Methodist disaffiliation off the table

The statue of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, stands outside the Monumental Chapel to represent VWU’s Methodist heritage.

McKenna Howenstine|Marlin Chronicle

Following the Methodist church’s removal of a ban on LGBT clergy, as well as mandatory penalties for gay marriage, Miller looks forward to a continued partnership.

In response to the United Methodist Church (UMC) repealing a ban on LGBT clergy, President Scott D. Miller chose not to disaffiliate with the UMC. Miller brought attention to the decision via email on May 1.

“In a historic vote today at the United Methodist Church General Conference, held in Charlotte, North Carolina, the church delegates voted 692-51, repealing a 40-year ban on LGBTQ clergy. The vote also removed mandatory penalties for performing same-sex marriages, bans on LGBTQ candidates for ministry, and bans on funding for gay-friendly ministries,” Miller wrote.

Had there been a different outcome, Miller said that the university would have considered initiating the disaffiliation process.

With many direct ties to the Methodist leadership, Miller frequently communicates with those involved in decisions as influential as legislation and policy. “I told them this was the year that we were going to decide, and if they didn’t change, we were going to drop them,” Miller said.

However, given the results of the conference, Miller said that he looks forward to continuing the affiliation. “The changes satisfy our requirement to stay affiliated with the United Methodist Church,” he said.

Miller pointed to the changes experienced by the UMC and acknowledged the greater good of them. “The end result is a United Methodist Church that is smaller and less financially affluent than before, but which represents those ideals that we consider to be the most important,” he said.

Miller emphasized the significance of the vote. “As a lifelong Methodist, as a graduate of the United Methodist institution, as now the president of three institutions that have had historical relations with the United Methodist Church, the changes that were approved delight me, and I think that the future for Virginia Wesleyan with the United Methodist Church as a partner is bright as a result of these changes,” he said.

 Miller has been consistently vocal about human rights, including the three-year period he occupied the role of President of the National Association of Schools, Colleges, and Universities of the United Methodist Church (NASCUMC). 

An article from the UMC’s “Higher Education & Ministry” website page published on Jan. 6, 2020, quoted Miller: “For United Methodist-related educational institutions, it’s also a vital step. It would foster the kind of inclusive community in our churches that we already respect and value on our campuses.”

Miller has also enacted this advocacy on campus, notably when a previous vote retained LGBTQ exclusions. “We protested that by taking down the United Methodist flag,” Miller said.

“The debate over LGBTQ rights in the United Methodist Church has been going on in some form for the last half century, and Virginia Wesleyan applauds the Church for finally choosing the path of inclusion. Today, we are especially proud of our United Methodist heritage and look forward to a brighter future for the Church and its people,” Miller said in a May 1 email.

Dr. Craig Wansink, the director of the Robert Nusbaum Center and chair of Religious Studies, spoke on how the landslide votes in favor of repealing the LGBTQ-targeted bans indicate the direction the Methodist Church is moving.

Wansink made the point that affiliation with an organization comes with constant assessment of the messages that it represents. “If you’re a part of any organization, an ongoing question is: If the organization has a policy that you disagree with, because an organization has many policies, at what point do you say, ‘Well, this is my opportunity to change from within?’ Or at what point do you say, ‘It’s just time for me to leave because I don’t want to be associated with this?’” Wansink said.

This identity-related turmoil sought resolution at the recent conference. As explained in Miller’s May 6 Nota Bene email, the UMC holds a conference every four years for delegates to convene and “decide on doctrine, governance, and other issues within the denomination.” 

After a delay from COVID-19, the discussions for this year’s conference have had four extra years to accumulate.

The decisions from this conference reflect topics pertinent to modern life. According to an analysis by The Rev. Taylor W. Burton Edwards from the UMC website, Methodist leadership proposed legislation that allows churches to leave the United Methodist Church if they’re upset by discussions and decisions made about human sexuality at the 2024 General Conference.

As an elaboration on the changes this conference sparked, an AP article stated, “Without debate, General Conference has removed The United Methodist Church’s ban on the ordination of clergy who are ‘self-avowed practicing homosexuals’—a prohibition that dates to 1984.”

Wansink offered a perspective on the impact of intertwining religious and personal identities. “It has been a confusing and disorienting time within the Methodist Church, …people on both sides of the issue have had to stand up for what they see as their identity and what the identity of the Methodist Church should be,” Wansink said.

Miller echoed this sentiment as he reflected on the institution’s history. “In 2017, when we moved from being Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk to being Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, our corporate governance documents were reviewed at that time also,” Miller said.

This marked the shift to a relationship with the UMC defined more by historical ties than religious ones. Miller continued, and said that due to uncertainty about the UMC’s future, “…those documents were changed to essentially make us an independent institution that had a historical relationship with the church rather than the church having any say over policy or curriculum or social activities on campus.”

Miller emphasized the importance of remaining independent from church influence at a time when its values were still up in the air. “We didn’t want them to be dictating anything that we disagreed with,” he said.

As it stands, Miller expressed contentment with the university’s current status and religious partnerships. He pointed to Haygood United Methodist Church (HUMC) and the opportunities created through its affiliation with Campus Ministries. “With Haygood as our active partners, it’s a cost-effective way to recognize our history with like minded partners, and to provide our students who are interested in the ministry to be involved in a church that thinks like we do,” Miller said.

Campus Ministries operates under the leadership of Marie Porter, director of Student Ministries, who is also a member of HUMC. Senior Amaris Nolan, a member of Campus Ministries, said she thinks the school’s Methodist affiliation adds to the university’s inclusivity, especially with Porter as a support for students.

“As someone who works with campus ministries and has seen the way Marie works to create a safe and loving environment for everyone, I believe that their presence on campus is a benefit,” Nolan said.

For Miller, this subject resonates deeply as an individual and a professional. “I’m a lifelong Methodist. We [VWU] were founded in 1961 by the United Methodist Church. We are proud of that historical relationship, even during tough times,” Miller said. 

According to Miller, this portion of the institution’s identity should not be brushed aside or disregarded. “There’s no shaking the fact that they were our historical partners. We were together through thick and thin during these last few years,” Miller said.

Miller continued, “While our relationship with Haygood has grown and been strengthened, we have, to a certain extent, paused our relationship with the national church, while the national church has searched for and resolved their issues that we consider to be inconsistent with our mission and purpose.”

Although disaffiliation was not necessary, Miller solidified the school’s determination to remain prepared to act in alignment with values of inclusion and maintain affiliations with organizations that reflect its mission.

By Lily Reslink