April 11, 2020

Visionary Ministerial Educator Werner Vyhmeister Passes to His Rest at 88

Marcos Paseggi, Adventist Review

Werner Vyhmeister, a renowned and visionary educator whose service to the Adventist Church spanned almost seven decades in several continents, passed to his rest in California, United States, on March 21, 2020. He was 88.

Remembered for his warm smile and calm but firm demeanor — in the words of Adventist historian George Knight, “a bulldog without a bark” — Vyhmeister enjoyed a fruitful life that took him from his native Chile to Argentina, to the United States, and around the world.

In those and other places, he spearheaded the development of Adventist graduate theological education in ways that have resulted in lasting benefits to the mission of the church. According to Knight, Vyhmeister “was the most influential person in Adventist higher education in the 20th century.”

First Steps

Werner Konrad Vyhmeister was born on September 5, 1931, in Los Angeles, Chile. He was the second of eight children born to Guillermina Bishop and Walter Vyhmeister. His maternal grandfather was one of the two colporteurs who first brought the Adventist message to Chile.

After high school, Vyhmeister went to get his theological training at Chile Adventist College, a two-year program at the time. After completing theological training, he studied at Chile University in Santiago, earning a master’s degree in history and geography. In the summers, he and his brothers earned money by moving from town to town, threshing crops for local farmers.

While studying in Santiago, Vyhmeister served as the pastor of the La Paz Adventist church. It would be the only time in his career that he was paid to be pastor of a church.

With his diploma in hand, Vyhmeister returned to Colegio Adventista de Chile to teach theology and be the general vice-president of the school. After a few years, he felt that he should obtain further education in theology, so he went for one year to Potomac University in Washington, D.C., the precursor of the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, to work toward a master’s degree.

A Momentous Encounter

At the end of a year of studies, Vyhmeister was sent to the 1958 General Conference session in Cleveland, Ohio, as a delegate. On the day of his arrival at the session, he met Nancy Weber in a hotel elevator. She was attending with her mother, who was also a delegate from Argentina. They struck up a friendship that soon blossomed into more. However, after the General Conference session, they had to go their separate ways — she to her first teaching job, and he to a long-planned three-month trip to the Near East. He gave Nancy a precise itinerary so she could send letters to the different post offices in cities he would visit and be sure that her letters would reach him.

This trip strengthened his interest in all things archaeological, and his love for history. He took hundreds of slides with accompanying notes in little notebooks to help identify and label them. He also had an overnight stay in a Turkish jail due to a misunderstanding over currency exchange.

At the end of this trip, Vyhmeister returned to Chile better prepared to teach in the theology department and also convinced that the young woman who had faithfully corresponded with him should become his bride. They married in Argentina in July 1959, and one year later, they welcomed their first child, Heidi. A second child, Ronald, was born in 1962.

In 1966 the family went to the United States so that Vyhmeister could complete his master’s degree, and Nancy could earn a master’s in biblical languages. During that time, Vyhmeister wrote research papers that served as the basis for the first Heshbon archaeological dig. Unfortunately, the Six-Day War in the Middle East intervened and kept him from participating in that expedition.

By the time he returned to Argentina in 1968 with his Master of Divinity degree, Vyhmeister had also defended a dissertation for a PhD in history from the Universidad de Chile. For the next few years, Vyhmeister continued as the dean of theology at River Plate Adventist College and served later as education director for the South American Division (SAD).

A Missionary to North America and the World

In 1975, Vyhmeister agreed to come to Andrews University to teach in the Theological Seminary. This move made him a missionary to North America.

The years on the faculty at the Andrews seminary showed Vyhmeister that there was a problem with centralizing all graduate theological education for the church in one place. The world fields sent their brightest and best to Andrews to be educated, but often they did not return once their degree was completed. This set him to thinking and planning for alternative forms of education that could be based in the students’ home divisions. The first version of this was the Seminario Adventista Latinoamericano de Teología, based in South America. The model was to keep the students close to home and maintaining their employment while moving the faculty around to teach them.

This model proved so successful that it was later adapted and used at universities in Inter-America (SETAI), Southeast Asia (AIIAS), and Africa (AUA). Vyhmeister was instrumental in setting up each of these programs. Together, these institutions educate the majority of individuals seeking advanced degrees in theology within the Adventist Church in ways that are efficient and cost-effective, but, above all, relevant to the local context.

In 1984 Werner and Nancy were called to work in the Philippines. While there, the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS), the international graduate school for the region, was created, and the new campus planned. Soon, however, they returned to Andrews, where Werner was dean of the Seminary.

During his tenure at Andrews, Vyhmeister received several awards and commendations, including the J. N. Andrews Medallion and the General Conference Education Department Medallion of Distinction. He never displayed these awards or made much of them, however, as he felt that what was important was simply to do his job well.

A Unique Style of Leadership

Former friends and colleagues remember Vyhmeister for his commitment to excellence and his commitment to mission. At the same time, they point out his warm qualities as a person and his appealing style of leadership.

“He was a man that I treasured very much, that I liked to count as a mentor,” said Walla Walla University president John McVay in a recorded message. McVay, who served under Vyhmeister at Andrews University, said he appreciates the fact that he always felt treated with respect and trust.

McVay also emphasized Vyhmeister’s style of leadership. “I was blessed by his brand of leadership, an amazing brand of leadership without ego entanglement,” McVay said. “It was a wonderful thing to watch in action and to admire.” McVay also emphasized his constant commitment to service and the mission of the Adventist Church.

Julio Tabuenca, a pastor in California who knows the Vyhmeisters from his youth in Argentina, concurred. “He always showed a willing spirit, willing to serve in any capacity,” Tabuenca said. “And he did with a warm smile. As soon as I think of him, I see that smile.”

Tabuenca also emphasized Vyhmeister’s sense of excellence in academia. “Whatever [Vyhmeister] would do, it had the stamp of excellence,” he said.

An Active Retirement

In June 2000, Vyhmeister retired from full-time educational work, and he and Nancy moved to California to escape the Michigan winters. Even though retired, he stayed active in his local church and frequently traveled to teach in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. He also continued to actively support Adventist theological education around the world.

Increasing health issues meant that in his later years, he no longer taught or wrote. The book he had wanted to write on creation and evolution never got past the planning stages.

By 2018, the ravages of Alzheimer's determined that he could no longer live at home, and Vyhmeister went to live in a nearby facility. Nancy spent many hours each day visiting him and taking him for picnics and outings.

On March 21, 2020, after a brief bout with pneumonia, he rested in Jesus, awaiting the resurrection.

He is survived by five siblings, Gerald, Edwin, Lucy, Ellen, and Helga; his wife, Nancy; his children, Ron and Heidi, son-in-law Christian Prohaska, daughter-in-law Shawna Vyhmeister, grandchildren Alex and Joy, Erik and Emily, and Konrad Sebastian.

In the closing of his video message, Knight said that he is looking forward to the time when Jesus returns, when Vyhmeister and he will enjoy transformed bodies and new hearts.

“I wait for that day to see my friend again,” he said.

Heidi and Ronald Vyhmeister contributed to this story.