The challenge came from the top. Tim Tennent, new president of Asbury Theological Seminary, was concerned when a peer group study placed Asbury next to last in alumni engagement. He turned to Tammy Cessna, director of alumni and church relations, to rally support among graduates for their alma mater.
An avid sports fan and resident of basketball-crazy Kentucky, Cessna knew how a team logo can ignite pride and a fight song can rev up the base. But Asbury had no sports tradition, logo, or fight song. She asked the school’s Facebook friends for help. Her question: If Asbury had a mascot, what would it be?
John Wesley was a slam dunk.
“We have a beautiful John Wesley statue in the center of our campus,” explains Cessna. Much to the maintenance department’s dismay, students occasionally “go out in the wee hours of the morning and dress him up.” On St. Patrick’s Day he’s likely to be wearing green and holding a shamrock. To show support for the neighboring Cincinnati Bengals football team, he may be draped in orange and black tiger stripes. On one memorable June morning, he greeted the Asbury community wrapped in white tissue paper in keeping with the wedding season.
The idea of offering a John Wesley doll to donors as an incentive gift took hold. “I wanted something we could have fun with,” says Cessna. She sent photos of the campus statue to a West Coast toy manufacturer. The company responded with a Wesley prototype but without his signature Bible in hand. No Bible, no deal. “That’s the heart of who we are,” insisted Cessna.
A few tweaks later, she had a suitable product — a Wesley lookalike, complete with Bible. The next challenge was convincing campus administrators that ordering 2,000 “mascots” for the hefty price of $10,600 was a good investment. Cessna built the case that a gift of $15 during the school’s phonathon would cover the cost of a doll and would remind donors of the tradition they shared. Besides, it would be fun. Tennent gave her the thumbs-up to proceed.
“It was wildly popular,” says Cessna of the phonathon’s success. “Everybody wanted the doll.” Donations spiked as alumni reconnected with their roots. “I remember walking into our advancement office and someone called to me, ‘You’re never going to believe this! I just opened a piece of mail from a man we haven’t heard from since he graduated in 1954.’ He sent a check and requested a doll for his grandson.”
Orders poured in from churches that planned to use the dolls as a teaching tool for their Sunday school classes. A Tulsa congregation asked for 100, and sent a note that explained, “We want to get our kids involved.” Retail stores called to see if they could tap into the inventory. Asbury staff members, preparing for a visit by an accreditation team, decided John Wesley was the perfect way to say “welcome to campus.”
The following year, Phase II of the campaign invited alumni to submit photos of their Wesley dolls in response to the question, “Where in the world is John Wesley?” Again, this touched on tradition. Wesley frequently shared his vision of a global church, and Asbury graduates serve in ministry settings throughout the world. Traffic picked up on the school’s Facebook page as alums posted pictures of Wesley at the site of his conversion experience in England, visiting a Civil War battle site in Tennessee, stopping for a photo op at the Grand Ole Opry, and enjoying lunch with missionary kids in North Africa.
“At the end of the campaign we had pictures of John Wesley in 23 countries,” reports Cessna. Among her favorite submissions was a “selfie” of an American woman and her newly adopted Chinese daughter in front of the Great Wall of China. “The first toy the baby ever had was a John Wesley doll,” says Cessna.
The Wesley doll tradition continued with the introduction of John’s brother, Charles, in 2014. “Our fight song — if we have one at Asbury — is Wesley’s hymn ‘And Can It Be,’” explains Cessna. “We sing it at every graduation.” Realizing that she had to step up the game with something new and creative, she added a sound box to the Charles Wesley doll. A gentle squeeze to the doll’s midsection results in a few bars of the popular hymn as played by Asbury’s long-time campus organist. The addition drove up the cost, but didn’t tamp down the enthusiasm. Charles became the incentive gift at last year’s phonathon and rivaled his brother’s success by raising $180,000 in contributions.
To date, the fundraising campaign has brought in almost $400,000. Equally important, “we’ve reconnected with lost alums,” says Cessna. So, what’s next for Asbury Nation? Cessna isn’t sure, but hints that Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles, may be waiting in the wings.
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