Is Iliff pagan? United Methodist seminary is supportive of Unitarian Universalism, atheism, and outright Paganism (Photograph of Iliff Hall courtesy of Wikipedia.org)

United Methodism’s Iliff Seminary Embraces Paganism

UMVoices on February 14, 2022

This article is contributed by Matt Jameson, a concerned United Methodist layman from Missouri. 

One might assume that the official seminaries established and still heavily funded by the United Methodist Church would have a core commitment to the Christian faith, broadly understood. More informed United Methodists would at least expect that even the progressivism in our seminaries would remain Christian liberalism. But our denomination’s Iliff School of Theology in Denver has actually progressed so far to be oddly atheism-friendly and actually promote completely different religions – Unitarian Universalism and outright Paganism. And Iliff’s pagan connections run deeper than many realize. 

Iliff, as a United Methodist seminary, receives funding from the church’s Ministerial Education Fund (MEF). The MEF is a large chunk of the apportionment payments demanded of local United Methodist congregations. According to official data compiled by Joe Kilpatrick, between 2009-2016, Iliff was supported by an average contribution of $806,763 per year from the fund. But with all of that money, they only educated an annual average of a mere 11 people ordained into American United Methodist ministry (out of a yearly average of 516 total ordinands). Iliff is not merely generously subsidized by United Methodist apportionments, but it is disproportionately supported, receiving an average of $71,712 per ordinand, well above the $48,942-per-ordinand average for all 13 official U.S. United Methodist seminaries. (Attempts to seek updated statistics from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the General Council on Finance and Administration, and Iliff itself were unsuccessful.)

Given this amount of support, it may surprise the average United Methodist that Iliff intentionally trains clergy to promote Unitarian Universalism and that outright Paganism is openly practiced by people who study and work at Iliff.

Iliff’s extensive statement of its many “Core Values” makes clear the United Methodist seminary’s commitment to intersectional, progressive social justice, but says nothing directly about God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible. This official statement does not even have anything particularly Christian beyond passing references to the school’s “United Methodist heritage.” Another official statement declares, “Support of the LGBTQIA+ community is a core value at Iliff” and reports, “Since we began tracking the metrics in 2015, 35% of our student body has consistently identified as LGBTQIA+.” In deference to this constituency, the seminary has offered an entire course devoted to “Queer Spirituality in the Visual Arts,” in which students can explore such topics as “Queer Tarot.”

Iliff School of Theology: where commitment to the LGBTQIA+ cause is a core value, but following Jesus Christ is not. 

This sidelining of Christianity seems to deliberately reflect the school’s commitment to a pluralist religious ethos. One current staffer and alumna has publicly said, “The Iliff School of Theology is a United Methodist school of higher education but its alumni and students are Hindus, Universalists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics….” An alumni profiles section of the website—the sort of place where schools brag about select alumni of whom they are particularly proud and with whom they want to publicly identify the institution’s reputation—includes a glowing profile of a minister of a “social justice-oriented” United Methodist congregation in Iowa in which “people identify as Catholic, Methodist, Buddhists, Unitarians, agnostics and spiritual seekers.”

Apparently, even something as basic as belief in God is not a boundary for Iliff. The alumni profiles section also celebrates a chaplain who is part of the atheistic American Humanist Society. And a faculty profile highlights an Iliff professor who “now describes himself as a ‘lapsed Buddhist,’ and a current atheist.”

Iliff’s influences from neo-paganism and Unitarian Universalism are especially noteworthy. The former is a loose movement of Westerners rejecting mainstream religion to re-adopt various religious beliefs and practices from pre-Christian Europe. The latter is a liberal, post-Christian religion known for its belief in the relativistic equality of different religions. Unitarian Universalists often call themselves “UUs” for short.

Even when students first apply to Iliff, they may interact with an admissions representative who is a self-described member of the “LGBTIQ+ community” and pagan priestess, or as her official bio puts it, she “is ordained with a Norse pagan organization called Forn Sidr of America and serves as their Gudellri/head clergy.” Shouldn’t official ambassadors for a school so heavily funded by the UMC be Methodist, or at least some sort of Christian?

Such pagan influence is seen in the culture of Iliff’s student body. The seminary’s student government is “an elected representative body” called the student Senate. An official seminary email sent in November to alumni celebrated the election of five student leaders to this body. Two stand out in particular: Kyndyl Greyland and David Dashifen Kees. Their profiles in the official Iliff email read:

Kyndyl Greyland (they/them) Co-Chair

Kyndyl is a fourth year MDiv student. Originally from Columbia, SC. They now live in West Plains, Montana, where they work at Wyte Rayvn Church, an inclusive Wiccan Church.

And,

            David Dashifen Kees (they/them) – Secretary

Dash is a fourth year MDiv student living in Alexandria, Virginia. They are Jewish and practiced Judaism into their teenage years, but encountered Paganism in the mid-90s and have been following that path since then. Dash is one of the initiates of the Firefly House in Washington DC – an organization for Wiccans, witches, polytheists, and other magic workers – and works with the house to offer public Pagan religious and educational events.

(The content of that email has been posted here after removing only identifying information about the original recipient.)

Note how both of these individuals cite their “preferred pronouns” as “they/them,” indicating a choice to identify as non-binary-gendered, neither male nor female. 

According to Encyclopedia Brittanica, Wicca is a relatively recent religious movement “whose followers practice witchcraft and nature worship and who see it as a religion based on pre-Christian traditions of northern and western Europe.”

A local news report in late 2019 identified Kees as “a Wiccan priest” and gave Kees a chance to share about how “there are people in the community that take action through magic, through spell work” against actions of the Trump administration.

Kees is also highlighted on Iliff’s website under “Iliff Stories – Welcome to my journey.” This profile shares about how Iliff helped the Kees become a better, more diversity-allied pagan leader. Kees shared how that “the language and ritual structure of many [pagan] traditions is explicitly linked to a gender binary, something that has caused strife within the trans community within Wicca.”

Publicly lifting up a transgendered Wiccan as a model student leader seems like an odd choice for a United Methodist seminary. But this appears to honestly reflect Iliff’s values. 

In addition to four-fifths of Iliff’s student leaders identifying as pagan, the UMC-apportionment-funded seminary has also recently offered a course on “Social Justice in Western Earth-Honoring Traditions.” The class’s official objectives:

  • “Explore broad views of social and earth justice through the lenses of various modern, Western earth honoring traditions, such as: goddess spirituality/Wicca, polytheism/animism, eco-womanism, creation spirituality and deep ecology.
  • Consider the social justice implications of a theological reorientation from monotheism to polytheism
  • Rediscover the roots and potentialities of Western earth-based religious traditions for the pursuit of social justice without appropriating indigenous cultural traditions
  • Identify the pitfalls of Western-based earth-honoring traditions in perpetuating norms and practices of inequality and injustice especially in terms of racism, gender-based dualisms, and cultural appropriation.”

In an introductory video, the professor explains that she asks all students in this class to “engage in a regular practice of Earth honoring and connecting that, somehow collectively, to thinking about social justice in the context in which you are living and working” (begin around the 0:45 mark). That Iliff professor is Dr. Julie Todd, a self-described “radical sexual liberationist” who surrendered her United Methodist ordination credentials in protest of the 2019 General Conference’s adoption of the Traditional Plan. 

There’s nothing wrong with United Methodists wanting to have good interfaith relations, whether it’s with Pagans, Jews, Muslims, atheists,  or adherents of other religions. There’s also no problem with studying other philosophies and theologies that are non-Christian, but doing so from a distinctively Christian standpoint. Yet, given that Iliff has an admissions counselor who is pagan, multiple student-elected leaders who are pagan, a web page highlighting one of their pagan students and a class dedicated to pagan spirituality, the situation seems go beyond just seeking good interreligious relations.

But Paganism at Iliff is not an entirely new thing. Already by the late 1990s, Iliff’s Coordinator of Academic Administration was an alumna who also served as national president of an organized faction of Unitarian Universalists who identify as pagans (see page 7 of this newsletter and page 4 of this one). So it seems that Iliff has a history of having staffers who are not just dabblers, but key national leaders within the American pagan community. Might Iliff have been slowly but increasingly leavened by such pagan yeast over the last couple of decades?

In addition to its pagan spirituality class, Iliff also very intentionally devotes coursework to preparing students to lead and advance the post-Christian religion of Unitarian Universalism. The Iliff website even-handedly lists “Unitarian Universalist” alongside a handful of Protestant denominations whose leaders the seminary is especially committed to serving. Iliff elsewhere makes clear that the United Methodist seminary has chosen to offer courses required for Unitarian Universalist ordination, including “Unitarian Universalist History” (whose syllabus speaks of the material as “our religious history”) and “Unitarian Universalist Polity & Mission” (a class which clearly has little purpose other than helping students prepare for UU ordination).

The alumni profiles section also includes celebrations of individuals Iliff has helped launched into spreading Unitarian Universalism. One such profile seems intended to market to potential UU students how Iliff would be supportive environment for their post-Christian faith, another celebrates Iliff’s role in how one student “found a home in with the UUs” [sic], and another concluded with a (now-outdated) link to “a resource for Iliff students and prospective students” who are UU.

Again, nothing is wrong with having good relations with Unitarian Universalists. But why is a heavily UMC-apportionment-subsidized institution intentionally training clergy to serve and advance a tradition historically rooted in rejecting the divinity of Christ?

Iliff’s desires to pander to non-Christian constituencies and to avoid treating any sort of Christianity preferable among belief systems is evident in other classes. For example, a 2022 statement on “Learning Areas and Goals for Spiritual Care Courses” states: “Spiritual care courses at Iliff prepare students to become community faith leaders and chaplains who practice spiritual self-differentiation by” developing a mindset “that truly respects religious differences by not enacting a hierarchical system of religious/spiritual traditions and practices, with some more superior or truthful than others.”  While talking about “spiritual and/or religious practices,” the syllabus for a “Pastoral Theology & Care” course adds a seemingly apologetic footnote saying: “Humanist, pagan, and first nations communities are examples of traditions or cultures that do not use terms like spiritual or religious to describe themselves. We acknowledge that our use of these terms may be less relevant for them.” One key text for a course on “Ministry and Human Sexuality” was produced by Unitarian Universalist Association.

The situation is comparable to the apportionment-funded Claremont School of Theology, which, although another UMC-affiliated seminary, has been criticized for offering classes and degrees designed for Islamic clergy.

While there are some restrictions on how seminaries like Claremont and Iliff can use apportionment moneys they receive, the apportionments strengthen their overall budgets. 

All of this raises the question of why should the UMC fund clergy-training institutions which are not committed to, and sometimes openly undermine, such values as the divinity of Christ and the moral standards of the United Methodist Book of Discipline?

  1. Comment by Dan W on February 14, 2022 at 5:16 am

    I must have clicked on the Babylon Bee website by mistake. UM congregations struggling to pay appointments will not be pleased. But honestly, have they been pleased in the last 10 years?!

    Peace : )

  2. Comment by Bill on February 14, 2022 at 10:51 am

    Having graduated seminary at Regent University, when I came into the UMC I was eventually informed that I would need to get ANOTHER Masters Degree from UM Seminary. But I could have gone to this school or another ultra progressive UM Seminary and been ordained years ago. I received a strong, vibrant, Biblical, academically rigorous, spiritually powerful education at Regent but it was not acceptable while a school that promotes witchcraft would be OK. This is not merely indicative of the problem, this IS the problem. In the GMC, we will HAVE to maintain a tight watch on Professors and Seminaries. We will need to be discerning and discriminating. This situation is not merely untenable, it just plain stupid.

  3. Comment by Mary Bass on February 14, 2022 at 11:06 am

    Great article! Thank you.

  4. Comment by Palamas on February 14, 2022 at 5:35 pm

    Given that the Western Jurisdiction is essentially a wholly owned if not legal subsidiary of the Unitarians (who themselves have a significant pagan contingent in their ranks), this seems like a perfect arrangement. The school obviously needs to be sold to the UUs, who can then pay for their own clergy’s “education.” Then the Western Jurisdiction needs to be transferred en masse to the Unitarians as well. Most of its remaining members and churches will fit right in.

  5. Comment by David on February 14, 2022 at 9:27 pm

    Were it not for paganism, Christianity as we know it would likely not exist. Life after death for members only, gods having children with mortal women, Saturnalia (Christmas), etc. are all features of Roman era mystery cults. Indeed, one cult had a ceremonial meal called “eating the god.”

  6. Comment by Dan W on February 15, 2022 at 6:37 am

    Nice trolling David. The Enemy has been deceiving humans since Eden.

  7. Comment by David on February 15, 2022 at 7:54 am

    The serpent of Eden is described as a “creature.” In the days of Job, Satan was walking about heaven and earth. He was obviously not the same being despite Gospel comments to the contrary. In the tale of Gilgamesh, he was given an herb that provided eternal youth, but it was stolen by a serpent before he could use it. Paganism appears in many places in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

  8. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on February 15, 2022 at 10:59 am

    I think this is a fair point as Genesis does not explicitly identify the serpent as Satan. It isn’t clear if Satan himself is appearing in the form of a serpent, or if he possesses the serpent, or if he simply deceives Adam and Eve into thinking he’s the serpent. This is why we read scripture in the context of the Christian tradition, understanding what other biblical authors have written. The tradition understands the identification of the serpent as Satan as appearing in later texts. This imagery is used extensively in Revelation.

  9. Comment by Anthony on February 15, 2022 at 9:58 am

    My local UMC, with which I’m presently estranged, is moving ever so discretely into the progressive camp just completed its rather aggressive fund raising campaign with clever religious laced wording woven into the marketing communications. The word used over and over in the communications — MISSIONS of the greater church. One of the greatest deceptions occurring in the UMC, and has been for years — so many lay donors who continue to be fooled by the liberal rhetoric and lies with relation to their giving who are purposely locked out of the truth as to where their apportionment monies are actually going.

  10. Comment by Star Tripper on February 16, 2022 at 9:57 pm

    David is the snarky gamma in the crowd. At any rate, selling off Iliff and the rest of the theological detritus in the UMC and start over. If there are not buyers, burn them to the ground and salt the earth.

  11. Comment by Daniel on February 17, 2022 at 12:25 pm

    I’m shocked, shocked to find that there’s paganism going on here. Now give me my meat that was sacrificed to idols so I can eat dinner. 🙂

    Well, at least UMC doesn’t have the word Christian in its name so they can’t be sued for false advertising.

    On a humorous note, there was an orthodox Anglican blog that featured a section on The Episcopal Church called “Fresh Hell,” which featured the latest goings on, similar to what gets described here. Perhaps Juicy Ecumenism can start a column call “Fresh UMC Hell.”

  12. Comment by Donald on February 19, 2022 at 7:19 am

    I’m wondering if any of our Presbyterian (PCUSA) seminaries have reached a similar level of Hell?

  13. Comment by David Gingrich on February 19, 2022 at 12:29 pm

    Is Duke University far behind?

  14. Comment by John Smith on February 19, 2022 at 1:08 pm

    The only ones surprised at a Methodist seminary not adhering to orthodox Christian doctrine would be those who have not paid attention for the last few decades. I would be more shocked to hear the Methodists were funding an orthodox seminary. Ashbury, for example, gets about $0, correct?

  15. Comment by Jim Radford on February 20, 2022 at 8:38 am

    I totally agree with your assessment regarding Iliff. When I was in seminary, many years ago, some of the professors and students jokingly said that Iliff’s take on the song, “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” is really “Nature Loves Me, This I Know.” That’s a cryptic and caustic comment. But I thought it was humorous. And very sad, actually. I recently finished reading Soren Kierkegaard’s little masterpiece, The Sin unto Death. Kierkegaard, who never used the term “leap of faith” (but it is certainly implied, and has been extrapolated from his thought), nonetheless certainly believed that one must leap. But what The Sin unto Death suggests is what constitutes such a leap is a “leap” into the belief that Jesus Christ is all that He claims to be, and all that the signs and mighty works–particularly the resurrection–proclaim that He is. Kierkegaard said, essentially that the Sin unto Death is, not only despair from being unwilling to be oneself (and I read that as one’s true self as defined by God and not defined by oneself or in relation to oneself–which is essentially the basic sin of LGBTQIA), but sin is defined by him as “the possibility of offense,” meaning, being offended by who Jesus is (or else merely indifferent to Him). I take that to mean the very image of the invisible God, the One with Whom we have to do, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, the sole holder of the keys of hell and death. In short, and for Kierkegaard, the “rock of offense.” Iliff, as well as many other seminary curriculums, don’t get it. My tiny two cents. Good for you for having pointed up the syncretistic heresy it is.

  16. Comment by Jim Radford on February 20, 2022 at 9:46 am

    Drat. I keep mistakenly misquoting the title of Kierkegaard’s above-named book, actually The Sickness unto Death, as “The Sin unto Death.” I know better. But I’ve gotten it into my head (because that’s what Kierkegaard is certainly suggesting) that The Sickness unto Death, is, in fact, “sin,” but it is sin as defined by the author as the opposite of faith. He essentially says that the sickness unto death is despair, and it comes in two forms: 1) one’s unwillingness to be oneself, and 2) one’s willingness to be oneself (as defined in relation to itself, which I have long believed is the essence of sin). The Sickness unto Death is a fine read, in my view. The following is an apt quote from the last chapter: “This (meaning, the indifference of the world toward Jesus’s own call to believe, as in “Thou shalt….”) however must be understood with a certain qualification in these times, inasmuch as Christianity is so poorly preached as it now is. There doubtless are living thousands of men and women who have heard Christ preached and have never heard a word about this “shall.” But he who has heard and says, “I have no opinion about it,” is offended. For he denies the divinity of Christ when he (or she) denies that it has a right to require a man to have an opinion. It is of no avail for such a man to say, “I do not affirm anything about Christ, either yes or no”; for then one has only to ask, “Hast thou no opinion as to whether thou shalt have an opinion about this or not?” and if he replies, “Well, yes,” he has trapped himself; and if he replies, “No,” then Christianity condemns him all the same, requiring that he shall have an opinion about Christianity and also about Christ, that no one shall resume to treat Christ as a curiosity. ” Sorry for the confusion.

  17. Comment by td on February 21, 2022 at 12:38 pm

    John smith, united seminary is ohio is an official UMC seminary that is orthodox. And, yes, it does receive UMC funding.

  18. Comment by Scarborough Fair on February 22, 2022 at 12:28 pm

    “Consider the social justice implications of a theological reorientation from monotheism to polytheism.” In other words, they really don’t care who or what you worship, as it is all the same — meaningless, really. They believe in nothing, so it doesn’t matter who or what heads your particular brand of spirituality. It is all centered on the individual, so which deity is merely religious trappings, like which jewelry one might wear.
    They really don’t get it. They have no understanding of anything past this earthly life.

  19. Comment by Lance on February 23, 2022 at 4:13 am

    This is another shining example of why our local church cannot and will not make undesignated apportionments payments. There is a millstone waiting for those who lead others away from Christ.

  20. Comment by Jimmy on February 25, 2022 at 11:42 pm

    Why would anyone who believes in Jesus want to be Methodist? That’s untenable.

  21. Comment by Nicole on April 30, 2022 at 4:07 am

    I am a Christian and a proud Iliff alum. I met many amazing Unitarian Universalists (Christian and otherwise), and yes pagans during my time at Iliff. The classes were taught from a Christian orientation, but the diversity of my classmates’ perspectives have made me a better minister.

    The reality is that not all of us to go to seminary will be UMC-appointed local pastors. Those of us who become chaplains support people from a variety of religious backgrounds.

    A seminary made exclusively of UMC students is neither economically viable nor beneficial to those students who who would attend.

  22. Comment by Lynn on July 26, 2022 at 6:59 am

    Rest easy. As the implosion of the UMC continues, there will be a great de-funding of these once stately institutions. It will be a matter of necessity, not of Christian faithfulness.

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