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Board of Trustees Statement on Whitworth University's Denominational Relationships

April 12, 2013

"Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left, and your descendants will possess the nations and will settle the desolate towns."
Isaiah 54:2-3 (NRSV)

Background & Summary Statement

After the April 2012 meeting of the Whitworth University Board of Trustees, board chair Walter Oliver formed the Chair's Task Force on Denominational Relationships in anticipation of the expiration of the university's current covenant agreement with the Synod of Alaska-Northwest in June 2013, and the contemporaneous cessation of Alaska-Northwest synod functions. The task force included students, staff, faculty, alumni, trustees, parents and clergy. The charge to the task force was to assist the board in studying the range of possible relationships between Whitworth University and its current covenantal partner, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and to examine whether and/or how that relationship should or could be modified and/or expanded to include other expressions of Christ's Church. The task force was charged to meet regularly to discuss the relevant issues and to seek input from important constituencies of the university. Additionally, the task force was given authority to conduct independent research and to investigate case studies of other campuses that are dealing with, or have dealt with, similar issues.

Since its formation, the task force met collectively eight times. In addition to these meetings, task force members worked independently and in teams to contact multiple persons and constituency groups to gain insights into and an understanding of the issues, and how those issues are perceived across the university's varied stakeholders. These conversations included other university and seminary presidents, denominational representatives, pastors, trustees, alumni, parents, students, faculty and staff. Members of the task force also received and reviewed multiple unsolicited pieces of correspondence from interested parties, and the task force commissioned two broad surveys of on-campus constituencies.

After deliberating over the comprehensive work of the task force, the board of trustees has determined that Whitworth University will, with respect to its broader denominational and church relations, adopt the following actions:

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

The board of trustees looks forward to working closely with the university's administration, students, faculty and staff to better clarify how these decisions will be lived out in the context of university life. The board's rationale and decisions are explained in the remainder of this statement.

Relationship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

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. The expiration of the current five-year covenant with the PC(USA)'s Synod of Alaska-Northwest in June 2013, and the announced "reduced function" status of that synod, gave rise to the board's examination of these issues.

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. Although it is not the intent of this statement to describe in detail the outcomes of that long-standing partnership, suffice it to say that 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.

It is the decision of the board that the university continue in a mutual but nonexclusive partnership with the PC(USA). 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. It is the board's view that a departure from those relationships would signal a radical change in the university's identity, and would likely disaffect many of the university's current constituencies.

This portion of the board's decision is 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 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.

To this end, and in light of the reduced function of the Synod of Alaska-Northwest, the board has given the administration the authority to enter into functional partnerships with various PC(USA) entities, including churches, presbyteries, synods, and the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities, which is the denomination's collection of historically Presbyterian institutions of higher learning. The board looks forward to many more years of important and meaningful relationship with Whitworth's historic denominational partner.

Other Partnerships

Although the board is unequivocal in its decision to continue in substantive fellowship and partnership with the PC(USA), the board also concludes 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 wisdom of the board, 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.

Despite Whitworth's previously exclusive affiliation with the PC(USA), fewer 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. (It should be noted that 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 here.) These percentages have been declining for years, and this decline is indicative of national trends within mainline church membership and identification. 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) church affiliation.

Expanding within Presbyterianism, for example, through new formal relationships with other expressions of the Presbyterian Church may be a first step. The board sees strong value in maintaining Whitworth's Presbyterian identity (in the broadest sense) and in allowing for that identity to potentially shape a variety of relationships across the Presbyterian tradition. The forms of those relationships could range from simple ad hoc projects to more formal partnerships. It should be noted that 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, the university has sponsored and continues to host a variety of supportive programs for students, staff and faculty that have connections with these other Presbyterian denominations. Finally, the board sees the pan-Presbyterian approach as supporting and affirming Whitworth's identity as a place that seeks broad fellowship and provides sanctuary for faithful people to come together and discuss potentially divisive issues. This posture affirms Whitworth's role as a university.

Primary Identities of Whitworth University

Since its founding by George Whitworth in 1890, Whitworth University has always shared a deep and meaningful relationship with Presbyterianism, a relationship that will continue. The university also elevates other important theological identities that perhaps have more to do with the practical shaping of Whitworth's educational mission and ethos. For example, 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. Also, 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. Finally, 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.

It is the decision of the board that the university continue to elevate these important theological and foundational identities. Furthermore, the university, in its identity statements, will emphasize the Reformed, evangelical and ecumenical personas of the institution. The influences of the Reformed, evangelical and ecumenical identities of the institution are inherently more stable and potentially less ambiguous, and in reality have more to say about how Whitworth carries out its mind-and-heart mission. Saying that Whitworth is Reformed, evangelical and ecumenical – recognizing that more could and should be said about how Whitworth defines these terms – says a great deal more, today, than saying Whitworth is Presbyterian. Therefore, the board has concluded that the university should work on its institutional language to depend more upon these more informative descriptors, leaving the university's ecclesiastical relationships and partnerships as important, but nonetheless secondary concerns. The board also realizes that the Whitworth community should help in leading that exercise.


These are volatile times for any church-related institution. The dynamic nature of denominationalism is not likely to subside anytime soon, nor are the controversial issues that painfully and regretfully tear at the fabric of Christ's one holy, catholic and apostolic church. But times of uncertainty, division and rancor also give rise to opportunities for leadership. Whitworth University can seize upon that opportunity by continuing to be a place that elevates Christ, puts profound importance on the study of God's Holy Scripture, bears witness to the grace and truth of the Gospel, and engages in the noble enterprise of forging hearts and minds for service to Christ's Church and to society. Whitworth is, can, and should be a place that elevates ideas, a university that is fearless and courageous in its quest for revealed and discovered truth, and a home to faithful Christians who share a love for Christ and a respect for the authority of scripture, despite other differences.

In conversations with the task force members, Whitworth faculty and staff, students, trustees and friends of the university repeatedly used the following words to describe Whitworth's distinctive identity and compelling mission: Christian, Reformed, evangelical, ecumenical, global, missional and Presbyterian. No one of these descriptors, taken alone, captures the heart and soul of Whitworth; but taken as a whole, these seven words can inform and guide the university's ongoing reflection on its relationship to the church and to the culture. In the coming months, the university intends to continue the conversation about its understanding of how each of these terms describes the Christian educational mission at Whitworth.

May Whitworth University, by God's grace, continue to provide its diverse students an education of mind and heart, equipping graduates to honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity. Soli Deo gloria!

Whitworth University Board of Trustees
Adopted April 12, 2013