The Case for Wesleyan Higher Education

On August 27th, 2021, The New York Times headline, The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist left many scratching their heads. Reporter, Emma Goldberg opened the story:

The Puritan colonists who settled in New England in the 1630s had a nagging concern about the churches they were building: How would they ensure that the clergymen would be literate? Their answer was Harvard University, a school that was established to educate the ministry and adopted the motto “Truth for Christ and the Church.” It was named after a pastor, John Harvard, and it would be more than 70 years before the school had a president who was not a clergyman. Nearly four centuries later Harvard’s organization of chaplains has elected as its next president an atheist named Greg Epstein, who takes on the job this week.

This inversion of Harvard’s original purpose seems to represent the end of the institution as it has been known. Harvard is now, in a metaphorical sense, upside down.

In addition to my service as a District Superintendent in Canada, I have the privilege to serve as an adjunct faculty member training pastors in graduate education. Here I propose five ways in which Wesleyan Higher Education is vital to our movement. I advocate that Wesleyan families consider Wesleyan institutions when selecting a higher education setting.

  1. Formation of Disciples. The number one reason for Wesleyans to attend, support, and pray for our institutions of higher learning is the formation of disciples in Christ. Wesleyan institutions offer students the opportunity to experience fellowship, discipleship, service, and mission all in a context of worship. Students are formed through what John Wesley called the means of grace. These formative practices are under direct attack in our culture, and they are worth promoting and preserving. Are Wesleyan schools exemplars of perfect Christian formation? Of course not. Are Wesleyan institutions led by sincere and devout administrators, faculty, and chaplains? Yes! No institution is infallible, but upholding the formation of disciples in Christ is an objective worthy of promotion. How can you pray for, promote, and contribute to the formation of disciples in Christ within our institutions of higher learning?
  2. Family Ties. The Wesleyan Church is a comparably small denomination with strong family ties. Generations of students from our denomination attend our colleges and universities. Many have found their spouses and have committed to serving Christ throughout the world. These generations are connected by faith and through family. Additionally, students who attend university together form deep familial bonds because of the communal nature of participating in the Christian learning process. I consider many from my Wesleyan higher education experiences as sisters and brothers. Through the formation of a community committed to learning and service, Wesleyan schools glorify God. How can you encourage students in your community to attend Wesleyan schools by emphasizing the formation of family ties and lifelong friendships?
  3. Focused Identity. The current turmoil within some Wesleyan movement’s sister denominations can be explained by the disintegration of identity which originated in institutions of higher learning. An especially strong trait of our Wesleyan institutions is remaining focused on our original identity which is rooted in the Christian mission and biblical values while other institutions have lost their moorings. How can you lovingly encourage and pray for leaders of our educational institutions to resist the disintegrating cultural influences that threaten our identity as a denomination?
  4. Faculty Dedication. The Wesleyan denomination has come a long way as regards scholarly qualifications for the faculty of our educational institutions. While the world continues to increase in complexity, the ability to research and write with skill and intelligence matters. Wesleyan students also require faculty of the highest spiritual and moral character. Our institutions of higher learning will continue to thrive due to committed faculty who serve with skill while keeping their faith in Christ as primary in their lives. Consider contacting a Wesleyan faculty member and offering a word of thanks for their dedication.
  5. Future Missionaries. The Wesleyan Church used to view missional work as an outreach to nations outside the Christian West. We have come to the end of an era as the age of Christendom has transitioned to post-Christendom. Wesleyan Universities are leading the way in the formation of students for this new era of mission to both the post Christian West and the world at large. How can you cooperate with the mission of raising up missional disciples through Wesleyan higher education as a pastor and church leader?

To learn more about Wesleyan Higher Education, see the following resources:

Goldberg, Emma. “The New Chaplain of Harvard? An Atheist.” The New York Times, 26 August 2021, p. A14.

Intellectual contributor: Dr. Eric Hallett, district superintendent of the Central Canada District of The Wesleyan Church.

Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus

Curator of content: Dave Higle