Wood Institute to close in June


By Woody Woodrick
Advocate Editor

A conference institution housed on a campus with Methodist roots dating back more than 100 years will end its ministry in June.

Wood Institute, located on the campus of the former Wood College in Mathiston, will close its doors June 30. The closure was announced in a March 29 news release from Executive Director the Rev. Ron Barham.

Wood Institute was founded in 2003 to address rural and small membership church issues.

The cost of maintaining the facility led to the closure.

"We've always operated marginally," said Barham, who was the institute's founding director. "The income just didn't support 17 buildings. We're not in the red, but we anticipate we will be."

The decision was reached by the institute's Board of Directors after consultation with Mississippi Conference Connectional Ministries, the Council on Finance and Administration and the Women's Division of the General Board of Global Ministries. The Women's Division owns the property and buildings.

Wood Institute received $67,618 in apportionments from the Mississippi Conference in 2007, or 67.6 percent of the $100,000 budgeted. The 2008 budget includes $100,000 for Wood. Barham said those funds will be needed to close out operations even beyond July 1.

The Webster County facility hosted numerous retreats, meetings and conferences over its five-year span. Barham said groups as varied as Survivors of Victims of Homicides, Lay Speaking Ministries and the Society of St. Andrew used the facility. In addition, Wood Institute hosted lay renewal weekend retreats, a seminar for women landowners and safety training for loggers. It provided shelter for Hurricane Katrina victims.

Barham said the Women's Division and the Mississippi Conference provided support but that it wasn't enough to keep the institute running.

"To say the least, I am grieved over it having to close," said the Rev. Dr. Doyce Gunter, a retired United Methodist pastor who served as president of the former college and was on the institute's board and compiled a history of the facility.

"I think that the planning before Wood Institute started was not as well done as it should have been. The institute was saddled with a contract with the Women's Division that was written for the college. There was no way Wood Institute could keep that contract while it struggled to get a program started.

"I also think that we who were on the board had too many different ideas about what Wood should do."

Barham said no decision has been made about the future of the property. The Mississippi Regional Office of the Society of St. Andrew, a hunger-relief organization, is located on the campus.

Wood's history dates back to 1886 when Woodland Seminary was started by two Methodist Episcopal ministers in Clarkson, which is 14 miles north of Mathiston. Two years later the Women's Missionary Division of the Methodist Episcopal Church came to the school's aid. The Women's Division bought land, built a school and named it Bennett Academy. In 1914 it was moved to the present campus to get near the railroad. In 1924 two years of college were added to the high school. 

In 1936 the high school was dropped and it became Wood Junior College.

With the school in danger of closing in 1957, the Women's Division named Dr. Felix Sutphin as president. Sutphin worked at paying off debts and building up the school. After 30 years at the helm, Sutphin retired in 1987, leaving the school debt-free and with an enrollment of 1,400 students.

Gunter took over in 1989. In 1996, he returned to the pastorate. At that time, the school was debt-free and had 1,500 students enrolled. However, enrollment plunged, and in 2003 the school lost its accreditation because of heavy, unsecured debts, forcing its closure.

Gunter said plans are being developed to continue strengthening rural churches.

"I think there is a possible plan shaping up that could be very good for rural churches in Mississippi," he said. "That is a plan to locate rural church consultants in three or four parts of the conference. Details are not in place yet, but I think it could be very good for the rural churches of the conference in the long run."