by Rev. Allen Stanton, Executive Director of the Turner Center at Martin Methodist College in Tennessee
Not-so-deep into the debates leading up to the 2019 General Conference is a back and forth around what to do with our institutions, as the value of our apportionment dollars is debated. Often, these debates are situated at the general church level, with a not-so-subtle critique thrown at those who support unity: To support church unity, some maintain, is akin to supporting institutionalism. Taken to its next logical step, the critique is that by supporting the preservation of our institutions, we are saying that our property and pensions are worth more than our evangelical mission.
To be sure, not all institutions need to or will be preserved. But our evangelical mandate requires us to preserve key institutions for the sake making disciples and transforming the world.
About six months ago, I began an appointment at a small United Methodist college. Our total student body is just under 1,000. We sit adjacent to the town square of our rural town, and our campus stretches only a few blocks. Despite the small size, the college is in an integral part of this region.
Our college is the only four-year program in an 18-county radius. Our students are often the first in their families to go to college, and they come here because they can receive an affordable, quality education. Many of these students will remain in our region after graduation, becoming teachers, nurses, and business owners. The education that they receive here can have a boundless impact on the community, as our alumni go out to teach future generations, become preachers in our congregations, heal the sick in rural communities that are in desperate need of healthcare providers, and seek the welfare of the city.
Like most United Methodist Colleges, the work that we do is not limited to the classroom. Through a wide variety of programs, offered through student life, the faculty, and spiritual life, we strive to form the whole person. Our vocational discernment programs link students’ faith, talents, and passions to discover how to live out their discipleship in their future careers. And students are able to worship and grow in their faith through the numerous programs offered by our chaplain.
Our nursing programs emphasize community care, training students to offer preventative health screenings throughout our region. Our education department partners with our local school system to help underperforming students to read at grade level, with tremendous success.
As the only United Methodist college in our episcopal area, we also support our congregations. The Turner Center, where I serve, offers continuing education, resources, grants, and leadership development cohorts that are that designed specifically for our rural congregations, which comprise 65% of our episcopal area.
In short, our college is a place that seeks to make disciples for the transformation of the world. It is a Christ-centered presence in a world that desperately needs to know the hope of Christ, transforming not only students, but the community at large. That is evangelism.
When I served in a local church, I recognized that while our small congregation would feel an impact from whatever happened in 2019, we would largely be protected from massive changes. My parishioners were often unaware of the ongoing debates in the denomination. They learned about it when I spoke of it, or when something seeped into the local newspapers. At all other times, the relationship with the denomination was only thought of in terms of our congregation’s mission. The Annual Conference could connect us to disaster relief and international missions that we would not be a part of on our own. Denominational agencies provided resources for our spiritual formation and our ongoing work. We knew we could recommend students to nearby United Methodist colleges or Wesley Foundations, sending them to a community we knew would care for them. We were – and they still are – a congregation with a mission, and they will likely carry that out under the banner of the United Methodist Church regardless of the outcome of 2019.
At our small college, though, the stakes are more substantial. We exist in a symbiotic relationship with the denomination. We both desire and need the support of the denomination, and in return we provide as much support to our denomination as we can. As part of our effort to model what it means to be a church-related college, we will begin offering every United Methodist student a 50% tuition discount.
Most denominational schools receive apportionment support directly from the Annual Conference that supplements our narrow operating budgets. In the Southeastern Jurisdiction, for instance, almost $5 million went to support more than 35 schools. That does not even include additional scholarships from local churches, support for campus ministries, or any of the general church funds related to higher education.
When I read the plans that the Commission on a Way Forward has given to us, my thoughts cannot help but linger on how division would impact our small school. If the denomination cannot remain unified, our mission will inevitably be affected.
If The United Methodist Church cannot remain united for the sake of our mission, if we abandon the task of making disciples for the transformation of the world so that we can instead enter into our own reclusive corners, then it will be more than just pensions that are affected.
It will be the elementary school students who gather on our campus to learn how to read each summer.
It will be the high school student who, without the opportunity to gain a college degree, will see their only career options disappear as manufacturing and agricultural give way to automation.
It will be the communities who exist in a mutual relationship with schools like ours, with whom we partner to ensure for vitality for our small town.
And, it will be the college students who are learning to connect their faith with their future vocations in healthcare, business, education, science, or the church, students who will one day be leaders in their chosen careers.
The call for unity is not a call to preserve vague institutions, protect property, and safeguard assets. It is a call to continue to transform the world for the sake of Jesus Christ. It is a call to invite our communities into the Kingdom of God, for the communities to see the new life that Christ is creating in our students, professors, counselors, and chaplains. The call for unity, the call to ensure that colleges and organizations that do this work throughout our connection can continue in their mission, is nothing short of a call for a renewed dedication to evangelism.
Recently, the NASCUMC Member Presidents issued a joint statement declaring their position on human sexuality in regards to the Special Session of the General Conference. You can view that statement here.