Statement on Denominational Relationships

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Board of Trustees Statement on Whitworth University's
Denominational Relationships
Frequently Asked Questions

 

What are the actions the Whitworth Board of Trustees adopted on April 12, 2013?

After deliberating over the comprehensive work of a board-appointed task force, the Whitworth Board of Trustees adopted the following actions:

  • Whitworth will continue in a mutual but nonexclusive partnership with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.);
  • The university will explore and establish other Presbyterian partnerships; and
  • The university will emphasize its Reformed, evangelical and ecumenical identities.

Will student scholarships from congregations or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) be affected by these actions?

We don't anticipate this shift to affect church-based scholarships for Whitworth students in any way. With our strong continuing relationship with the PC(USA), our students will continue to be eligible for the National Presbyterian College Scholarship. We will also continue to match up to $500 of scholarships given to our students by their home churches, regardless of denomination.

Why did the board adopt these actions now?

For the past 30 years, Whitworth's affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been maintained through a non-binding covenant agreement with the Synod of Alaska-Northwest, a governing structure that includes seven Presbyteries in Washington, Northern Idaho and Alaska. Whitworth's current five-year covenant with the synod will expire in June 2013, when the synod will concurrently enter a reduced-function status.

In anticipation of the absence of an active local synod with which to partner, in April 2012 Whitworth began studying the range of possible relationships between the university and its current covenantal partner, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and to examine whether that relationship should be broadened to include other expressions of Christ's Church.

What other factors did the board take into consideration?

Two surveys the task force conducted among Whitworth faculty, staff and students in 2012 indicate that, despite Whitworth's current exclusive affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), less than one in five Whitworth students claim Presbyterianism as their ecclesiastical home. Additionally, just 25 percent of Whitworth's faculty and staff attend a Presbyterian church. (These percentages of students, staff and faculty do not delineate between PC(USA) congregations and other Presbyterian churches, so the percentages of students, staff and faculty who affiliate with the PC(USA) may be lower than reported.) More and more of the university's students, staff and faculty are identifying with other traditions within Christian orthodoxy, including a rise in unaffiliated (nondenominational) identification. These percentages have been declining for years and are indicative of national trends within mainline church membership and identification.

Most church leaders agree that we are in a post-denominational era, and organizations like Whitworth, which have benefited tremendously in the past from their denominational connections, are considering how they can simultaneously honor that rich heritage and relate in new ways to the broader church.

Did current issues within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regarding ordination standards and changing church polity influence the board's decisions?

The board's decisions were made in light and with thoughtful consideration of the continuing controversies within the PC(USA), mainly surrounding church polity and the enfranchisement of LGBT persons in certain rites and offices. Although these controversies are important, and to some extent can and do impact the Whitworth campus, the board affirms Whitworth's identity as a university, and not a church or denomination, and therefore recognizes and supports the university's customary practice to not take doctrinal or ethical positions beyond the centrality of Christ and the authority of scripture on issues that may be more important to determine at the church or denominational levels.

How did the board approach researching denominational issues and options?

After the April 2012 meeting of the Whitworth Board of Trustees, board chair Walter Oliver, '67, formed the Task Force on Denominational Relationships. The task force's charge was to assist the board in studying Whitworth's covenantal relationship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and to examine whether that relationship should be modified to include other expressions of the church. The 11-member task force was co-chaired by President Beck A. Taylor and Trustee Clark Donnell, and its members represented the university's major constituencies: students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, trustees, community members and clergy.

How did the Task Force on Denominational Relationships carry out its work?

Between April-October 2012, the task force met collectively eight times. In addition to these meetings, task force members contacted multiple individuals and constituency groups to gain insights into and an understanding of the issues, and how those issues are perceived across the university's stakeholders. These conversations included university and seminary presidents, denominational representatives, pastors, trustees, alumni, parents, students, faculty and staff. The task force also researched case studies of other colleges facing similar issues, and commissioned two broad surveys of current faculty, staff and students. Members of the task force also received and reviewed multiple unsolicited pieces of correspondence from interested parties.

The task force delivered its preliminary report to the Executive Committee of the Whitworth Board of Trustees in October 2012, and in January 2013 presented its completed report to the Whitworth Board of Trustees for deliberation, leading to the board's April 12, 2013, adoption of the three identified actions.

Why did the Whitworth Board of Trustees adopt the following actions?

  1. Whitworth will continue in a mutual but nonexclusive partnership with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.):

    Whitworth and the PC(USA) have enjoyed a lasting and productive partnership, a partnership that the board holds in high regard. The most meaningful and productive relationships deriving from the university's partnership with the denomination, at least from the university's perspective, have most often occurred with specific congregations, and to a lesser extent, with presbyteries and the synod.

    The historic mission of the university is profoundly important, and the university's historic relationship with the mainline Presbyterian denomination gives rise to compelling reasons to maintain a current and active partnership with the PC(USA). Those relationships will most likely continue to emphasize supportive projects with specific congregations, presbyteries and synods.

  2. Whitworth will explore and establish other Presbyterian partnerships:

    While the board is unequivocal in its decision for Whitworth to continue in substantive fellowship and partnership with the PC(USA), trustees also concluded that the university should explore other ecclesiastical relationships within the broader Presbyterian tradition, and likely with other expressions of Christ's global church.

    Relaxing the exclusivity of the university's relationship with the PC(USA) does not, in the board's estimation, diminish the university's commitments to continue to partner with the denomination, nor does it weaken the university's historic and continuing identity as a Presbyterian institution. Still, this posture recognizes the current reality of the university's growing partnerships with other Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian denominations and entities.

    Establishing other Presbyterian partnerships also supports and affirms Whitworth's identity as a university that seeks broad fellowship and provides sanctuary for thoughtful people to come together and discuss potentially divisive issues.

  3. The university will emphasize its Reformed, evangelical and ecumenical identities:

    While Whitworth has shared a deep and meaningful relationship with the Presbyterian Church since its founding in 1890, the university has also historically elevated other theological and educational identities that shape Whitworth's mission:

    • Whitworth identifies itself as a university in the Reformed tradition. With its emphasis on the sovereignty of God, common grace, the divine nature of truth, and the importance of engaging rather than retreating from culture, the Reformed theological tradition profoundly shapes and directs Whitworth's educational philosophies and culture.

    • Whitworth identifies itself within the evangelical tradition, with its corresponding emphases on the person and works of Jesus Christ, the importance of sharing the gospel message, and the vitality of a personal relationship with Christ as Savior. That identity, too, informs Whitworth's culture and mission in dramatic ways.

    • Whitworth embraces Christian ecumenism. One of Whitworth's greatest strengths is its community of staff and faculty who guide and direct Whitworth's educational mission from a diversity of orthodox Christian traditions, even those outside of the Reformed and evangelical traditions.

What steps is Whitworth taking to carry out the adopted actions?

  • In light of the reduced-function status of the Synod of Alaska-Northwest, Whitworth will enter into functional partnerships with various PC(USA) entities, including churches, presbyteries, synods, and the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities, an independent, non-profit organization in a covenant agreement with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that seeks to strengthen the mission of colleges and universities related to the denomination.

    At the conclusion of the April 2013 board of trustees meeting, the board gave President Taylor directional approval to draft documents establishing functional relationships with the following PC(USA) entities: the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities, the North Puget Sound Presbytery, and the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest.

    In addition, Whitworth's longtime, productive and continued partnership with the PC(USA) was affirmed and deepened in March 2013, when President Taylor was appointed to the board of the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities. To learn more about President Taylor's service to the APCU, please visit http://news.whitworth.edu/2013/04/whitworth-president-beck-taylor-elected.html.

  • Whitworth will maintain its Presbyterian identity in the broadest sense through forming relationships across the Presbyterian tradition. The forms of those relationships could range from simple ad hoc projects to more formal partnerships. Such expansion in the university's stated identity within Presbyterianism is already a reality: many of Whitworth's most historically supportive PC(USA) congregations are moving to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), and the university desires to maintain those relationships. Additionally, Whitworth has sponsored and continues to host a variety of supportive programs for students, staff and faculty that have connections with these other Presbyterian denominations.

  • The university's identity statements will be revised to emphasize Whitworth's other important theological identities. In fall 2013, President Taylor will facilitate conversations among the Whitworth community about the theological identities that shape the institution's mission, in particular what it means for the university to be Reformed, evangelical and ecumenical.

How will Whitworth President Taylor update the Whitworth community on forthcoming decisions made and steps taken related to the adopted resolution?

President Taylor looks forward to working with the university community to examine how the board's decisions can be better articulated in the university's current identity language. Plans are already underway for a fall 2013 series of conversations to discuss how Whitworth will live into the decisions the board has made.

What is Whitworth's historic relationship with the Presbyterian Church?

For 123 years, Whitworth University has affiliated itself formally and exclusively with the Presbyterian Church, although the form of that affiliation and the university's particular covenantal partner within the mainline Presbyterian Church has changed multiple times. In most, if not all cases, any changes to the nature of that partnership were precipitated by changes within the church. The most recent change occurred in 1983, when the university formed a relationship with its current partner, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), as a result of denominational restructuring at the national level.

Since 1983, Whitworth has remained affiliated with the PC(USA) through a nonbinding covenant agreement with the Synod of Alaska-Northwest that stipulates general and mutual agreements to support each entity's mission and purposes. The anticipated expiration of Whitworth's current five-year covenant with the synod in June 2013, and the synod's concurrent reduced-function status, require that Whitworth's partnership with the PC(USA) take another form that allows the lasting and productive partnership to be maintained.

While historically rooted in the Presbyterian Church, Whitworth has also historically elevated other theological and educational identities that shape Whitworth's mission. As a Reformed, evangelical and ecumenical institution of higher learning, Whitworth embraces voices from across the spectrum of Christian orthodoxy.

Will Whitworth continue to be the school that students, alumni, faculty, staff, trustees and friends of the university know and love?

Yes. Since its founding by George F. Whitworth in 1890, Whitworth has affiliated itself formally and exclusively with the Presbyterian Church. While the institution has always been denominational, according to the catalog that year, "[Whitworth] does not aim to be sectarian, opening its doors to all lovers of truth and learning." Whitworth's historic theological and educational commitments remain unchanged. Yet in this current era's rapidly changing denominational landscape, we must – prayerfully, wisely and strategically – seek new ways to uphold and advance Whitworth's mission to provide our diverse students an education of mind and heart, equipping graduates to honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity.