Growing in Grace with our United Methodist Colleges

  • Did you know that there are 117 United Methodist-related colleges and universities in the United States?
  • Did you know that there are thirteen United Methodist-related seminaries in the United States as well as other non-United Methodist approved seminaries?
  • Did you know that there are more than one thousand United Methodist-related colleges and universities around the world?

Education and the development of leaders played a critical role from the very beginning of the Methodist movement in 18th century England. John Wesley believed education to be a priority for all ages and wrote manuals and tracts for children. He also emphasized the importance of Christian education and spiritual development in the home. The growth of the Sunday school movement in America was largely due to circuit riding Methodist preachers, and by 1844, Methodism was the largest denomination in the United States.

John Wesley also stressed lifelong learning, faith development, and mutual accountability through class meetings, bands, and societies. “It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people.” (John Wesley)

Last week, our cabinet spent the afternoon with the presidents of the four United Methodist-related colleges and universities in Iowa: Jonathan Brand from Cornell College; Christine Plunkett from Iowa Wesleyan University; John Reynders from Morningside College; and Jay Simmons from Simpson College. Our purpose was to get to know each other better; dialogue around the challenges of higher education today; discuss the ramifications of the 2019 General Conference decisions around human sexuality for both the church and academy; and brainstorm ways in which we can be mutually supportive of each other.

All four colleges are proud of their United Methodist roots and connections. At the same time, many students, faculty, donors, and administrators of our colleges were discouraged by the outcome of the 2019 General Conference because each college has statements around inclusivity a diversity is a core value. The colleges are now waiting to see what happens at the 2020 General Conference before responding.

  • Cornell College values diversity and strives to create a welcoming community in which all individuals are respected and included. We support respectful and meaningful inquiry across actual or perceived differences.”
  • Morningside College believes in and promotes non-discrimination. It is our policy and practice to promote equal opportunities without regard to age, sex, religion, creed, race, color, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, disability, genetic information, or national origin.”
  • Simpson College is committed to a diverse and inclusive, culturally enriched campus community with many different identities, nationalities, sexual orientations, ethnicities, races, physical and mental abilities, and beliefs. We embrace the fact that diversity improves and enhances the quality of our academic experiences and campus life.”
  • “Energized and guided by historic memory, Iowa Wesleyan University respects individuality within the context of a community with a common moral purpose, a community that welcomes persons of diverse backgrounds and worldviews. In so recognizing both immediate and global dimensions of civic membership, individual aspirations are tied to the aspirations of all, echoing John Wesley’s declaration ‘The world is my parish.’”

Current challenges faced by our United Methodist colleges in Iowa:

  • Demographic changes – There are fewer 18-year-olds in Iowa than there were 25 years ago, which means there is a smaller pool of potential students.
  • Lack of ethnic representation – Diversity is a high priority and is increasing. There is also a growing Hispanic and Asian population in Iowa. At the same time, ethnic students have not historically attended small liberal arts colleges.
  • Enrollment – Like many, if not most, small liberal arts colleges, our UM-related colleges in Iowa struggle to maintain enrollment goals. Every student matters, and even with generous financial aid, the cost of attending a liberal arts college is more than the large flagship universities.
  • Finances – Tuition alone cannot support our colleges. They depend on the generosity of donors to offer the highest caliber of education.

Strengths of our UM colleges:

  • Liberal arts colleges enroll more first-generation students than large universities. A first-generation student is the first one in their family to ever attend college. A smaller campus ensures that students receive more direct and personal assistance.
  • Small colleges are also the drivers of social mobility. Social mobility refers to when individuals go up or down the social ladder. In the context of higher education, social mobility is usually about children becoming better off than their parents.
  • There are many students who cannot succeed at big universities and thrive in a smaller setting where there is more individual attention. I know that I would never have survived in a big university. I would have been totally lost! The smaller learning environment that I had as an undergraduate student at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio enabled me to better adjust to college.

Our United Methodist institutions of higher learning are monitored by the University Senate, which is an elected body of peer professionals who both support and evaluate our UM colleges and universities. They also ensure that every one of our institutions maintains appropriate academic accreditation.

I’d like to share one unique aspect of each of our four colleges and urge you to peruse the websites of our colleges to get a bigger picture of the excellent education that is provided.

Iowa Wesleyan University was founded in 1842 and is one of the oldest four-year higher education institutions west of the Mississippi River. One of IWU’s graduates is Dr. Peggy Whitson ‘81, a NASA astronaut who has twice served as station commander for the International Space Station and holds several NASA records.

Over the past three years, Morningside graduates have had a job and graduate school placement rate of 99%. Since 1894, the college has been helping students become flexible, confident thinkers in an increasingly fast-paced world. Morningside College was also recently named among the national finalists for The American Prize in Opera Performance (College/University Division) for its production of “Dido and Aeneas.” Morningside is the only private liberal arts college to receive this designation for the 2018-19 season.

Cornell College was the first college west of the Mississippi to grant women the same rights and privileges as men, and, in 1858, to award a degree to a woman. In 1978, Cornell faculty adopted the One Course at A Time curriculum, transforming the way teaching and learning happen at Cornell. Cornell’s innovative education was recognized with the 1996 publication of Loren Pope’s Colleges That Change Lives and continues to be recognized with each new edition.

One of Simpson College’s most famous students is George Washington Carver, who was an American agricultural scientist and inventor. Carver was a professor at Tuskegee Institute and pioneered the promotion of alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion. After Carver was refused admission to a college because he was black, he enrolled in Simpson College in 1890, where he studied art and piano for a year. Every spring, classes are cancelled at Simpson so that students can participate in service projects around the community.

“I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God’s creation intentions.” –John Wesley

Thank be to God for the thousands of college students who are making a difference and changing the world through social justice, service, spiritual values, civic engagement, and responsible action. And thank you, Presidents Plunkett, Reynders, Brand, and Simmons, for your leadership in our United Methodist institutions of higher learning and for helping us all to grow in grace.

A Little Kindness

September 9, 2019

When was the last time you experienced the kindness of another person? When was the last time you stretched yourself to extend grace to another person? What if each one of us repeated this scripture from Ephesians 4:42 every day, “Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ,” and then applied it to ourselves?

Admittedly, we live in polarizing times, when continual battles between “us” and “them,” whether in national, international, or religious circles, do not foster grace-filled relationships and hope for the future. Whether it is political candidates bashing each other or mean-spirited accusations from all sides around immigration, climate change, tariffs, gun safety, or health care, we too often wear the blinders of our own preferences, refusing to engage in genuine dialogue and enlarge our borders to care for the least, the last, and the lost.

 At the same time, I have witnessed incredible acts of generosity over the past few months, which has given me great hope. Have you heard about Chef José Andrés? Andrés founded a small non-profit organization called World Central Kitchen (WCK) in 2010 in response to the immense damage that afflicted Haiti after the earthquake. He was also on the scene after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico in 2017. Believing that food can be an agent of change, World Central Kitchen says, “We have expanded globally and have developed into a group of chefs creating smart solutions to hunger and poverty.”

Over the past week, Chef Andrés and his volunteers were in Nassau, Bahamas, before the storm hit and began planning relief efforts. Known as the “chef who delivers hope” by delivering meals after disasters, Andrés can use almost any space that has electricity and water to prepare and serve meals, including churches, restaurants, and food trucks. Andrés was prepared with 7,500 meals as a start.

This past weekend, an estimated 76,000 people in the Bahamas were in need of humanitarian relief, including shelter and food. World Chef Kitchen prepared 20,000 more meals that were delivered by ship to people on various islands whose homes were destroyed and who were not even sure if other family members were alive. The mission of WCK is to “use the power of food to empower communities and strengthen economies.” Thank you for your kindness, Chef José Andrés!

In the midst of so much negative news, there are countless examples of people, even strangers, who care for one another and inspire us to practice kindness. On August 3, a deranged gunman drove nine hours from Dallas to El Paso and started shooting indiscriminately, killing 22 people and injuring 24 others.

One of the persons killed was Margie Reckard, a 63-year-old woman. Her companion of 22 years, Antonio Basco, was afraid no one would come to his beloved’s funeral. Not only did Perches Funeral Home offer free funeral services for the victims, but in Margie’s case, the funeral director posted an open invitation on Facebook for people to attend.

The service was moved to a larger venue, and thousands of people responded, including Jordan Ballard, who bought a plane ticket to Texas from Los Angeles to attend the funeral of a person she had never met. Vocalists and a mariachi band volunteered to be part of the service, and when Basco arrived, people shouted blessings to him in both English and Spanish. Hundreds stood in a long line to say goodbye to a person they had never met. Thank you for your kindness in ensuring that Margie Reckard was honored and that Antonio Basco was cared for in his time of devastating grief.

Kindness, compassion, and forgiveness are everywhere, in towns and churches and even in our own backyard, if only we will risk becoming a vessel of God’s grace rather than judgment. In the August 19 USA Today, there was a story about an Ohio 7th grader named Diesel Pippert. This year Diesel decided to donate all of his livestock proceeds from the large annual sale at the Huron County (Ohio) Fair to St. Jude Research Hospital. Diesel, who raised $15,000 from the sale of his pig, gave it all away.

Cynthia Gardner of American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, which is the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Judes, said “A young man lives amongst us who should be an example to all of us. Diesel, you are a hero!” She went on, “Diesel’s kindness demonstrates that age does not limit kids from fundraising and making a difference in the lives of other children battling cancer at St. Jude.”

Diesel’s mother said her son had heard that a teen in a nearby county donated $11,000 to St. Jude from a hog auction and wanted to raise more! Diesel told fairgoers about his plan, the bidding started at $500, and soon the $15,000 was reached. She also said that her heart was filled with joy because of her son’s generosity. Thank you for your kindness, Diesel Pippert!

The stories of grace, compassion, and paying it forward go on and on. At the U.S. women’s Tennis Open a few weeks ago, World #1 Naomi Osaka defeated up-and-coming 15-year-old Coco Gauff in the third round. At a time when outbursts and obscenities are becoming more common on the tennis court, Osaka consoled and encouraged Gauff, and both women provided an example of good sportsmanship. Thank you for your kindness, Naomi and Coco!

From August 21-23, McDonald’s engaged in acts of kindness by handing out 500 McCafé It Forward cards throughout the U.S. The cards entitled customers to one free small cup of McCafé Premium Roast Coffee or Iced Coffee. Then they were encouraged to pass the card along to someone else to enjoy a free cup of coffee.

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of its McCafé brand, cards were distributed in order to encourage acts of kindness in local communities, McDonald’s officials say that they often see people in their restaurants start a ripple effect by paying it forward, buying a cup of coffee or a meal for someone else. Thank you for your kindness, McDonald’s!

Perhaps the most poignant story of kindness was shared two weeks ago by Steve Harman in his weekly CBS segment called On the RoadQuinn Waters is a three-year-old boy from Weymouth, MA who has been confined to home for months after a stem cell transplant for brain cancer compromised his immunity.

Because Quinn cannot go outside, the world is coming to Quinn in the form of friends, neighbors, and strangers who stop by Quinn’s window to make him smile and laugh. Whether it is stupid tricks, a dog parade, or a team of Irish step dancers, the positive energy and kindness of many people are helping Quinn’s recovery. “You can never repay it,” Quinn’s father said, “but you can pay it forward.” Thank you for the kindness of all those who are saving Quinn’s life!

“With your help, we have shown that there is no place too far or disaster too great for our chefs to be there with a hot plate of food when it’s needed most. I hope you’ll dream with us as we envision a world where there is always a warm meal, an encouraging word, and a helping hand in hard times. Thank you for taking this journey with us. Join me in fulfilling the inspiring words of John Steinbeck: “Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people may eat, we will be there.” 

(The mission statement of Chef Andrés and World Central Kitchen)

“Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other,
in the same way God forgave you in Christ.”

How will you show kindness this week?





Life Goes On

Life goes on. My father said it often in his later years. I suspect it came from his own experience of change and loss over time. Whenever I visited, Dad and I would reminisce about the many wonderful times we had together, and, invariably he would say, “Life goes on.” In other words, we all experience sorrow and joy, good times and tough times, laughter and tears.

Last week was one of those times. At the cemetery, we prayed, “Almighty God, into your hands we commend your child, Gerald Francis Hartzel Sr., in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. These cremains we commit to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” Then each family member took a turn shoveling dirt into my father’s grave.

My ancestors on both parents’ sides arrived in southeastern Pennsylvania from Europe in the early 1700’s. William Penn, who founded the state of Pennsylvania, was an early advocate for religious freedom, offering protection for minorities such as Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren.

What I am most grateful for about my father is that he always supported me, even though he didn’t always understand my career path. He helped me though college, then two years of graduate school for sacred music, then several more years in seminary. Women were not allowed to be pastors in the General Conference Mennonite Church when I was growing up, but my father always encouraged my call to ministry. Eventually, I was ordained in my home church, but my call ultimately led me to The United Methodist Church. “Life goes on,” Dad would say.

As I led the memorial service, it was all I could do to hold back the tears. They were tears of joy, however, because of the legacy that my father left for his family, friends, and church. Last week, I was able to talk with relatives I hadn’t seen for many years. I also connected with my cousins, not to mention my three siblings and spouses and their children. Our personal times of remembering were rich and poignant.

I was especially touched by the number of people who attended the service because they had been my Dad’s employees. Growing up, I always worked at his factory during the summer and was astounded that one of my work buddies from fifty years ago, Valeria, who is in her 90’s, took the time to come to the service. She still looked the same! My father provided many jobs for people in the small village of Vernfield, PA and was a wonderful and kind boss.

I was particularly close to my father because we were fishing, cycling, golfing, and singing buddies. One of my fondest memories was of my father taking me on a fishing trip to Costa Rica just two weeks before Gary and I were married. Unfortunately, I was seasick for the first two days out on the Pacific Ocean and spent all my time throwing up. After I got my sea legs, I did enjoy the last few days and reeled in a few sailfish.

What has touched me the most over these past weeks, however, is the dozens and dozens of cards and emails that Gary and I received, expressing condolences upon my father’s death. I tear up every time I look at the pile of cards. People from every church I have ever served, as well as clergy, laity, and bishops from around the United Methodist connection took the time to write a few lines on a card, send an email, say a prayer, make a phone call, or offer a memorial contribution to Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, PA, which was my father’s life-long spiritual home.

A number of people commented about the times when I would write, preach, or tell stories about the impact my father had on my life and faith. On some cards, people in local churches and/or staff members signed their names. Some of the people I did not even know, but their words of assurance and love have made a lasting imprint upon my heart. Here is just a sample of these beautiful messages of hope and love.

  • “Open when you have time.” These words on the outside the envelope. And on the inside, “May you feel the comforting embrace of the Holy Spirit now and all the times you will miss your father. Grieve well.”
  • “As you now add to all that the sacred task of commending a beloved parent unto God’s keeping, I am praying that you will experience the great strength, peace, and love of Christ.”
  • “Even never meeting him, it was clear what a wonderful person he was and how much he meant to you.”
  • “I write to offer my condolences after the passing of your dad, Gerald. Love and prayers from around the globe, including friends in Wisconsin. Please know you are held in community.”
  • “I pray you have time to simply be a daughter who had lost her dad. May God sing over you and give you peace.”
  • “May you feel the arms of God wrapped around you with comfort.”
  • “It is our prayer that you will be blessed with many wonderful memories of your dad and that you will have a sense of God’s grace as you gather with family at this time.”
  • “You have shared many stories of your father with us. May memories sustain you now.”
  • “May God comfort you as only God can.”
  • “Sharing in your sorrow and rejoicing with you in God’s promises”
  • “We pray that during these tender moments your heart is filled with wonderful memories of a beloved father. Further, we pray with you as you embrace the truth of his passing to the church Triumphant. You are beloved.”
  • “The Holy Spirit and your many friends are beside you.”
  • “May love be what you remember most. Prayers for comfort and peace.”

During the sermon, I shared a quote from the German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart, who expressed it this way seven hundred years ago. “God lies in wait for us with nothing so much as love, and love is like a fisherman’s hook. Whatever the fisherman does, and whoever is caught by this hook, love does it, and love alone.”

Life goes on. Yet, for just a moment, can you be still and know that God is God? Have you been caught yet by the hook of God’s love? How will you fish for people by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, embodying the gospel, and then patiently waiting for God to work? How does God want to use you as a channel of grace, hope, and love? How will make a positive difference in the lives of those around you in the days and months ahead?