Jan. 3, 2013
For Rex Matthews, associate professor in the practice of historical theology, 2012 was an award-winning year. At Commencement in May, he received the Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award, the most prestigious award for teaching given by Emory University. The same summer, he received a 2012 Exemplary Teaching Award from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church. Add these to his distinction as the 2010 recipient of Candler’s student-selected “On Eagle’s Wings” award for excellence in teaching, and you’ve got a trifecta of teaching tributes.
For Matthews’ current and former students, though, the year doesn’t matter: Every year he spends in the classroom is worthy of an award.
“I have learned from many teachers throughout my life, but there have been only a few that have fundamentally changed me as a person. Dr. Rex Matthews is at the top of that list,” says Angie Long, a third-year MDiv student. Long explains that prior to coming to Candler, she had little religious education and no background in The United Methodist Church. “Having spent two semesters studying under Dr. Matthews, I feel I am equipped with the tools and resources I need to serve the church.”
Matthews, who teaches the history and theology of Methodism, comes from a family of teachers. Most notably, his mother worked in education for 30 years and is in the Tennessee Teachers Hall of Fame. Matthews was at seminary when his family history played out: He realized that his calling was “not to the congregation and the pulpit, but to the classroom and the podium,” he says.
Still, Matthews’ work in the classroom very much informs his students’ work in congregations.
“Dr. Matthews’ class prepared me for ministry by providing a space to pound out theological issues while applying the results to real life situations,” says Jay Cooper 12T, who is associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Ala. “I carry his compassionate spirit with me when I make visits to parishioners, teach Sunday school classes, preach, and walk with folks through the storms of life.” Cooper says Matthews’ lessons have paid off in situations ranging from family counseling to advising youth groups.
Matthews describes his task in teaching as helping students learn, understand, and interpret their place in a history of faith.
“Family stories are important; they identify us and tie us together as a family,” says Matthews. “I really want my students to know their family story. At a big picture level, that’s the Christian family story, but more particularly, for the students I teach, it’s the story of The United Methodist Church, the story of our tradition set within that larger story.”
Matthews accomplishes this by bringing a range of primary sources – letters, hymns, sermons, and diaries – into the classroom. He also draws upon his own abilities as a storyteller.
“Dr. Matthews masterfully composed anecdotes to serve as the prelude for his lectures,” says Sarah B. Miller 10T, pastor at Reeves Memorial United Methodist Church in Orlando, Fla. “They would draw students into an atmosphere ripe for learning and application. I still remember these anecdotes, and I remember the lectures to which they corresponded.”
Miller is quick to note, though, that Matthews does more than just lecture: “He takes the time to learn about his students and to learn from them. It demonstrates that to be an accomplished teacher, one must remain a dedicated pupil.”
Long concurs: “His love for and commitment to his students is evident in that he always makes time to answer questions, offer advice, or just talk.”
While Matthews is always there to talk to his students, he tries to ensure that they also spend some time talking to John Wesley.
“I love introducing people to Wesley,” he says. “What I really want to do is introduce my students to Mr. Wesley, get a good conversation going, and then get out of the middle of it.”
Matthews notes that one of the best pieces of advice he received as a seminary student was to seek out at least one conversation partner who lived in a very different time and place. “People have had all kinds of conversations partners – Aquinas, Calvin, Luther. Wesley is that conversation partner for me, and I hope Wesley will become that kind of conversation partner for my students.”
Matthews’ commitment to his conversation partner and his subject matter has inspired many of his students.
“He made John Wesley and Methodist history come alive for me,” says Kimberly Jenne 12T, pastor of Webster Hills United Methodist Church in Webster Groves, Mo. “His passion for the Christian faith and the rich heritage of Methodism was inspiring and challenging every day in the classroom.”