Dr. Wendy Deichmann has a black and white photograph from when she was seven or eight years old, standing in front of her younger siblings and an assortment of dolls sitting in chairs, teaching them. Today she stands in front of a class of seminary students, teaching church history at United Theological Seminary. Throughout her life, Deichmann has studied, taught, and worked in numerous roles but one thing that has stayed consistent throughout her life is her passion for teaching.
“I love to teach,” Deichmann said. “I had this belief that if the teacher knew what she was doing and did a good job teaching that the student would learn as much as possible. I still believe this and I still love teaching.”
Deichmann grew up in a little town in Connecticut and was raised in the church. Growing up with six siblings was part of the reason that Deichmann ended up going into education.
“I'm from a large family,” Deichmann said. “One of my sisters, Rachel, had multiple, handicapping conditions so I would do things to help her learn. And I just loved it. I ended up going to college and studying education because of my love of teaching.”
Deichmann became the first member of her immediate family to attend college when she enrolled in the State University of New York at Geneseo. During her education, Deichmann majored in special education, and minored in art and biology, two subjects that she enjoyed. However, on March 8, 1981, Leonard Sweet preached a sermon at the Geneseo United Methodist Church, and Deichmann, who was in attendance, experienced a calling to ministry.
“The title of the sermon was ‘Lazarus come forth’,” Deichmann said. “It was about how the Holy Spirit raised Lazarus from the dead in order to have this next season of life. It was a miracle. He was dead and in the tomb for three days, and then he was called forth. I wasn't dead. I was a college student. I was very much alive, but it just hit me spiritually. There's something in me that God is calling forth into ministry. I have no idea what this means, but I'm going to go find out.”
For Deichmann, a second semester senior, who had no knowledge of seminary school and had a plan to become a special education teacher, this was a drastic shift in her life.
“This was March,” Deichmann said. “I was getting ready to graduate and planning to go look for a teaching job that fall. I knew nothing about ministry. So, I went and asked my pastor what do I do. My pastor said I have to go to seminary. And I said, ‘well, what's seminary?’”
Deichmann was accepted and enrolled at nearby Colgate Rochester Divinity School in the fall, studying for a Masters in Divinity. During her seminary education, Deichmann accepted multiple Teaching Assistant positions in church history. Studying church history rekindled her passion for teaching, this time at the seminary level. With the encouragement of her professors, Deichmann began applying to graduate school to pursue a PhD in church history. Following the end of her seminary education, Deichmann enrolled in Drew University to study under historian Russell E. Richey.
During the seven years that Deichmann took to pursue her doctorate, she continued to walk in her faith. For two years she served as youth pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Lakewood, New Jersey. She accepted a two-year instructor position in Church History and United Methodist Studies at Colgate Rochester, then an appointment as pastor of the United Methodist Church of Orchard Park, a church outside Buffalo, New York. During this time, she also completed the ordination process in what is now the Upper New York Conference of The United Methodist Church.
In 2000, Deichmann began to work for United Theological Seminary, as the director of an extension program in Buffalo. After four years of directing the program and teaching church history, Deichmann was relocated to Dayton, Ohio, where she resides today. Deichmann, who has gone through multiple career and life pivots, said that being open to change is part of the job description when called to ministry.
“When you're in ministry, you have to deal with a sense of call,” Deichmann said. “I've [developed] this awareness of the work of the Holy Spirit, who … is always messing with you. And that's a good thing because without God being in the midst of our lives, [our ambitions] would be worthless.”
In 2005, Deichmann experienced another call for a new direction in her life. At the time, United was looking to hire a new Dean of the school.
“They were running a Dean search, asked if I was interested and I said, ‘no thank you, I want to teach church history’,” Deichmann said. “They asked me to serve on the search committee … which I did, but concluded that I didn't want any of the candidates who had applied for the position to become my boss. So, I resigned from the committee and applied for the job. And I got it.”
Two years into her appointment as the Dean, the president of United stepped down. At the time, the school was in a state of economic and political chaos according to Deichmann. The board asked her to step in as the interim president in 2007 and then after a semester of searching for candidates, the board decided that the best fit for the job was Deichmann.
Deichmann’s presidential tenure was far from smooth sailing. In her eight years serving as president, the school battled financial poverty, internal chaos, and pressure from the denomination to close or merge with another school. Without any prior experience in fundraising, institutional finance, or presidential duties, Deichmann stepped up to the plate at the request of the board, but surprisingly, after taking time to pray about it, she also felt a call from God to accept this role.
“Those years were especially hard in the life of the school,” Deichmann said. “Lots of people were saying the school wasn't supposed to survive. The school had just relocated to a new campus, the entire executive staff and numerous trustees had resigned, and it seemed like we
had to recreate everything. We were able to pull together a team and between that team and the help of the Holy Spirit, we were able to turn things around.”
Under Deichmann’s leadership, the school adopted a focus on the Holy Spirit’s work of renewing the church for the mission of Jesus Christ in the world. It strengthened its academic programs, began to specialize in the use of technology in online delivery, reinstituted its historic focus on international theological education, and cultivated new institutional partnerships. Within four years, the school had tripled its enrollment, and more than met the goals that the board had set as it continued, much to the surprise of many, on its path to recovery and well-being. After eight years as president and CEO, Deichmann stepped down, took a sabbatical, and returned to teaching church history.
Despite not being able to teach during her administrative stretch, Deichmann continued to mentor and help younger religious scholars through her work with the John Wesley Fellows program. During her time at Drew, Deichmann had been in a prayer group with Leicester Longden, who introduced her to the JWF program, of which Deichmann also became a fellow. Since then, Deichmann has been an involved member, enjoying being able to mentor younger scholars and the fellowship from the group.
“I believe in what the John Wesley fellowship is,” Deichmann said. “It is a fellowship of
like-minded and like-hearted scholars, pastors and other people who love the church and want to bring renewal. I have received so much from this fellowship, in terms of relationships and financial support when I was a graduate student … and now as a senior fellow serving as a mentor to younger fellows, I enjoy giving back because I know what the fellowship has meant to me.”
Not only has Deichmann been involved in the mentorship aspect, but she has also worked with other scholars to develop programs for international teaching and collaboration on academic projects and scholarly research. Deichmann enjoys going to the annual Christmas conferences, and even helping organize the event. She has also been a regular contributor to the John Wesley Fellows blog, Catalyst.
“Through all the things that I've experienced ever since I became a John Wesley fellow, this fellowship has been a spiritual and relational anchor, in terms of relationships with colleagues, from all over the [world],” Deichmann said. “ I've gone to every Christmas conference in the past 12 years … and I love the fellowship, the sharing, the remembering who we are and why we're here.”
Today, Deichmann is still teaching at United and has returned to writing and scholarly research, two things she put to the side during her administrative years. Now, looking back at her journey, Deichmann sees a common theme, listening to God’s calling and following it.
“Over time, I've learned to try to pay attention to what God is calling me to do,” Deichmann said. “And then daring to do it, even if it's not my idea, even if I don't feel that I necessarily know how to do it. But God provides what is needed when we are faithful to how God is calling us.”
Going forward, Deichmann wants to continue to help shape renewal of the church through her teaching and through her impact on the JWF program. She hopes that her story can help others learn to follow the path that the Holy Spirit has laid for them, holding on to three words.
“Trust in God,” Deichmann said. That really sums up [my story]. Learning to trust that God is faithful. That's what I want to make sure comes through in my story because … I don't feel like any of this is really about me. It's about what God is able to do through a person who's willing to step up, step out of the tomb and live a life with God.”