Published April 26, 2017
After 26 years of canoeing on wilderness trips, taking non-traditional approaches in classroom lectures, drawing visuals on napkins during lunchtime discussions and mentoring students and alumni, Dr. Dennis Wilhite plans to retire as a Clarks Summit University professor at the end of the spring 2017 semester.
Wilhite earned a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministries from CSU in 1978. He went on to earn a master’s degree at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary and Doctor of Education in Higher Education Leadership at Nova Southeastern University.
Before his return to CSU as an educator, Wilhite was influential in youth ministry, church leadership and ministry training for nearly two decades. He was the youth pastor for 10 of those years at Calvary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he administrated programming for up to 400 middle school, high school and college students.
In 1984, Wilhite became the founder and director of Pilgrimage Educational Resources. Through this organization, he developed the Wilderness Institute for Leadership Development, the Camp and Recreation Degree Program and a graduate-level Organizational Leadership Program. CSU offers a Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership in partnership with Pilgrimage.
In 1991, God redirected Wilhite back to CSU. Wilhite admits, “I did not see myself as an educator, nor did I have a vision for higher education as a venue prime for doing aggressive discipleship.” But he continued to learn, grow, encounter numerous opportunities and witness God bringing strong results in the lives of students.
At CSU, Wilhite also served as director of the Office for Ministry Development, director of the Global Ministries Division and the dean of the School of Global Ministries.
He is known to admit, “Learning is a messy process.” True to that, his teaching method does not always take the form of a typical lecture. Dr. Bill Higley, vice president for academics, explains, “His style was never linear, but in the end, students all came to realize they had been stretched and pushed into critical thinking in ways they didn’t even know were taking place.”
The man who did not view himself as an educator went on to cultivate learning and application processes that empowered students as they launched into ministries and careers. One of these students is alumnus Tim Walker (’12), who is a lead pastor of Restored Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Walker says, “I would not be who I am and where I am today without his investment in me.”
It was never about the titles, accomplishments and awards for Wilhite—his focus is on making disciples for Christ. Wilhite looks back, “When I think of highlights and successes, they all have faces on them.”
Many students, alumni and employees at CSU share how Wilhite met them where they were at in life, showed them Christ, stirred critical thinking and provided steps for growth. Alumna Jenn Paris (’16) recalls, “He always cares for people at a heart level and is more than happy to make time for a conversation about life. I have learned how important it is to pursue personal ministry with people, not being concerned about my own agenda or desired outcomes.”
Senior Youth Pastoral major Austin Meyer is one of many who will miss this professor and friend. “His genuine care to see me become more like Christ is extremely evident,” says Meyer. “While his influence in my life only lasted a season, his impact will last for a lifetime.”
“Dr. Dennis Wilhite has been CSU’s go-to guy for turning knowledge into valuable experiences,” Dr. Jim Lytle says. “He has helped more students than I can count to start out in the right direction. He’s been a post-graduation friend and mentor that our alumni come back to over and over. I thank God for all Dennis has taught me, and especially for the privilege of serving on the same team with him.”
Wilhite reminds everyone that, “I am just a guy, privileged to have been picked up off the cutting room floor and woven into a huge tapestry of his making. I have been privileged to be part of what He is doing in transforming lives, and for that I am immensely grateful. It is all by his grace.”
Wilhite and his wife Marlene will be celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary in June. Their children are Lorie, Benjamin, Jesse and Joshua, three of whom are CSU alumni. They also have eight grandchildren.
He was honored during chapel earlier this week. Instead of a typical retirement rocking chair, he was presented with a paddle, inscribed with Isaiah 40:31.
“I love that I have had the opportunity and the freedom to experiment, create and adapt approaches to engage students, ignite in them a vision, help them chase aggressive growth and then launch them out into the world on a trajectory of continued pursuit of growth while bringing others along with them,” says Wilhite.
He leaves students with this thought. “It is a wild, crazy and absolutely worthy journey, and you have no idea what it will look like up front. So hold your plans with a very loose hand, and focus on staying attached in obedient faith to the God of the Universe.”