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Dorothy Jean Furnish

By Linda J. Vogel


Dr. Dorothy Jean Furnish (b. 1921). A United Methodist lay woman called to engage in religious education leadership from that social location. Her life work was divided into two closely connected chapters-twenty years as the director of Christian education in local congregations (Hutchinson, Kansas and Lincoln, Nebraska) and twenty years as a faculty member at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. Her primary foci throughout her ministry included empowering children to know and love the Bible and strengthening the profession of Christian education.


Early Life, Influences and Teaching

Dorothy Jean Furnish was born in Plano, Illinois on August 25, 1921. Her mid-western roots provided her with a sense of who she is and with courage to know that "what is" does not have to determine "what can be." Born into a Methodist parsonage family, she was formed by the Christian faith with the depression and dust bowl coloring her grade school years and World War II providing the context for her college and early graduate school years.

I heard her preach a sermon in chapel at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary just after her retirement after 20 years as a full time faculty member (1968-1988). Her last year of teaching was my first year on the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary faculty so I was blessed to see her in action as teacher and mentor to many students.

Her text for this summer school chapel was from Amos 5:24-"But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (RSV). In the quarter century I have been blessed to know her, I can say that her life and ministry were spent seeking to embody this passage. In that sermon she said:

It was in 1929. I was eight years old, sitting on the front porch of my parsonage home in Earlville, Illinois, helping my mother and a member of the parsonage committee choose wallpaper for my room in our new home. And although we lived in that parsonage for four years, my room was never repapered, because onto that porch was thrown the afternoon paper with the headline: Stock Market Crashes!! The national economic scene had finally touched my eight-year-old existence! And I, along with my family and the farmers in our church, learned to watch grain prices with one eye, and the weather with the other. For it was the right combination of those two factors that might make my new wallpaper possible.

It was 1945. I was in my first job as a director of Christian education in Kansas. Although more than a decade after the Great Depression and the Great Drought of the dust-bowl days, the people of Kansas still felt their impact. "We must be extremely cautious about future plans," some would say. "The next disaster may be just around the corner. We never know when, once more, no rain will fall."

It was several hundred years before Christ. A farm boy in Tekoa watched the weather, and experienced the life-giving qualities of water. And these farm days impacted his life, so that many years later, after he had left the farm and gone to the city, one of his most powerful utterances reflected his understanding of the essential nature of water: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream."

As that eight-year-old girl on the parsonage porch, I knew this verse! I had memorized it in Sunday School, I had even drawn pictures of it for display along the classroom wall. I wasn't sure what "justice and righteousness" meant, but I knew that God could do it! Just as God sends the rain, so will God someday roll down a mighty stream of Justice water!

Already we can see the seeds of her passion for experiencing the Bible with children. Memorizing it, drawing it, imagining it, living into new understandings of it-these were experiences that became commitments which empowered her as a church educator, a seminary professor, a writer, and a widely-loved workshop leader across the church. Dorothy Jean's insistence that children learn in many ways and need to experience and do in order to learn preceded by many years the literature on multiple intelligences.

In her preface to Experiencing the Bible with Children, Dorothy Jean asserts that "the goal of Bible study with children is to open the Bible for them in such a way that they are able to experience the Bible content and discover meaning for their present lives, while keeping open the possibility of future learning and meanings."

She never lost her passion to help children (1) feel into the text, (2) meet with the text, and (3) respond out of the text. She wanted them to know how the Bible came to be, to find ways of engaging the stories and poems and letters and history of the Bible in ways that spoke to them and were developmentally appropriate, and she wanted this experience to spark their imagination.

As her faculty colleague and New Testament professor, Ernest W. Saunders, said, "For D.J. the study of the Bible is not to be a recital of texts but a sharing of experiences which open up new possibilities for existence in ancient times and in contemporary times. That would be truly living the Bible."

Dorothy Jean graduated from Parker High School in Chicago in 1939. She received her B.A. from Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa where she majored in philosophy and religion in 1943. She then enrolled at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois where she received her M.A. in religion with emphasis in Christian education in 1945.

She spent the next twenty years as a Director of Christian education-first in Hutchinson, Kansas (1945-52) and then at First (United) Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska (1952-65). It was in these congregations that she wedded her passion for children and faith with her knowledge of child development and of historical/critical skills for understanding the Bible. She taught both children and teachers of children to know and love the scriptures. It was also during this period that she became known as "D.J."

In 1965, D. J. enrolled as a doctoral student in the joint Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary/ Northwestern University Ph.D. program. She also served as a part-time director of Christian education field education at the seminary while she pursued her degree. Her dissertation was "An Historical Analysis of the Work of the Director of Christian Education" (Northwestern University, 1968).

D.J. never forgot her years in the parish and she brought her commitment to educational ministry in the church into her classrooms at the seminary. She was appointed as a faculty member in the field of Christian education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary when she received her Ph.D. where she served until her retirement (1968-1988). She served as acting academic dean during the winter quarter, 1982. D.J. developed an outstanding religious education curriculum library (RECL) at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary that continues to serve both graduate students and congregations.

D.J.'s commitment to Christian education was also embodied in her life-long participation in the Christian Educator's Fellowship (United Methodist Church) where she served on the national board of directors from 1970-74, and in the United Methodist Association of Scholars in Christian Education with its biennial consultations at Estes Park, Colorado and Jekyll Island, Georgia. She also served the denomination as a member of the Curriculum Resources Committee of the United Methodist Church (1976-84) where she served in the Children's Section as well as the chairperson of the Curriculum Resources Committee's long-range planning committee.

She was actively involved in Wheadon United Methodist Church in Evanston. This small congregation committed itself to a form of shared leadership between ordained and laypersons and has a long and strong record of standing for justice against racism, heterosexism and poverty. It advocated prophetically for justice for children and for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered persons. I remember D. J. telling me once that Wheadon was "her family."

Perhaps her most significant and lasting contribution to theological education and educational ministry in The United Methodist church came as she birthed a vision for a program that would allow local church educators to complete their master's degree in Christian education while continuing to live and work in their congregations across the United States.

Birthing the vision was not hard because she was in touch with many educators across the country who kept asking her if there was a way they could earn a theological degree without uprooting themselves and their families to come to Evanston. Some of them were sole providers for families and could not give up their positions. So it was that as they talked and dreamed, D.J. envisioned a way for Christian educators to earn their master's degree in Christian education while continuing to serve full time in their congregations.

Figuring out how to do it, and convincing a theological school faculty to accept this way of earning an M.C.E. degree were two different things. "How could this be without sacrificing standards?" mused many of her faculty colleagues. Debra G. Ball-Kilbourne shed some light on this as she reflected on her experiences with D.J. as teacher and mentor:

[D.J.] demonstrated the kind of influence a Christian educator has when he/she is not limited to 'getting the orange juice' for VCS but instead operates as a visionary leader, opening doors for all ages of learners to walk through so that they can be equipped for the ministry of Jesus. Many of the doors she opened or enlarged for me included education for and about justice.

When I think of an apt symbol, describing D.J., it might be best captured as "velvet covered steel." I have seldom known a more gracious woman. I do not believe I could have learned from a more perceptive educator. I could not have had a more powerful role model of professionalism or Christian care. She was passionate that students would develop a genuine love for their craft but she was adamant that every student get a quality education and a fair shake.

I suspect that it was D.J.'s strong commitment to both opportunity and justice for all who are called into ministry (lay and clergy; those who could re-locate and those who could not), and her persistence that may have caused her to appear to her faculty colleagues as "velvet covered steel" as she proposed and promoted her plan for a master of Christian education degree that could be made accessible and delivered to those "in ministry." The format and delivery systems would be different, she argued, but the quality and the degree would be the same.

In 1986, the faculty voted to establish the in-ministry track for delivering the M.C.E. degree. For two years following her retirement in 1988, D.J. continued to serve as Director of the "MCE-in-Ministry" program-serving as advisor to students from across the country who were completing their M.C.E. degrees while working and serving in congregations and national church positions. This program still exists and now five M.A. degrees for persons preparing for specialized ministries and/or to be deacons in the United Methodist Church can be earned "in ministry."

More than thirty students have graduated because of D.J.'s vision and persistence in convincing the faculty to create an in-ministry degree. They serve across the church in congregations, as conference staff members, editors of church school publications, and on national boards and agencies. These experienced women and men have an impressive publication record of their own. This program continues to serve students from Florida to Arizona and from Tennessee to Iowa.

While I believe D.J.'s strongest passion was to help children learn to know and love and live the Bible, she also was deeply committed to Christian education as a profession. She knew she was called to be a laywoman in the church. She helped many women discern their calls as she asserted that all are called to ministry by their baptism. Some are called to be ordained elders, some are called to diaconal forms of ministry, and some are called to exercise their ministry as professional lay persons in the church. As the second fulltime woman faculty member at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (after Georgia Harkness), D.J. mentored many women including Sharon Z. Rader and Charlene Kammerer, both now bishops in the United Methodist Church.

D.J.'s passion for justice never dimmed. Darryl Jackson, a 1981 alum of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, returned to preach at our Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration in January, 2002. Before he gave his benediction, he said, "The last time I preached in this chapel more than 20 years ago, Dr. D.J. Furnish came up to me after the service and said, 'Darryl, that was a great sermon, but I don't believe God is a man. Why did you call God, he? I'd just like her to know, now, I'm getting it right!" And he did! It was a joy to me, as I was preparing to write this article, to have this articulate pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in Chicago embody what he had learned from her long before I came to teach in this place.

D.J. was always clear that there is no place for the "isms" of our day in the church. She has spoken and written and taught that sexism and heterosexism and ageism and racism and classism are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If I were to describe D.J., it would be with phrases like these. She is a liberal who loves the Bible. She is a feminist who advocates strongly for inclusion everywhere, including language and gender and sexual orientation, but who is patient with those who move slowly. She is a wise woman who stays the course even when it means being uncomfortable. As Bishop Sharon Rader said in a letter to me:

I remember one time when a delegation of women students demanded a meeting with the president. We took D. J. into the meeting with us. At one point, our badgering of the president got so painful he began to cry. "What do the women want?" he asked. Brazenly, I began to tell him. Later when the meeting was over D.J. said to me, "I would never have presumed to speak for all the women, Sharon. What you said was probably right, but how could you speak for all the women?" It was a gentle question, but a strong reminder to acknowledge my own shortcomings and fallibilities.

Following retirement D.J. continued traveling across the United States, leading workshops and inspiring teachers of children to teach so children would love and learn and live the Bible. She led workshops and lectured in 30 states and in Canada in both protestant and Roman Catholic settings inspiring laity to love and share the Bible with children.

D. J. and her friend, Mary Jo Ostermann, now reside in Louisville, Colorado where D. J. continues to correspond with former students and colleagues across the country.



  • Furnish, D. J. (1995). Adventures with the Bible: A sourcebook for teachers of children. Nashville: Abingdon.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1990). Experiencing the Bible with children. Nashville: Abingdon.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1979). Living the Bible with children. Nashville: Abingdon.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1976). DRE/DCE: A history of a profession. Nashville: Christian Education Fellowship.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1975). Exploring the Bible with children. Nashville: Abingdon. Also published in Korean as Orini Songsov kyosupop. Soul T'ukpyolsi: Taehan Kidokkyo Ch'ulp'ansa. 1987.

Chapters in Edited Volumes by and about Furnish

  • Furnish, D. J. (1993). Rethinking children's ministry. In D. S. Schuller (Ed.). Rethinking Christian education: Explorations in theory and practice, (73-84). St. Louis: Chalice Press.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1986). Women in religious education: Pioneers for women in professional ministry. In R. R. Ruether & R. S. Keller (Eds.). Women and religion in America: 20th Century, vol. 3, (pp. 310-338). New York: Harper.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1984). The director or minister of Christian education in protestant churches. In M. Taylor (Ed.), Changing patterns of Christian education. (193-204). Nashville: Abingdon.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1982). Let's liberate the Sunday school. In Christian Century. v. 99. Apr. 14. (450-451).
  • Furnish, D. J. (1978). The future of the profession (Director of Religious Education) in the protestant church. In M. Harris (Ed.). Local church parish education, (204-216). New York: Paulist Press.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1978). Henry F. Cope. In B. W. Kathan (Ed.). Pioneers of religious education in the 20th century (A Festschrift in honor of Herman E. Women). Religious Education. (Spec Ed, Sept.-Oct. 16-24).
  • Vogel, L. J. (1997). Dorothy Jean Furnish: Claiming teachable moments. In B. A. Keely (Ed.). Faith of our foremothers: Women changing religious education (136-147). Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox.


  • (1990, Fall). Sophia Lyon Fahs. Liberal Religious Education.
  • (1978, March). Auto-Cycle. Church School. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1977, v. 10, no. 4, December). The Bible is my book, too. Christian Home. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1976, v. 71, July-August). De-Feminizing religious education-A double bind. Religious Education.
  • (1975, v. 1, no. 2, Fall). The treatment of sexuality in church school curriculum materials. Explor (62-70). Evanston IL: Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
  • (1966, v. 19, no. 12, August). For the superintendent of the youth division. Church School (30). Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1965, v. 18, no. 5, January). Learning and living through giving. Church School (6-7). Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1963, v. 16, June). Tradition or rut? Church School. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1961,v. 15, December). We share in membership training. Church School. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1961, v. 14, June). How shall we plan? Church School. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1960, v. 20, April). Helps for using the Methodist hymnal. The Methodist Woman (40).
  • (1959, v. 12, August). One key person. Church School. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1958, v. 12 September). A do-it-yourself project helped us. Church School. Nashville: Graded Press.

Curriculum Resources

  • (1995). Romans, I & II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians adult study leader's guide. Journey through the Bible. 14. Nashville: Cokesbury.
  • (1973). Free to believe. Course design guide for school of religion series. Late Teens. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1966, March-April-May). Workers all: A unit of two sessions for junior highs. Junior Hi Times. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1963, July; August). On becoming yourself: Teaching helps. Workers with Youth. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1963, April; May). Christ above all: Teaching helps. Workers with Youth. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1963, January; February). The church-What it is and what it does: Teaching helps. Workers with Youth. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1962, October;November). You and your Creator: Teachers' helps. Workers with Youth. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1961, January, February, March). Make up your own mind: Three sessions for junior highs. Our Intermediate Fellowship. Nashville: Graded Press.
  • (1960, October). Working together with junior highs. Workers with Youth. Nashville: Graded Press.

Book Reviews by D. J. Furnish

  • (1977, v. 59, October). An invitation to religious education, H. Burgess. In Anglican Theological Review. (1977, v. 72, March-April). The DRE book, M. Harris. In Religious Education.
  • (1976, v. 71, November-December). Foundations for Christian education in an era of change. M. S. Taylor (Ed.). in Religious Education.

Unpublished Curriculum

  • (1974, Summer). The auto-cycle planning guide. (A learning center approach to Christian education for children for vacation church school), The United Methodist Church.
  • (1975, Summer). The Auto-Cycle Planning Guide (Revised).
  • (1976, June). An independent study learning center approach to Christian education: Planning guide. Auto-Cycle. Chicago: Northern Illinois Conference.
  • (1975, Summer). The times of our lives: Vacation church school for adults. Auto-Cycle. Nashville: Parthenon Press.
  • (1975, Summer). The times of our lives resource guide for adults. Auto-Cycle.

Major Addresses and Lectureships

  • The Sunday School: Myth and Reality. Plenary lecture at the Ohio School of Ministry, August, 1995.
  • Robert F. Jones Lecturer in Christian Education, Austin Theological Seminary (Texas), February, 1983.
  • Calista Olds Lectureship in Biblical Studies, Defiance College (Ohio), October, 1979.
  • Children and the Bible. Plenary address, National Conference on Ministry with Children, Nashville, July, 1979.

Web Resources

    Sophia Blanche Lyon Fahs, Papers, bMS 72, 1880-1889 … The Theology Implicit in the Writings of Mrs. Sophia Lyon Fahs" by V. Emil Gudmundson bMS 72/12 (35) "Women in Religious Education" by Dorothy Jean Furnish.


  • Furnish, D. J. (1995). Adventures with the Bible: A sourcebook for teachers of children. Nashville: Abingdon.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1990). Experiencing the Bible with children. Nashville: Abingdon.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1976). DRE/DCE: A history of a profession. Nashville: Christian Education Fellowship.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1975). Exploring the Bible with children. Nashville: Abingdon. Also published in Korean as Orini Songsov kyosupop. Soul T'ukpyolsi: Taehan Kidokkyo Ch'ulp'ansa. 1987.
  • Furnish, D. J. (1986). Women in religious education: Pioneers for women in professional ministry. In R. R. Ruether & R. S. Keller (Eds.). Women and religion in America: 20th Century, vol. 3, (pp. 310-338). New York: Harper.

Author Information

Linda J. Vogel

Linda J. Vogel, Ph.D. (University of Iowa, 1981), served as professor of Christian education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (Evanston, IL) for sixteen years before retiring in 2003 as Professor Emeriti and Senior Scholar. She is a deacon in the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.