As first school to part with Methodist Church, BW charts independent path

When classes began this Fall semester, it marked the beginning of a new era for Baldwin Wallace, as the school is now an independent university for the first time since it was founded in 1845.

This past April, Baldwin Wallace’s Board of Trustees voted to end the 174-year long affiliation with the United Methodist Church after the church voted to strengthen its prohibition against same sex marriage and LGBQT+ clergy members, said President Robert Helmer.

Baldwin Wallace was the first school in the nation to disaffiliate with the denomination following the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in February. The vote continued prohibiting ordination of gays and lesbians and barring its clergy from presiding at same-sex weddings.

That decision put the denomination at odds with the school’s beliefs, he said.

“The value of diversity and inclusion has been so strong [at BW] for all 174 years,” he said. “Any barriers to supporting our students, faculty, staff [and] our BW community and to providing our BW community the same opportunities wouldn’t be tolerated.”

With the new independent status of the university, the campus remains more open and supportive to all students, he said. The school is continuing to support student organizations and groups that are faith-based, including the Campus Crusade for Christ, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Muslim Student Organization.

In many ways, Helmer said, the move to independence reflects what BW already had become.

“After the Board of Trustees voted in April to disaffiliate with the United Methodist Church, our commitment was that we would be the same university the day after the vote as were before,” he said. “That we continue [to have] our chapel, we continue to support student organizations that are faith based, but we do it as an independent university rather than one affiliated with the United Methodist Church.”

From a financial standpoint, the disaffiliation did not harm BW students who had previously received scholarships from the higher education arm of the United Methodist Church, Helmer said. The special scholarships offered to students who had parents in the United Methodist Church clergy are still distributed, he said.

“Our standpoint was we aren’t going to have any student be harmed from the decision the board made,” Helmer said.

While the break with the United Methodist Church may seem drastic, Helmer said staying affiliated would’ve represented a greater change in BW’s culture and community.

“Had we remained [affiliated], same sex marriage in our chapel wouldn’t have been permitted,” he said. “We felt that being independent was the right way to go. This way, our campus is open, supportive for all students.”

In a press release announcing the decision in April, the university stressed the disaffiliation was based in a desire to remain true to BW’s culture and mission.

“BW’s Methodist founders were committed to inclusion 174 years ago,” said Charles Rotuno, chair of the BW Board of Trustees. “While we value the relationship that we have had with the United Methodist Church, we’ve concluded that becoming an independent university will allow the BW community to continue to fully embrace and embody the values of diversity and inclusion today and always.”

Still, the decision was not made or received lightly. Following the vote to end the affiliation, the university received some backlash from donors of the university, Helmer said. However, he also noted that the “disaffiliation story” made national news, which resulted in an outpouring of support.

“We had people from across the country calling saying they supported us and they were proud of the action BW took,” Helmer said. “So, there was disappointment on the part of some and some strong support on the part of others.”

The overarching goal was to maintain inclusion and diversity across campus, Helmer said, and by ending the affiliation, the university exemplifies its core values of acceptance. When the church voted to strengthen the prohibitions against LGTBQ individuals, the BW community made clear that “we can’t support that; that’s not who we are,” said Helmer.

Though he is ordained as a United Methodist minister, Dr. John Gordon, university chaplain and associate professor of religion, will continue in his role as BW chaplain, according to the university.

BW has long offered worship services on Thursdays in the Chapel, however they are not Methodist-specific.

When disaffiliation was first being discussed Gordon told The Exponent in March that the non-denominational chapel services have “been a longstanding effort to make the campus religious services more accessible to all members of the campus community — not just adhering to a particular denomination.”

‘“Worship that we’re providing is ecumenical, and that’s deliberate, because again, this Thursday service attracts students, faculty, and staff, and the last thing in the world I would want to do would be to create a service that others might feel excluded from,” said Gordon at the time.

According to the Fall 2018 census, less than one half of students identified with a religious denomination. Of the half that practice religion, less than ten percent identified as Methodist, according to data from last semester provided to The Exponent.

In an interview on WESA on May 6, Mark Hanshaw, director of the Higher Education Division of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said BW was the first of school in the country to disaffiliate with the church. There are 93 Methodist-affiliated schools nationwide, he said. Later in May, Mount Union’s board voted to do the same. In late April, Ohio Wesleyan University announced it is taking a “one-year pause in its relationship” with the church.