The Whitworth University Board of Trustees adopted a statement last week that affirms and expands Whitworth’s historic relationship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and elevates the university’s theological identities.

The statement is the culmination of a yearlong inquiry a board-appointed Task Force on Denominational Relationships 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 task force’s charge was to assist the board in studying the range of possible relationships between Whitworth the PC(USA) and to examine whether that relationship should be broadened to include other expressions of Christ’s church.

After deliberating over the comprehensive work of the task force, the board of trustees has adopted 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.

“This is an important day in the life of Whitworth University,” said Whitworth President Beck A. Taylor. “The Board of Trustees once again affirmed the importance of Whitworth’s church relatedness, and it communicated unequivocally Whitworth’s Christ-centered mission. I know the board looks forward to working closely with the university’s administration, students, faculty and staff to better clarify how these decisions will be lived out.”

To read the full background and summary of the board’s statement, please visit Board of Trustees Statement on Denominational Relationships. For answers to questions related to the statement, please visit Denominational Relationships Frequently Asked Questions.

For 123 years, Whitworth has affiliated itself formally and exclusively with the Presbyterian Church. 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). According to the board, those relationships will most likely continue to emphasize supportive projects with specific congregations, presbyteries and synods.

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. This response recognizes the current realities of the university’s growing partnerships with other Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian denominations and entities, and 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.

"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)," noted the news release, "and the university desires to maintain those relationships."

Two task-force-commissioned surveys of Whitworth faculty, staff and students show that 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. (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.

While Whitworth has shared a deep and meaningful relationship with Presbyterianism since the institution’s founding in 1890, the university also elevates other theological identities that shape its educational mission and ethos. The board determined that Whitworth’s Reformed, evangelical and ecumenical identities are inherently more stable and potentially less ambiguous, and they more comprehensively inform how Whitworth carries out its mind-and-heart mission.

“It was important for the board to have a deliberate and effective process for examining our relationship with the current and future identities of the church,” said Walt Oliver, chair of the board.

Whitworth is carrying out the adopted statement through the following actions:

  • In light of the reduced function 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.
  • 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.
  • The university’s identity statements will be revised to emphasize Whitworth’s other important theological identities. In fall 2013, Taylor will lead 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.

Information for this story furnished by Whitworth University.