Like many other schools with a religious heritage, Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, draws just a fraction of its students from its United Methodist tradition. Only 10 to 20 percent of its students are United Methodists. But unlike other institutions, Millsaps has not distanced itself from denominational ties in a bid to broaden its appeal. Quite the opposite: the school is actively building on its Methodist roots as it vies to increase the student body from 1,000 to about 1,300.
“We feel that our Wesleyan conviction and heritage is something that opens us up to others,” said Kenneth Townsend, director of church relations at Millsaps. “That heritage is part of who we are, and we can’t be our best selves without taking it seriously.”
Millsaps is reviving its practice of convening weekly campus worship. In recent years, Millsaps hosted worship only on major holidays, but students craved more, Townsend said. The chapel was packed on Ash Wednesday. When weekly services resume, most will reflect United Methodist liturgy, Millsaps said.
This year Millsaps this year began sending an admissions officer with campus singing groups when they perform at Methodist churches around the region. Such events provide a venue for connecting with students who are apt to feel comfortable at Millsaps, Townsend said.
A few years ago, Methodist student gatherings on campus happened only about once a month and drew just two or three students, Townsend said. Now Methodist students gather weekly, welcoming local pastors and 15 undergraduates.
It’s a distinctive approach. As other schools have worked to expand their applicant pools, many have sought to distance themselves from their denominational roots. Davidson College’s Board of Trustees angered faculty and made headlines last year by narrowly voting to retain a policy that ensures the college president is a Presbyterian. Hartwick College dropped its Lutheran ties in the 1960s. Those who sever or diminish sectarian ties follow in the footsteps of Harvard, Yale, Carleton College, and other institutions that broke from their Congregationalist roots long ago.
But some believe emphasizing denominational ties helps distinguish a school’s identity and mission in a time when it’s important to stand out among peer institutions.
On the K-12 level, Episcopal schools have been reasserting their Episcopal ties with renewed vigor since the financial crisis of 2008 led many to re-examine their priorities, according to Daniel Heischman, executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools.
“What the recession did was help a great number of our Episcopal schools identify and articulate their Episcopal mission better, rather than to water it down,” Heischman said. “It forced our schools to understand their niche. … That led them to re-examine and be able to articulate what it means to be an Episcopal school.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald