Bridging the Gap Events Finds Ways to Tend the Church-Academy Relationship

April 09, 2009

By Vicki Brown*


United Methodist-related colleges and universities, local churches, and annual conferences are finding new and creative ways to strengthen their connections - from offering leadership development for clergy and laity to inviting students to Thanksgiving dinner.


Five events attended by 137 church-relations directors, campus ministers and chaplains, church pastors and youth directors, deans, college presidents, and annual conference leaders have been sponsored this year by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in an effort to discover the best ways to bridge the gap between colleges and universities and United Methodist churches.


Lisa Livingston, executive director of alumni relations at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina, said the campus is across the street from the annual conference center.


"We asked the annual conference what they needed that we could provide. They said they needed leadership opportunities for clergy and laity. We have a leadership institute, and we are putting together workshops and seminars. Had we not come to the table with that we would not have known what we could do," she said during the final Bridging the Gap event in Daytona Beach, Florida, March 27-29.


Ingrid McIntyre, GBHEM's director of Connectional Relations and the organizer of the events, said she is developing a list of "best practices" from the five events.


She cautioned that the connections cannot just be about money.


"Both the higher education institutions and the churches need to be okay with giving something for nothing for a while," McIntyre said. She suggested that churches ask a college in their annual conference what 10 things they could do for the college, and vice versa - then pick at least one.


The Rev. Quincy Brown, chaplain at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia, said LaGrange students are encouraged to go into congregations and find a need. One example of this is the LaGrange College Bus Project, a tutoring lab on wheels that students took into neighborhoods where students struggled and needed academic help.


The Rev. Brenda Beaver, associate pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Arlington, Texas, who attended the first Bridging the Gap event in Arlington, was impressed with the commitment from the United Methodist institutions of higher education to "sell" what they have to offer to the local churches so as to recruit future church leaders who are educated in the denomination's colleges and universities.


"Not only is this plan good for creating leaders, it also takes a positive step toward restoring an understanding of the practice, teachings, and heritage of The United Methodist Church in future generations of young people," she added.


"The local churches need to be intentional in their relationship-building efforts to offer generous hospitality to those college students, most of whom are living away from their homes and families," Beaver said.


Dr. James Noseworthy (at left), president of Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee, led sessions at two of the events. He said the Methodist people started more than 1,000 institutions of higher education in the United States. Today, there are 109 schools, colleges, and universities related to the UMC, and 13 United Methodist theological schools.


"There are a lot more challenges than when we were the only game in town. There's a community college on every street corner. Major universities are challenging us for our best students," he said. "Colleges and universities need to be institutions of which the church can be proud."


Mike Crawford, assistant dean of students and director of church relations at Florida Southern College, a UM-related college in Lakeland, said he thinks higher education officials at the top level understand the relationship with the church and want to tend it. "But at the next level down I don't think they quite get this relationship," he said.


The Rev. Kent Lewis, chaplain at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro, said colleges have the responsibility of educating congregations about the connection.


Kelly Minter, coordinator of the Network of Ministries with Young People for the Florida Annual Conference, said some of the disconnect comes from the fact that local churches are "farming out" ministry with young people, and youth ministers are often not United Methodist.


"They are underpaid, don't have resources, and are under pressure for numbers," Minter said.


McIntyre and Brad Fiscus, director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry in the Tennessee Annual Conference, cited Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tenn., as an excellent example of the benefits of closer connections between colleges and churches.


McIntyre said Martin Methodist was a two-year college on the verge of closing but is now a four-year institution that has 1,000 students this year. "They have built a strong relationship with churches in the annual conference," she said.


Fiscus said he and other youth workers make sure that the college is in the face of United Methodist youth at every event.


Anne Burkholder, associate dean of studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, said colleges have to show their outcomes. "If we are not talking about what kind of impact our graduates are having in the world, it's not going to matter what the marks of a United Methodist college are," she said.


"What's really at issue is that we have to form a compelling ethos that draws people to the colleges and universities."


*Brown is associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.