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Deepening Roots,

Trustees act to uphold and advance Whitworth's historic mission amid changing church landscape
Edited by Julie Riddle, '92

Beck A. Taylor
Whitworth President
Beck A. Taylor

For 123 years, Whitworth has carried out its founding vision as an institution of higher learning that is Presbyterian in heritage and nonsectarian in identity, and that opens its doors "to all lovers of truth and learning." Today, Whitworth's Christ-centered commitment to its founding principles remains unchanged. In April 2013, amid a decline in mainline church membership and identification, both nationally and among the Whitworth community, the Whitworth Board of Trustees adopted the following actions that affirm and expand Whitworth's historic relationship with the Presbyterian church and elevate the university's theological identities:

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

These decisions are the culmination of a yearlong inquiry a board-appointed task force conducted in anticipation of the June 2013 expiration of the university's current covenant agreement with the Synod of Alaska-Northwest and the concurrent cessation of the synod's functions. The synod is a regional governing body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

In the following Q&A, Whitworth President Beck A. Taylor discusses the diverse voices that informed the trustees' decisions, the Whitworth community's subsequent responses, and what these decisions mean for Whitworth's future.

Q. What did this process reveal to you about the breadth of Whitworth's constituencies?
A. First, I think it's important to know that virtually all of Whitworth's constituencies strongly advocated for Whitworth to remain Christ-centered. The Christian mission of the university was never at stake in these discussions, and neither the trustees nor I would have ever considered weakening that mission as an option. Many marginally church-related colleges and universities have used the kind of process we just concluded as a veiled effort to distance themselves from their Christian missions. Whitworth's Christian mission was never in jeopardy, and I'm so grateful for that.

There was some buzz at Fuller about your new approach - and it was all good. We have been expanding our offerings for Presbyterian students to include coverage of the different polities and confessional documents. So without coordinating this, Fuller and Whitworth are on the same track! And it is the right track! Many blessings.

Richard J. Mouw
President, Fuller Theological Seminary

Where I saw the most diversity was on the issue of how denominationally centered Whitworth should remain. For many Whitworthians, the university's Christ-centered mission trumped any formal relationship with an affiliating denomination. Not surprisingly, this was especially true of our students and younger alumni, who largely grew up in the church during this post-denominational age. Yet, for another very vocal group, Whitworth's continued loyalty to Presbyterianism was of paramount importance. For the people in this group, Whitworth's anchor in the church, and specifically within our historic Presbyterian identity, represented the university's commitment to its Christian identity.

Even among those constituents who strongly valued Whitworth's identity within the Presbyterian church, there were stated differences around which expressions of Presbyterianism should hold priority. For some, the historic mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which in various forms has been Whitworth's covenantal partner since 1890, was most important. For others, the ability for Whitworth to remain connected to Presbyterianism and the Reformed tradition, while also recognizing diversity and distinctions within those traditions as well as across the global Christian church, was most valuable.

Virtually all of Whitworth's constituencies strongly advocated for Whitworth to remain Christ-centered. The Christian mission of the university was never at stake in these discussions, and neither the trustees nor I would have ever considered weakening that mission as an option.

Beck A. Taylor
President, Whitworth University

Whitworth has historically positioned itself as a university that is willing to engage in meaningful dialogue on issues over which faithful Christians disagree; the university's credibility in doing so, as some Whitworthians voiced, was predicated on our remaining open to different theological and ecclesiastical expressions, even within the Presbyterian and Reformed traditions.

Q. What has been the response to the trustees' decisions?
A. I want to commend the board on its efforts to communicate clearly on these decisions. The board knew that this was an important issue for the Whitworth family, and I'm grateful it took as much care in communicating its decisions as it did in making them. Board chair Walter Oliver, '67, and task force co-chair Clark Donnell deserve special recognition for their leadership.

The response to the board's communication has been almost unanimously positive. Every written or verbal communication I've personally received has been strongly supportive. I've heard directly from dozens of alumni, parents, students, faculty and staff, pastors from across the spectrum of Presbyterian life, elected denominational leaders, seminary and university presidents, and community members. To a person, these individuals see the enormous value in Whitworth's Christ-centeredness, and in its ability to relate to and remain vitally connected with various expressions of the Christian church. The thrust of these communications has been, "This decision fits well with who and what we know Whitworth to be. Thank you."

I commend you and your board for the stance you have taken. It seems to me to be especially important that institutions like Whitworth and Princeton function as communities of hospitality and dialogue, drawing together the diverse strands of our church constituencies...I continue to be profoundly grateful for Whitworth's unique vision and ministry.

Darrell L. Guder
Henry Winters Luce Professor of Missional and Ecumenical Theology Princeton Theological Seminary

Q. What do the board's decisions mean for Whitworth's future?
A. Ironically, after a year of study and hours of task force and trustee deliberation, life at Whitworth will remain largely unchanged. The board's direction to the university was descriptive more than prescriptive, meaning that the university's new positioning within church life accurately reflects our existing posture and relationships more than directing us to new ones; our university language and formal identity simply needed to catch up with where the university is now.

The board did give the university community some homework: Over the next year, we will have intentional conversations among our constituencies about what it means to be a university that elevates its Reformed, evangelical and ecumenical identities. Those conversations will be healthy and will reaffirm Whitworth's mission to equip graduates "to honor God, follow Christ, and serve humanity."

Click the following links to read the board of trustees' Statement on Whitworth's Denominational Relationships, the press release communicating the board's decisions, and an FAQ.

 

1890

Whitworth is founded in affiliation with the Presbyterian church.
1983

Whitworth forms a covenant relationship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) due to denominational restructuring at the national level.
1983-2013

Whitworth remains affiliated with the PC(USA) through a non-binding agreement with the Synod of Alaska-Northwest.
April 2012

In anticipation of the June 2013 cessation of operations of the Synod of Alaska-Northwest, Walter Oliver, '67, chair of the Whitworth University Board of Trustees, convenes a task force on denominational relationships.
May-October 2012

The 11-member task force conducts research and commissions two surveys of Whitworth faculty/staff and students.

January 2013

The task force presents its report and recommendations to
the board of trustees.
1983

Whitworth forms a covenant relationship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) due to denominational restructuring at the national level.
1983-2013

Whitworth remains affiliated with the PC(USA) through a non-binding agreement with the Synod of Alaska-Northwest.
April 2012

In anticipation of the June 2013 cessation of operations of the Synod of Alaska-Northwest, Walter Oliver, '67, chair of the Whitworth University Board of Trustees, convenes a task force on denominational relationships.
May-October 2012

The 11-member task force conducts research and commissions two surveys of Whitworth faculty/staff and students.
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