hosted two annual Holy Spirit Seminars. They have brought in big name speakers and invited men and women from beyond the seminary sphere to participate. While on campus for this story, I was able to attend the second one, held at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in nearby Tipp City, Ohio, in order to accommodate the large audience. During a full-fledged winter storm, hundreds showed up to hear the Rev. Randy Clark, a leading figure in the charismatic world with a long resume of involvement in spiritual renewal. Clark is a graduate of United’s Doctor of Ministry program. Five United faculty were present at the event, including the president. The seminar concluded with a ministry time and laying on of hands. (United has a special Doctor of Ministry group called Randy Clark Scholars who emphasize “Presenting the Gospel as Jesus intended: In love, authority, and signs and wonders.”)

Watson, academic dean, pointed out that United’s renewal is best understood in terms of the commitment of Deichmann and the new staff to Nicene, Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. Interestingly, not only were the new faculty on board with this, but when presented to those who had carried on from before, they agreed. Once that commitment was made, the students began to appear. As registration opened the following fall, rather than the usual numbers appearing, the faculty and staff were astonished to see the increase pouring in. Many outsiders looking at the United phenomenon rationalize that the increase in students is a result of adding online classes. Those present before the online classes are quick to point out that a substantial increase happened prior to that addition.

In fact, United now has a student body that is larger than all but a few of the 13 UM seminaries, having grown from roughly 150 students at the low point to more than 600 now. Prior to the new era of renewal at United, it was among the smallest, on the verge of extinction. No other seminary in the United States – United Methodist or otherwise – has experienced 400 percent growth in the last 10 years. United is one of the fastest growing seminaries in the United States and certainly in a class by itself among mainline seminaries.

United leads in innovation, not only in technology, as exemplified with their online degree studies, but in the unique degree offerings. For example, United offers Master of Divinity programs with possible concentrations in Church Renewal, Leadership, Care Giving, Methodist and Wesleyan Studies, and Global Charismatic Studies. In their latest creative move, UTS now offers a Doctor of Ministry in Sports Chaplaincy, as well. This is the first program of its type in the United States. Also on the doctoral level, United works with Aldersgate Renewal Ministries to host a Doctor of Ministry program in Global Supernatural Studies.

Many seminaries boast on their websites about their diversity and give statistics on student body composition and the variety of different religious groups represented, sometimes not even Christian. The ethnic diversity is very real among the students and faculty at United. While affirming orthodox Christianity, the faculty arrives there from many backgrounds. Sharing a great spiritual camaraderie, the faculty also playfully tease each other, and as Vickers said, “take great joy in resisting reducing people to liberal or conservative.” One well-attended faculty outing was to go skeet shooting at one of their farms. On the student side, the outreach to Pentecostals, evangelicals, and charismatics has brought in a very diverse cross section that is looking for a highly credentialed, established seminary in which to further their theological education. “United does not talk diversity, we practice it,” Vickers said.

The last several years since the desperate days have been quite a ride at United. This begs the question of where it will go from here. Will the growth continue? Are new innovations in store? What will God do?

Watson noted that the task is to stay faithful and to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. He sees growth happening in the residential program and housing, in the ongoing work with United Methodists in Vietnam and Sierra Leone, and in working with charismatic friends.

Peter Bellini

Peter Bellini

Of course, any hope of the future being a continuation of the God Thing that has been unfolding to date, requires not deviating from what got United here now. Bellini said he believes that a factor is “the tears of remembrance of former saints” of old in the Evangelical United Brethren heritage of the school. Prayer continues to be a foundation, with weekly prayer on Thursday mornings. Chapel happens twice a week. The West Ohio conference Aldersgate Renewal folks serve as prayer cover. Bellini noted that a key to staying on track is for the leadership to “be humble, repentant, and clean.”

“Looking back, we knew what we were doing, but we didn’t have a clue what God was doing,” Vickers wrote last November on his blog. “At the time, we formed special task forces and held special meetings. We even developed a new strategic plan. In short, we thought we were taking control. But God’s plans turned out to be much bigger and greater than our plans. And as for control, let’s just say that no one who works at United has any illusions. As we often say, God’s holiness is like a wild fire! It will neither be contained nor controlled. At United Theological Seminary, our main goal these days is to stay as close to the fire as possible, even if that means that we are constantly at risk of getting burned!”

Clearly, United Theological Seminary not only emphasizes renewal, they model it. In striving for renewal in local churches or the broader denomination, several take-aways can be lifted from the United story.

• United is saturated by prayer.

• United is committed to the historic, orthodox faith and understanding of the scriptures.

• United honors the faith of the saints who have gone before.

• United was desperate for God to do something supernatural. This seems like an essential characteristic in the study of genuine revivals of the past and present.

In the folds of the United story, it is clear that God moved his hand behind the scenes in leading faithful people who were open to be moved by God into key places at key times – even when those moves made no earthly sense.

The key to renewal at United is actually the key factor to renewal at a personal, congregational, or even denominational level: True submission and openness to the work of the Holy Spirit. Hopefully these lessons can serve as a catalyst to spread the renewal experienced by, and taught at, United Theological Seminary to other United Methodist bodies.

John Southwick is director of research, networking, and resources for Good News. 


  1. theenemyhatesclarity says

    Wonderful! Thanks for this encouraging story.

  2. Thomas Miles says

    As I prayed about seminary , and where God wanted me to attend , there was a clear direction given to , as I followed the direction of the Holy Spirit . Spirit led , renewing the church , I just couldn’t say no . United not only equipped me with an excellent theological education , yet also prepared me , through the power of the Holy Spirit , to preach the Gospel .

  3. Joanne Dodge says

    I am a student at United who made the decision to go to seminary late in life and I love it there. The student body is extremely diverse both in ethnicity and relilgioiusly. I honestly feel that we see each other through God’s lives. We respect each other and truly care for each other. The atmosphere at UTS is open and loving. It is NOT a rare sight to see students praying together. Dr. Bellini was correct when it said classes are like a revival – especially his. His classes always started with prayer and song and ended with prayer. We prayed for and over each other. Let’s just say that the Holy Spirit is alive and well.

    The faculty is another key factor in the experience of being educated at UTS. Everyone one of them shows the love of Christ to the students and each other. There doesn’t seem to be the competition that I have seen in other schools. The professors support each other and are very open with the students. They are willing to go the extra mile to help students succeed. At other schools, the faculty always seemed to remain aloof and separate from students. Here at UTS, we learn together and play together. We have faculty in our Wednesday worship choir. At community on Wednesdays, faculty and students sit together and truly enjoy each other.

    The library is blessed with Dr. Sarah Blair, a woman so passionate about history and learning. She is an expert on the history of the Methodist Church. During a fire drill, she kept us entertained by stories of how the father of the Wright Brothers and how he was instrumental in the growth of the church in Dayton. Her passion makes history come alive. The entire library staff are passionate about learning and are just as eager as the professors in seeing that the student is successful.

    The example of the faculty and staff being open starts at the top. The first time I met Dr. Deichmann , she thrust out her hand and said, “Hi, I’m Wendy.” She is so very open and approachable. She cares for the students, staff, and faculty.

    I am so thankful that God led me to this fine establishment. I thoroughly love it here where I am making life long friends not only with fellow students but with the staff and faculty.

  4. wesley n gunn says

    At times I go to my mainstream Methodist church and am sickened by the PC nonsense and the abandonment of evangelical Christianity. It is more a political organization than a church, but I understand that we are wrestling “against spiritual wickedness in high places”. I fear national judgment is coming on us for wickedness and abandonment of holiness. Pray for revival churchwide.

  5. How thrilled to read of renewal at Union and beyond. I am a retired part-time pastor of another faith (POF) serving rurual churches in southwest Georgia. I cannot tell you how gratifying it is for me to be a part of what, I hope, will be the beginnings of new things in the UMC. Should our part of the vineyard in the UMC catch fire, it could change America and the world.

    God bless,

  6. Donald Haynes says

    I discovered this article of 2014 through the link provided in Walter Fenton sad and frightening report on the closing of United’s COS program. I know that METHESCO has a COS program in the same state, but it is hard not to “smell a rat” at the punitive action against United’s program. I remember when Jason Vickers left our Hood Theological Seminary faculty to go to United and how committed he was to join the new vision. I did not know the full import of the changes at United until Steve Beard’s article.

    I know it is late, but are there any petitions headed to General Conferecne that might force some overt recognition of the reasons for this policy decision? Really, for a UMC seminary to grow to 600 is a miracle. Are we so committed to a liberal theological ethos that we cannot thank God for this growth in numbers and in diversity?

    How many current faculty are UMC? What is the denominational demographics of the student body for 2015-2016? Was the COS program scrapped at St. Paul when they had to abandon their campus and move to COR in Leawood, KS?

    This decision boggles the mind. Thank you, Steve Beard, for the enlightening 2014 article. How widely was this distributed through the connection? Could both the Beard article and the Fenton article be sent to all GC delegates? As some of you readers might know, my own study of the Bible has forced me to find room for a bigger tent in United Methodist that includes committed Chrsitians who believe that God has created them LGB, but I have since believe that the “tent” should include those who believe that holiness is either a “second blessing” or a “third work of the Holy Spirit.” This we all know–Pentecostalism is growing throughout the Christian world and wherever United Methodism is growing, there is at least some Pentecostal inclusion.

    As a retired clergy, I can do not more than pray and write, but may God give you guidance.

    Donald Haynes
    WNCC/UMC (retired)

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