Q&A: Emphasizing ties to United Methodism

The Rev. Cameron West, 62, spent more than two decades in UM parish ministry before going into higher education, first at Brevard College (N.C.) as vice president and dean, and since 2003 as president of Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Ala. He’s touted in Bishop Will Willimon’s recent memoir, Bishop (Abingdon Press), with having turned around Huntingdon. Full-time enrollment has nearly doubled during his tenure.

One of Huntingdon’s key strategies under this pastor-president has been to emphasize and strengthen the school’s United Methodist identity, including having the cross-and-flame on its website, and offering handsome scholarships to UM students.

Cameron West

Mr. West spoke recently with managing editor Sam Hodges. The interview was condensed for clarity and space.

How does being an ordained UM elder, with experience leading churches, inform your leadership as president of Huntingdon?

First and foremost, I consider [college presidency] my ministry—the way I do ordained ministry.

When I was interviewed for the presidency here, there was a question: “How can a preacher ever really understand what a college president does?” My response, without being flippant, was that a preacher has to raise his salary and the salary of his staff and pay the light bill every week.

If you’re going to have an unapologetically United Methodist college that is going to embrace the denominational identity, then being a pastor certainly helps. There’s no learning curve.

I also think pastors have to bring people together around common goals and missions, and certainly college presidents have to do that.

Many of the colleges and universities that are United Methodist-related don’t trumpet that fact in their publications and online materials. Huntingdon definitely does. Why emphasize your UM roots and identity?

That’s been the cornerstone to invigorating the college. It was smart marketing in terms of recruiting and raising money, but it also has integrity. It’s who we are. It’s what makes us distinctive. We offer a $10,000 scholarship to all United Methodist students as a way of saying how important that is. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We’ve built our brand around three words—faith, wisdom and service—which are taken right out of the college’s motto. You’d be hard pressed to find a student on campus today who can’t articulate that.

I can’t speak for other schools, except to say that the stance Huntingdon has taken is probably the exception rather than the rule. You see a definite move away from explicit identification with the church the more you move out of the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions.

What changes have you made since becoming president in 2003 to enhance the religion-related course offerings and majors, as well as other study opportunities, at Huntingdon?

The college, when I inherited it, had a cultural and religious studies major which was basically a phenomenological study of religion. The college had eliminated its Christian education program several years before I got here.

We said our religion department is obviously a place where we want to have an academic study of religion, but we want to have it be the servant of the church. We got rid of the cultural and religious studies major and created a religion major and gave it several foundations: one in biblical studies, one in theological studies, one in historical studies.

We now have a religion major, which prepares people for seminary or for graduate school, and a Christian education and youth ministry major, which also prepares people for seminary or graduate school but also for immediate employment in the church. We also have a music worship leadership concentration within our music major.

We have four or five graduates a year now who go on to seminary. And, gosh, I can’t count the number of people who do [church] internships. I know that at First UMC in Montgomery, a few blocks down the street, they have six [Huntingdon] interns at any given time.

Our religion department has five full-time faculty members, and there was one and a half equivalent [positions] when I got here. We have a full-time chaplaincy now, and it was very part time before. We have two chapel services a week—not mandatory, but very well attended.

How important is it that UM churches and conferences build relationships with UM-affiliated schools?

I think the future of the denomination depends on it. If you look at the discussion coming out of General Conference and out of most general church agencies, there was almost no mention of higher education, which is incomprehensible to me. One of the joys of working with Bishop [Will] Willimon and Bishop [Larry] Goodpaster before him and Bishop [Paul] Leeland now is that they are all products of United Methodist undergraduate education. They understand how important a strong United Methodist college system is for the leadership of the denomination.

What has being a college president, surrounded by young people, taught you about how the UMC should change in order to remain relevant to the young and be less of a graying denomination?

Young people grasp information and knowledge of any sort now much differently than people of my generation. Whether I’m giving a convocation address or a baccalaureate sermon, it’s got to be much more conversational and it’s got to have a much stronger narrative thread that is directly related to things that young people have experienced.

Young people today have experienced such a diverse and diffuse world, compared to my generation. We were just past the age of Christendom. The church as an institution was still so much the cornerstone of life—the institutional church, the denominational church. That’s just not the way it is anymore. We’ve got to be aware of that.


Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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I worked in a UMC affiliated university. There was little, if any, difference between it and a secular private school. There was chapel and a campus ministry staff, just as there would be at any Wesley foundation on a secular campus. There was a religion major, but it had been watered down to a purely academic exercise. There was a pervasive "all roads lead to God, just engage in social justice" mantra that was not the gospel. The main tie to the UMC was financial.

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