Elaine Heath

Teaching laity and clergy to lead missional communities

Dean, Duke Divinity School
Professor of Missional and Pastoral Theology

The work of The Missional Wisdom Foundation that she and her students founded has begun to influence the heart of United Methodism, she says, as more annual conferences are financially supporting laity and clergy who want training to bring missional vision and practices to their churches.

Elaine Heath understands far better than most Christians the shock Paul must have felt on the Damascus Road; like the Apostle, she received a blinding call midway on life’s journey.As a teenager, Heath gave her life to Christ in a Pentecostal church, but it wasn’t until age 31, when she experienced a protracted call to ministry, that she learned – quite to her consternation – that she was to become a pastor and a teacher working for the renewal of a mainline denomination. She had not attended college or seminary and was raising two children. But when she shared this experience with her pastor, she was astounded to hear that the trusted mentor had discerned a ministerial vocation for her shortly after they met.

In her second year at Ashland Seminary, Heath realized that all her closest friends at that Brethren school were Methodist. Though just a few years before she would not have believed they were saved, she now recognized that if they weren’t, neither was she. In the context of friendships with Methodist students and her growing knowledge of and love for Methodist theology, Heath joined the United Methodist Church.

As she proceeded with ordination, Heath served a three-point charge for two years after seminary, eventually being admitted to Duquesne University for graduate studies in theology and then being awarded the John Wesley Fellowship. Heath recalls that that the dearest benefit of the fellowship was the “profound sense of being prayed for” by a community of likeminded scholars who cherished and supported one another.

Heath chose to focus her studies on “the neglected resources of the Christian mystical tradition” and more specifically on Methodism’s home-grown mystic and evangelist, Phoebe Palmer, a 19th-century itinerant evangelist, Mother of the Holiness movement and a passionate proponent of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection.

While Heath served as professor of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, she developed a particular interest in how Christian mysticism might enrich and transform the practice of evangelism, a perspective shaped in no small part by her study of Phoebe Palmer. In the book that set the trajectory for her intellectual and ecclesial work, The Mystic Way of Evangelism, Heath argues that evangelism is best practiced in the context of Christian communities gathered together around a Wesleyan rule of life for the sake of their neighbors. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day are sources of inspiration, Heath says, along with early Methodism.

To put these ideas into practice, Heath and some of her students in 2008 founded the first two communities that led to the formation of the Missional Wisdom Foundation in 2010. The Foundation fosters evangelistic communities that bring together Wesleyan spirituality and new monastic practices to work for the renewal of historically mainline denominations. The Foundation now has four regional hubs across the United States, which include a variety of deeply contextualized missional and new monastic communities, social enterprise, and partnerships with local non-profits, churches, and educational institutions. The hubs serve as educational immersion sites for students and congregations that want to learn how to take the gospel beyond the walls of the church.

Heath was appointed as the thirteenth Dean of Duke Divinity School in July, 2016. Her expertise in missional theology, the rapidly changing cultural landscape, and years of reflecting upon and writing about theological education, as well as her international influence and leadership within and beyond Methodism make her the ideal candidate to lead the school. Theological education faces significant challenges that will require that schools adapt to the changing leadership needs of the church. Heath expresses a deep conviction that God has called her to this work.

In many ways Heath epitomizes the kind of leader that Ed Robb Jr. envisioned when he and others founded AFTE. Throughout her academic and ecclesial career Heath’s undivided attention has focused on bringing renewal to God’s church through higher education. She is the author of numerous books and articles and is a widely sought after preacher, lecturer, and consultant.

Since receiving a call to teach and renew, and now holding the keys to one of the great institutions of higher learning, Duke Divinity School, Heath has known intimately that the cultivation of Christian holiness and the practice of Christian theology can only be divorced with grave peril to both, and her success in letting each inform the other is a powerful testimony to the mainline church’s hope for spiritual renewal in years to come.

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