Not content to simply be a United Methodist pastor’s wife, Julia Wilke was a partner with her husband, Richard, in the acclaimed Disciple Bible Study program as well as the Institute for Discipleship that bears their name at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas.
Julia Kitchens Wilke, 83, died Feb. 25 at a hospital in Houston. She is survived by her husband as well as four children, all of whom had entered some facet of ministry.
“She had a legacy of great acceptance of everyone she met, and she was also very committed to making Jesus and the Bible as accessible and as understandable as she could,” said her son, Steve, vice president for planning and new programs at Southwestern College and executive director of the Richard and Julia Wilke Institute for Discipleship at the college.
While Richard Wilke, a former United Methodist pastor and district superintendent, was bishop in the Arkansas Conference, the two began collaboration on the Disciple Bible Study program, which has been completed by millions of United Methodists around the world.
The 30th anniversary of Disciple will be celebrated this year at the Great Plains Annual Conference, as well as the South Central Jurisdictional Conference and General Conference, Steve Wilke said.
“She is truly a co-author of the Disciple Bible Series,” he said. “She was very influential in how it was set up, how it was established, what the basic principles of Disciple were. She did a lot of research and helped Dad with all the manual writing.
“Dad was clear that they did it all together,” Wilke said of his father. “Dad wrote the words, but Mom did all the background research. Mom was a very skilled Biblical archaeology person, self-taught.”
Known for its intense study of the scripture, Disciple began as a 34-week course during which participants read about three-fourths of the Bible.
Disciple was an innovator in that it used video in its lesson plans, bringing Biblical scholars into the churches and homes where the study was taught.
“The Bible studies before Disciple were more academic in focus so that you learned names and dates and such,” Steve Wilke said. “Disciple was more about how the Bible could transform your life. The Disciple Bible Study was designed to help you understand God better, yourself better and your relationship with God better.”
Steve Wilke said that Disciple made participants the focus of the study, rather than the instructors.
“At that time, the people who taught were the ones who learned most of the stuff. They wanted something where the participants did the bulk of the learning,” he said. “(The shift of focus) was very much in Mom’s desire.”
The roots of Disciple, Sarah Wilke said, came from Kansas, when her father was a United Methodist pastor.
"They were trying to get people to teach Sunday school at First (UMC) Wichita and people would say, ‘Ewh, I can’t teach Sunday school. I don’t know the Bible well enough,’” she recalled. “It was to make people feel comfortable and confident enough that they could teach and read and share the story. They did that and a whole lot more.”
The United Methodist Publishing House had set a goal of 20,000 copies of Disciple, Sarah Wilke said, and it and her parents were astonished when it hit the 1 million mark.
“They’ve always been overwhelmed,” said Sarah Wilke, the publisher and world editor of The Upper Room, based in Nashville, Tennessee. “There’s not a place I go where people don’t tell me stories of Disciple. It’s really kind of shocking to me, particularly in Asia, Europe, Africa.”
Another Wilke sibling, Susan Fuquay, edited the 34-week Disciple series down to a “Fast Track” version and has also created a version of the study for teenagers. The fourth Wilke child, Paul, is pastor at Woodlawn United Methodist Church in Derby, Kansas.
After meeting her husband while they were students at Southern Methodist University, where she obtained an elementary education degree, Julia Wilke joined him as he served in Scandia, Salina, Winfield and Wichita. Additionally, she served for 21 years, including a term as president, on the International Foundation for Ewha Womans University, a school in Seoul, South Korea, founded by a Methodist missionary.
A native of Texarkana, Texas, Julia Wilke was also one of the founders of the Pneuma (which comes from the word meaning “wind,” “breath” and “Holy Spirit”) Sunday School class at First UMC in Wichita, for participants in their 40s-60s.
“She probably had a bigger congregation than 80 percent of the churches that met on Sunday morning in that Sunday school class,” Steve Wilke said.
Steve Wilke said his mother wanted church to be a safe place and a fun place for children and adults.
“She wanted people to feel loved when they came to church, just as she wanted them to feel loved by God. She was one those who thought it was OK if the church got a little bit messy if kids were there, if it got a little loud because kids were there,” he said. “She would much rather the church be filled with folks wanting to be there than be a quiet museum. She wasn’t very interested in that.”
Read the obituary.
Learn more about Disciple Bible Study.
Read more about the 30-year anniversary celebration of Disciple Bible Study.
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