By Stephen Rankin
A number of news items on the recent purported disaffiliation of Southern Methodist University from The United Methodist Church demand clarification. Given that I have something of a front row seat on the matter, I’d like to clean up a few misconceptions and offer a thought or two on what I think SMU’s action means. This situation presents something of a test case for the church’s role in higher education.
As I start, I lay down one important caveat. Although I work at SMU as university chaplain, I have no inside information on this situation. More importantly, I do not in any way speak on behalf of the university. The President and the public affairs office handle that responsibility. At the same time, I do have, I believe, some useful viewpoints that will help interested persons think clearly. I offer them in that vein.
The Basic Issue
On December 4, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference (SCJC) of The United Methodist Church filed a civil suit petition in Dallas County, Texas, contesting the recent decision by Southern Methodist University’s board of trustees to re-write the terms of the university’s relationship with the SCJ. The church is arguing that SMU does not have authority to make this move without the SCJ’s approval. The university counters that it does have that authority, on the basis of Texas state law governing business organizations. From the university leadership side, the change is necessary for good governance while retaining a real relationship with the church. From the church’s side, SMU’s unilateral decision represents an unwarranted declaration of independence.
It has been reported from a number of sources that SMU is disaffiliating from The United Methodist. The use of that term is misleading and, in my view, unwarranted. SMU is not disaffiliating if disaffiliation means a repudiation of any connection with the church. SMU is clearly not repudiating a relationship with the church. In the new organization, SMU will maintain a certain number of board positions for members of The United Methodist Church, including a spot for a bishop. The name – Southern Methodist University – continues.
At the same time, under the new arrangement, SMU will not need to get approval for any decisions the board of trustees makes. Even though, in terms of mission and day-to-day operations, SMU has operated free of church intrusion, currently, certain major decisions require approval by vote of the SCJC. A recent example comes from 2008, when the university had to seek approval from the SCJC for the establishment of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Having a presidential center on one’s campus is a huge boon. To have to go to a body of people only remotely connected to the school for approval on something with such major impact is the sort of problem university leaders of any school would like to avoid. In the future, if SMU wins the civil case, they will not have to bother with taking such steps.
Many of the reports of disaffiliation also have drawn a straight line between the 2019 General Conference decision on same-sex relations and the university’s move to re-write the church relationship. This is adding two and two and getting five. Other schools have explicitly connected their move to disaffiliate with the UMC’s decision and, yes, colleges and universities generally take a much different position than the church’s. While SMU has long had an anti-discrimination policy that specifically includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories, and, while the university president wrote a letter to campus reiterating this position shortly after GC 2019, it is a big stretch to tie SMU’s recent decision to the church’s battles over sexuality. I’d be a fool not to recognize some influence, of course, but it really is not very much.
(Update: It now appears that the 2019 General Conference decision on sexuality played a larger role than I previously understood, per this morning’s Dallas Morning News piece. The whole interview with the SMU president shows that my larger point about the future still holds.)
From where I sit, this move is more about the future than the past. Many denominational leaders now openly acknowledge that the UMC as we know it now will not survive. Like many others, I think the May 2020 General Conference will be a watershed. The rubber band has stretched as far as it can.
Let’s do a little thought experiment. What will happen to schools like SMU in the event of the formation of three or more successor denominations? With which entity does a school like SMU align, if at all? One only? Which one? All? On what terms? Because I have spent many years in United Methodist higher education, I have asked a few of my friends directly involved in negotiations for separation how they saw future relationships between institutions like colleges and universities and the church. They acknowledged the importance of the topic, but gave me a “we’ll have to get to that question later” kind of answer. I admit to a good deal of sympathy for any college or university seeking to avoid that thicket. Imagine a school’s destiny if it became entangled in struggles over properties and endowments. Again, I don’t know how to read the specifics of SMU’s recent move, but I do understand what a nightmare it would be for the school to get caught in those denominational machinations.
As I said at the beginning, the SMU situation may provide something of a test case for other schools in other states. If Texas state law trumps church polity, what might it mean for other UM-related schools seeking similar relief? How does a non-profit corporation that transcends state boundaries maintain oversight of their local work if state law is interpreted to give total control to that local unit? I’m not even sure I am asking the right question, but I believe that this is one of the matters for which the case will shed light.
Basic Question Re-Emerging
The situation between SMU and the SCJ re-focuses a longstanding dilemma for church-related colleges and universities, though often unnoticed. It has been the case for a long time that SMU, indeed most of our denominationally affiliated schools, has enjoyed freedom to run itself as it sees fit. It therefore has operated free of any meaningful church control in terms of mission and operations. SMU hires who it wants. It admits the students its wants. Its curriculum follows the dominant canons of scholarship and teaching without any worry whatsoever of religious intrusiveness. Questions of church control have centered entirely on the aforementioned structures. What, then, does it matter, if SMU wants to reduce the number of UM board members?
At the same time, it does seem to loosen further an already tenuous tie between church and academy. Unless carefully-considered measures are put in place to prevent it, this move may very well signal the deeper entrenchment of a kind of secularist or pluralist campus ethos. Many schools associated with erstwhile mainline denominations have sold their birthrights on this score. I wish it were not the case. Thus, risking a display of piety, I pray for a good outcome for the university and for the church. We need each other.