Connecting the people of the church with the academy
Having ordained Elders serve as leaders in theological education maintains a critical link between congregations and seminaries, says Professor Deichmann, who has completed terms as academic dean and as president of United Theological Seminary.
Wendy J. Deichmann was baptized as an infant in the Episcopal Church, but during her adolescence sojourned in deeply conservative, even fundamentalist, free churches. This left her with no sense that the church could have any place for her among its institutional leaders.
But that mindset began to change when she and her college roommate started attending a local United Methodist church in Geneseo, NY. There, she recommitted her life to Christ and soon felt a profound call to ministry, inspired by the intellectually vigorous but pastorally sensitive witness of her pastor, the Rev. Dr. Leonard Sweet.
Initially Deichmann looked to international missions, but Sweet encouraged her also to consider ordained ministry, which opened for her an unimagined world of possibility.
Deichmann enrolled at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, where Sweet taught some courses, and very quickly fell in love with the labor of historical theology.
After several professors encouraged her to consider applying her intellectual gifts to a vocation in the academy, she enrolled at Drew University to study church history under Dr. Russell E. Richey.
Deichmann received a John Wesley Fellowship her second year at Drew. She recalls deep appreciation for the financial assistance, but also thinking that its greatest benefit was simply a community of intellectually serious, but evangelically pious, scholars.
All through seminary, she had nurtured her profound faith alongside her academic labors, but she often felt that the former was viewed as somehow quaint or outmoded by some of her professors and peers. AFTE was the first intellectual community she had encountered in which her intellect and faith could flourish together. That community helped keep up her spirits as a confessional academic – a role it continues to play for her and other fellows.
In tandem with her discernment about the academy, she also had been pursuing ordination in United Methodism, but she struggled to persuade her Board of Ordained Ministry that a ministerial vocation could consist precisely in a calling to teach future ministers.
After her initial application for orders was rejected on the basis of her academic aspirations, Deichmann wrote an impassioned appeal to the Board, arguing that theological education could be every bit as much a ministry of word, sacrament and order as could a pastorate in the local church. Shortly thereafter, she was ordained as a Deacon and later as an Elder.
Deichmann went on to teach church history, theology, and United Methodist studies, first at her old seminary, then at Ashland Theological Seminary and finally at United Theological Seminary. In addition to her service on the faculty at United, she became academic dean in 2005 and served as president from 2008-2015.
Having ordained Elders serve as leaders in theological education, she says, maintains a critical link between congregations and seminaries.
On the one hand, she said, the church needs the academy to prepare theologically astute and scripturally attuned pastors who know how to represent the triune Lord well in word and sacrament. “We dare not,” she said, “be sloppy or casual in how we handle the things of God.”
Deichmann said she frequently encounters United Methodist congregations that hunger even to learn the very basics of the Christian faith. There is a link, she said, between such doctrinal laxity and both the churches declining across the country and the many places the church has, by its sheer absence, abandoned to the advance of secularism.
On the other hand, Deichmann says, the academy equally needs the church to “offer it the life of the Spirit,” and the “heart connection” that explains how a seemingly haphazard collection of ancient Scriptures and the writings of long-dead theologians actually present the deepest truths about God, humanity and the rest of creation.
Beyond deepening the relationship between the church and seminaries, Deichmann would like to see both become far more engaged with those in ministry in other parts of the world. Only a substantial connection to the faith of the global church can bring true renewal to the American church, she said, observing that it is the particular task of seminaries to exercise leadership that will foster international partnerships and true sharing in ministry. We need something “dramatically greater in scope,” she emphasizes, than “token exchange programs designed to produce well-rounded American clergy.”