Fight Over LGBTQ Inclusion Roils Ohio’s Methodist Universities
Ohio Wesleyan University is quiet after the end of the semester, a calm campus belying an internal struggle.
Though most students are gone for the summer, school president Rock Jones is still grappling with the United Methodist Church’s decision to maintain a ban on LGBTQ marriage and ordination.
“Clearly this decision stands in stark opposition to values that are important to Ohio Wesleyan,” Jones says.
Every four years, the United Methodist Church holds a general conference where almost 1,000 delegates made up of clergy and non-clergy gather to discuss and vote on issues within the church. But February's conference in St. Louis was specially called to discuss whether to change church teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman, and that “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” are not to be ordained as ministers.
“I thought the conference would endorse the 'One Church Plan,' which was the plan endorsed by a large majority of the bishops and council of bishops that would have allowed individuals in local congregation to follow their conscience rather than be bound by a single position governing the entire church,” Jones says.
Jones himself is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and president of the University Senate. That organization decides which schools are in good standing with the church and puts out a List of Approved Schools, although it doesn’t offer uniform funding to schools.
Jones hoped the church would change its teachings regarding LGBTQ marriage and ordainment. When it didn’t, he made a tough decision.
“Ohio Wesleyan has chosen to take a one-year pause in its relationship with the United Methodist Church in this way,” Jones explains. “Once every 10 years, the church through the University Senate visits each of its schools, colleges and universities. Our visit is due in the Fall of 2019.
"After the results of the general conference," he continues, "I announced that we would defer our visit until the Fall of 2020 in the hopes that between now and the summer of 2020 a new form of Methodism would emerge that is fully inclusive.”
And if church law remains place?
“I think the relationship could end," Jones says.
The special conference vote forced all of Ohio's Methodist universities to consider their paths forward. One school – Baldwin Wallace in Berea – already ended its affiliation. The remaining four must now determine how to balance values of inclusion with their historic relationships with the church.
The church visit delay is exciting news for Ohio Wesleyan student Sydni Simpson.
“I think it’s a really good thing with what they’ve been doing recently with the LGBTQ+ community,” Simpson says. “Since I technically am a member of that community, that makes me happy that they have that reaction to that.”
Freshman Micaela Kreutzer wants to see the school eventually disaffiliate.
“I think it is important to step back, even if it is something that is in the roots of the school, to support the kids who go here,” Kreutzer says.
Not all students feel so strongly. For Chase Dusek, the move doesn’t mean anything personally. He wrote in an email that he’s conservative, but doesn’t care that the school has any religious affiliation.
Westerville’s Otterbein University is also affiliated with the Methodist Church, and like Jones, Otterbein president John Comerford opposes what the church calls the "Traditional Plan."
“We’ve gone on record officially as dissenting from this policy," Comerford says. "We will not change the nature of what we do on campus and our inclusivity on campus."
He predicts the church may look very different soon.
“The general sense is there’s gonna be a lot that happens in the United Methodist Church in the next year,” Comerford says. “The way this all shakes out is not yet fully known.”
The church’s regularly-scheduled general conference will happen in May 2020 in Minneapolis. Both Comerford and Jones predict the issue of LGBTQ ordination and marriage will be discussed again.
The Traditional Plan
In February, the "Traditional Plan" received 438 yes votes and 384 no votes, according to the United Methodist Church’s website. That means 53 percent of delegates voted to reaffirm the church’s values, and 47 percent of the church did not.
The conference also approved a disaffiliation plan, which gives guidelines to congregations that want to leave the church in the decision's wake.
Keith Boyette leads Wesleyan Covenant Association, an organization that promotes a traditional interpretation of Methodism. He supports the LGBTQ ban and says the Bible is unequivocal in defining marriage as being between one man and one woman.
“I’m saddened that there are those who reject essentially what the Bible says in order to reach something that they’re contending for,” Boyette says.
He says it’s not up to Methodists to change church teaching, but rather to live out church teaching regardless of the political climate.
“Oftentimes in the church, we’re put in opposition to the cultures in which we live,” Boyette says. “And that’s just part of our journey as Christians.”
Ohio’s United Methodist Church is divided into east and west conferences. Gregory Palmer, regional bishop of the West Ohio Conference, says what it means to be a Methodist school has changed over time. Now, schools are now less financially tied to the church.
“Decades ago, many conferences would make a large, sometimes six-figure grant of funding to those institutions across the years,” Palmer says. “But money ties ceased a long time ago.”
The General Conference also does not dictate law to schools, he says.
“(The church) has a seat at the table historically,” Palmer says. “The money tie ceased a long time ago, and it doesn’t mean that a college may not get a grant from a conference for particular work on that campus.”
Ohio’s other Methodist universities – Ohio Northern, Mount Union, and Baldwin Wallace – have taken varying stances on the issue. Ohio Northern disagrees with the ruling but will stay with the church. Mount Union will discuss the issues at an upcoming Board of Trustees meeting.
Trustees at Baldwin Wallace University, which was founded as a Methodist institution in 1845, voted unanimously to completely disaffiliate from the church. Baldwin Wallace’s president declined to comment for this story. In a statement, the university said that becoming independent allows it "to continue to fully embrace and embody the values of diversity and inclusion today and always."