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Whitworth Campus Ministries Pressured to Step Off the ‘Narrow Ridge’

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Whitworth Campus Ministries Pressured to Step Off the ‘Narrow Ridge’

News Story by Emma Maple

In Spring of 2023, campus ministry at Whitworth University became aware of a growing sentiment among self-identifying theologically and politically conservative students. These students weren’t sure where campus ministry stood on certain issues – issues that the students wanted clarity about in order to feel welcome in the space. 

Storm Family Dean of Spiritual Life and Campus Pastor Forrest Buckner said these students were asking questions such as “is campus ministry really a place where I can grow? Is it going to devalue my perspective or at least not lift up things that I think really matter about who God is in the Bible?” 

There were two main issues these students wanted clarity on: Campus ministry’s theological beliefs and their political stances on some contentious issues. For some of these students, their politics and their theology were inextricably intertwined. 

This conflation of theological beliefs and political beliefs is not unique to Whitworth. Mark Killian, who specializes in sociology of religion at Whitworth, said that religion and politics “have always been intertwined.” 

Mark Killian, Whitworth Associate Professor, Sociology

Killian said this has been especially true in America since the late 1900’s, when religion and politics became so intertwined “that the litmus test for religion is ultimately your politics.” 

Students’ desire for clarity on theological and political stances became apparent when campus ministry began looking for students to become campus ministry coordinators, or CMCs, for the 2023-2024 school year. Buckner said some of the current CMCs who leaned conservative said many of their friends wouldn’t be interested in becoming CMCs because “they don’t feel like campus ministries [are] for them.” 

Pushing Back on the Status Quo

Buckner said campus ministries wanted to learn more about what these students were feeling, so they arranged for students and campus ministry staff to meet and discuss these issues over some Crumbl Cookies.  

“I thought two or three people, maybe four, would show up,” Buckner said. “There were about 50 students. We had to keep making the circle bigger.” 

The first goal the students had at the meeting was to get clarity on where campus ministry stood on certain theological issues, with the hope that campus ministry would talk about those issues more often in chapel. 

Oliver Hammond, one of the students who attended the meeting, said the conversation was a way for the students to sort of “push back” on campus ministry’s status quo.  

For example, the students said they didn’t think campus ministries talked enough about “Jesus being Lord, and the one way to God,” Buckner said. 

“In that case, I was able to say, ‘we absolutely believe that,’” Buckner said. 

The Rev. Forrest Buckner, Whitworth Storm Family Dean of Spiritual Life and Campus Pastor

These students also expressed the desire for campus ministry to spend more time talking about the importance of sin. During that large meeting, Buckner said campus ministries affirmed to students that “we think sin is serious, we’re going to take it seriously, and it is our call to honor God with our whole lives.” 

Buckner said that “there was this really visceral angst that the students felt [at the meeting], like ‘Whitworth isn’t a place for me, there’s no place for me if I talk about the seriousness of my Christian faith and how it plays out. I feel like I’m devalued, I’m pushed down.’”

Desiring Political Stances from Campus Ministries

The second thing students expressed was the desire for campus ministry to take clear stances on certain political issues such as gun rights, sexuality and abortion. Jonathan Grey, one of the students in attendance, said “[Campus ministries] was kind of riding the line and not declaring anything, and we just wanted to know where they were at.” 

However, taking stances on political issues was not something campus ministries would do.

“We’re not going to talk about that,” Buckner said. “That’s not something that we’re going to take sides [on], some of these policy issues.” 

Conservative students were not the only ones hoping for clarity around political issues. Realizing that conservative students might not be the only ones with opinions to share, campus ministry organized a second meeting the Spring of 2023. This time, with self-identifying progressive leaning students. 

Derek Taylor, Emmaus Scholars Program Director, Whitworth University

Around 20 students showed up to that meeting. These students discussed tensions surrounding LGBTQ identities and said they hoped campus ministries would take a stance on this political issue. 

However, “there’s not a lot of things [politically] that campus ministry takes a stand [on],” Derek Taylor, who is the director of Whitworth’s Emmaus Scholars program, said. The Emmaus Scholars program is a year-long intentional living and learning Biblical program for Whitworth students.

Campus ministry’s mission is to “provide opportunity for every student to know Jesus Christ and grow in their faith,” according to Kent McDonald, who works on staff for campus ministry. If campus ministry does draw a line in the sand, they run the risk of alienating students, turning them away instead of helping them walk closer to Jesus. 

“As soon as you make a stance and have to write something down, then we lose a whole other group,” McDonald said. “We’re staying somewhat neutral for the sake of everybody.” 

‘This Is the Tension We Are Balancing’

Whitworth is well known for trying to walk a “narrow ridge,” where it refrains from taking a stance on controversial issues and instead leaves these issues up for debate. But, often, there are people on both sides of this “ridge” begging the University to take a stance on issues so that they feel more welcome. 

Kent McDonald, Young Life Regional Trainer, Campus Ministry, Lecturer in Practical Theology, Whitworth University

This tension is highlighted through issues surrounding affirmation of LGBTQ+ identities, which McDonald described as the “lightning rod issue” of this generation.

He said right now, campus ministries seems to be “in what I call a liminal space theologically, and no one quite knows what to do.” 

“I think we’ve just got to give space [to this issue],” he said.  

In 50 years, he predicts that this issue will be resolved, but right now “we’re in the midst of this beginning. It’s scary and hard and it doesn’t look good on paper.” 

“The safest and best thing we can do right now is try not to ostracize anybody,” he said. “So I think we’re in this space right here, trying to go, how do we move without hurting anybody?” 

McDonald said that campus ministry has taken what some might call small steps in one direction by allowing a student to announce their LGBTQ+ Bible study at chapel.  

He said that allowing the announcement was “risky” because some of Whitworth’s more theologically conservative students “might really be bothered by that.”

However, McDonald said the announcement “falls short” of what Whitworth’s queer students and allies hope for.

“This is the tension we are balancing,” McDonald said. 

He predicted if campus ministry came out with a stance today that said “we are open and affirming…the next month, we would see 30 people in the chapel. You might lose a bunch of our leaders, who are maybe in process.” 

‘If Your Center Is in Christ, You’re Welcome’

While campus ministry shies away from being aligned with either side of the political aisle, the individuals within campus ministry are theologically and politically diverse. One of the reasons for this is that Whitworth does not require faculty and staff to sign one particular statement of faith. Rather, individuals write and submit their own statement of faith when applying for a job.

Killian said that these days, religious diversity often aligns with political diversity because we tend to see certain religious beliefs aligning with certain political beliefs. 

This means that the lack of a standardized statement of faith results in “this super wide spectrum of who gets to work here. If your center is in Christ, you’re welcome,” Campus Pastor for Discipleship Lauren Taylor said. 

There’s also an intentional effort within campus ministry to cultivate diversity within student leadership politically, racially and across gender lines Buckner said. This is so that students can “find someone who they kind of feel like they relate to in that leadership mix.” 

For the 2023-2024 school year, campus ministry decided to hire an additional Biblical Justice Coordinator (BJC) so it could have two students, each from a different end of the political spectrum. 

“We had to, partially because of the polarization of our time,” Buckner said. “It feels like you have to be either one or the other …we said, ‘what if we had two who identify [on opposite ends of the spectrum] but are going to serve together?’” 

Finding Unity in Christ

Although campus ministry is not taking an organizational stance on these political issues, it believes an important part of their mission is to help students navigate these tough political issues. 

One thing it’s doing is also working on programming for the spring, hoping to figure out how to start “respectful, honest, good dialogue” between people who read the Bible differently than each other about all sorts of issues such as queer rights, abortion and more, and trying to “find unity in Christ” according to Buckner. 

“Where great Christians have disagreed, we choose dialogue about this,” McDonald said. 

They also are continually focusing their center on Jesus, and “not focusing on secondary peripheral things,” Derek Taylor said. 

“Our hope is that we point them [students] toward Jesus, the living God revealed in Jesus…not that they agree with me more,” Buckner said. 

Emma Maple
Emma Maple
Emma Maple is a senior majoring in Communication Studies and Peace Studies at Whitworth University. She is the editor in chief of The Whitworthian, Whitworth University's student-run newspaper. After graduation, she hopes to move onto a career in digital journalism with a focus on religion reporting.

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