July 29, 2019

Emory Hire of Unitarian Universalist Dean Continues Trend in UMC Affiliated Schools

Emory University, a school officially affiliated with the United Methodist Church (UMC), recently hired the Rev. Gregory W. McGonigle, a Unitarian Universalist, as its new university chaplain and dean of spiritual and religious life. Appointed by President Claire Sterk, McGonigle is the first non-Methodist chaplain in the university’s history and will begin work in August at the start of the fall semester.

Emory is a member of the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church (NASCUMC), an association of 114 schools built to work cooperatively and in partnership with the church.

As a Unitarian Universalist, McGonigle will bring a pluralistic vision on religion that emphasizes generalized notions of spirituality to a school that is still formally affiliated with the UMC and is home to Candler School of Theology, one of 13 official United Methodist seminaries. According to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s website, their members do not share common beliefs about God: some in fact, are atheist, while others use the term God to refer to “the creative power of evolution” or “simply the ultimate mystery within which we all must live.” It raises the question what is left of the Christian character of the university when it hires as a head of its religious life someone who distinctly does not adhere to any orthodox Christian faith.

McGonigle’s hiring is another step by Emory to move away from its Methodist and broader Christian heritage to form a post-Christian, pluralistic, and interfaith environment. All this is occurring despite the university’s continued formal ties to the UMC, which it does not hide or deny, ties that go far deeper than the work of the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life.

Notably, according to the university’s charter, the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference must confirm all members of Emory’s Board of Trustees and also has the power to remove members of the Board. Though this would seem to indicate that the most traditional of the UMC’s American jurisdictions has sway over Emory, this is hardly the case. The power of confirmations seems to be largely a ceremonial one with no real weight these days, though Emory has continued the tradition of appointing the current bishop of the North Georgia Episcopal Area to the board (currently Sue Haupert-Johnson), and usually has a few other United Methodists included. The power of removal appears to never be used, meaning Emory’s secular trajectory will very likely continue.

Despite these ties, Georgia’s non-profit regulations and federal laws make it clear that the university is a separate and self-sustaining corporation not controlled by the United Methodist Church, according to Emory vice president and official historian, Gary Hauk.

So while McGonigle’s appointment does not violate any rules, it serves as a stark reminder of the waning influence of Methodism in one of the nation’s most prestigious universities with Methodist history, and home to an official seminary. Emory is not alone is this movement away from the UMC, either. Many NASCUMC schools continue to distance themselves from their denominational roots and publicly oppose decisions of the church. Before the special General Conference in February, NASCUMC’s presidents unanimously approved a letter asking the legislative body to affirm full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life and ministry of the church. These presidents themselves are not necessarily Methodist or even Christian themselves, as it’s not a requirement for the office. Such a statement is nothing new; similar statements opposing the church’s traditional historic teachings on sexuality were also published in 2006, 2011, and 2013.

There has been talk about some nominally United Methodist colleges and universities fully disaffiliating from the church over issues of sexuality, but so far only one, Baldwin Wallace University, in Berea, Ohio, has done so. In light of how post-Christian most of these schools are, some evangelicals have asked how much of a loss such disaffiliations would actually be. With such a clear divide within the UMC in the United States, and numerous petitions exploring separation passed in annual conference gatherings, many of these schools may be compelled to pick a side in the coming years.

22 Responses to Emory Hire of Unitarian Universalist Dean Continues Trend in UMC Affiliated Schools

  1. Mike says:

    There should be certain standards that must be met before any college, university or seminary could claim to be affiliated with the United Methodist Church, and these should include a commitment to historic Christianity with a Wesleyan emphasis. With Emory, I think we should be the ones doing the disaffiliation.

    • David Jenkins says:

      I am not surprised, but it is still shocking. This brings to mind the hilarious line from a recent Country music hit song… “What was I thinkin’?!?” But today the question is re-stated, “What were THEY thinking?!?!?” To many of us who live life in Christ through the lens of the Biblical historic faith, this is incredulous! It demonstrates the level of irreconcilable differences in the UMC, and need to separate completely as soon as is possible!

      • Jim Brandon says:

        Agree. I left the Presbyterian church (as an Elder) over such nonsense and “rock” worship.
        Looks like I might have to leave the Methodist now.

  2. Brad Pope says:

    Predictably slipping down the slippery slope. Candler itself is not far behind.

  3. William says:

    Liberals yell to the rooftops 24/7 about the hatred of others while practicing hatred, much of the time passive aggressively, 24/7. Minus hypocrisy, they would cease being. Placing an “ordained Rev.” Unitarian Universalist in Cannon Chapel of the Candler School of Theology is one of the most egregious forms of hatred of Christianity seen recently!

    • William says:

      And, Emory is now affiliated with a cult?

      Likely much of this is driven by money flowing from their rich, diverse student body (their parents), the research dollars from their government grants, and their liberal private donors. They need a chaplain who stands for anything and everything, especially standing with whatever the next person with money demands. Maybe Candler is placing its bets on this cult and affiliation with it down the road, again driven by money?

      Has not one Methodist protested this and threatened some withholding of money?


  4. Rev. Dr. Lee D Cary (ret.) says:

    And, so, we have another example of the evolution of contextual differentiation, underwritten by the sanctity of diversity, packaged in an academic hall of theological studies where the pastors of tomorrow become acquainted with the intersectionality of the multifarious elements of the divine. And a visiting Tibetan Buddhist hits a large monastery gong to signal the changing of classes.

  5. MJ says:

    Considering that you are just not going to get an evangelically minded UMC dean, wouldn’t you rather get an honest UU clergy over a UMC dean who holds UU views? It’s a close call, I guess.

    • MikeS says:

      Agreed: better to have someone who openly makes no pretenses of being orthodox, than someone who is nominally orthodox but really isn’t.

  6. Denny says:

    Any parent sending their child to Emory is making a huge mistake. It’s become a company selling soft degrees at high cost.

    Since Emory is no longer Christian, consider who is really being served?

  7. Sasha Kwapinski says:

    If you’re just looking for vague, nebulous relativism, the Unitarian church is the place to go. (From a former Unitarian.)

  8. Scott says:

    And they wonder why apportionment giving from traditional AC’s is down. At least elder candidates have Asbury. Try finding a biblical based advanced course of study in the east or anywhere in the us.

  9. Jenn says:

    In the past 10 years, Emory has been striving to become viewed as an organization accepting of any and all beliefs. As an example, the Islamic afternoom Call to Prayer has been sounding from speakers across the campus for a few years now. I certainly don’t see their appointment of a Unitarian as a surprise.

  10. Jim says:

    Nearly 10 years ago, Syracuse University with Methodist foundations, hired a pagan priestess on the chaplain’s staff. Hard to say which appointment is worse- Emory or S.U.?


  11. Elisabeth Staton says:

    I can beat that. The Diocese of Ottawa in the Anglican Church of Canada hired an Indigenous Spiritual Leader who declared he is no longer a Christian, although he was baptized in the church. This is a paid position to teach Anglicans about indigenous spiritual practices.

  12. JR says:

    *Raises eyes to the sky, to gauge how fast it’s falling*

    Sorry, I couldn’t help but laugh at the comments. 🙂

    Unless you want the university to be a part of the UMC – and perhaps restrict enrollment to only Methodist/Wesleyan folks – then I don’t get the concern.

    Because if you bother to read the link from his name in the first paragraph, this person seems ridiculously qualified for a position that oversees multiple faith traditions on campus.

    Unless you want it to be a restrictive university, that is. I’d accept that as a valid point, but I wonder how many of their current students (15,000) would qualify to stay?

    • William says:

      Again, it’s the hypocrisy. Emory is still affiliated with the UMC (on paper), has the Candler School of Theology, a Methodist seminary (on paper) there in plain view. And, this new chaplain is housed in Cannon Chapel, a Christian sanctuary (on paper). No, it is Emory that’s laughing as they rake in the money from their diverse clientele. And, they could care less whether one is Christian, Muslim, et al, or atheist as long as the money flows. Hypocrisy at its finest.

      • William says:

        Dear Emory,
        Since you do not believe Jesus is the Messiah and savior of the world, includes Christianity as just another on a list of religions, use Cannon Chapel (that’s the building with the cross so prominently displayed) for many things other than Christian worship, house your Unitarian Universalist chaplain there under that cross, and claim affiliation with the UMC, don’t you think it’s time to demonstrate those high ideals you claim and declare the truth about yourself as a Unitarian Universalists institution?


  13. Paul Zesewitz says:

    I could see the United Church of Christ hiring a UUA chaplain, but never the UMC, despite all its schisms and discord. John Wesley is probably rolling over in his grave.

  14. Gary Smith says:

    Shouldn’t the Chaplain at a Methodist school be a Methodist?

  15. Dan Quinn says:

    Does the UMC continue to provide funding? I have never thought of Emory as a Methodist school in many years but a school for rich Long Islanders who didn’t get into their first choice

  16. David Slagle says:

    No one has the backbone to just eliminate the position and spend the money on something useful. Please everyone. That always works.

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