Two Christian colleges -- Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College -- announced Monday that they will change their hiring procedures to permit the hiring of faculty members who are in same-sex marriages.
While such a policy would not be surprising at most colleges and universities, it represents a dramatic shift in Christian higher education. Eastern Mennonite and Goshen are the first members of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities to adopt such a rule. Some CCCU members (and those two in the past) have said that gay faculty members were welcome as long as they were celibate. Unmarried faculty members at Eastern Mennonite and Goshen will still be expected to be celibate, and that rule applies regardless of sexual orientation.
Students and faculty members have been pushing for years (at Goshen, off and on for 40 years) to change the former policy, arguing that restricting the hiring of gay and lesbian professors to those willing to pledge celibacy effectively made it impossible for many nonstraight scholars to seek positions at the institutions.
The announcement comes just weeks after the Mennonite Church USA rejected a proposal to authorize same-sex marriages, but went on to adopt what is being called the "forbearance resolution," which calls for tolerance on these issues. "We acknowledge that there is currently not consensus within Mennonite Church USA on whether it is appropriate to bless Christians who are in same-sex covenanted unions. Because God has called us to seek peace and unity as together we discern and seek wisdom on these matters, we call on all those in Mennonite Church USA to offer grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions."
A key question going ahead is whether all Christian colleges that are currently in the CCCU will be comfortable with some members taking a different position on employing gay people than has been the norm among members.
Loren Swartzendruber, president at Eastern Mennonite, noted in an interview this morning that his institution has been engaged in a two-year "listening process" on university policy on same-sex faculty members. During that time, he said, it became clear that those on campus -- students and faculty members -- strongly backed a change to hire gay and straight faculty members with the same rules and without discrimination. He said that off-campus constituencies -- including alumni and church leaders -- were far more mixed in their views of change.
When Eastern Mennonite announced in 2013 that it was starting a formal process to review policies in this area, the news was hailed by advocates for gay people as an important advance for gay Christians. But many of those advocates were disappointed last year when the university announced it was holding off on a policy change. Goshen has debated the issue on and off for decades.
Swartzendruber said that "this was the right timing for us."
He noted that the issue was "a front-burner question" when he started his presidency 12 years ago, and that it remains one at a time when he recently announced retirement plans. "A lot has changed. There's no question that the change has been toward inclusion in society in general" and at Eastern Mennonite.
James E. Brenneman, president of Goshen, said he viewed Monday's news as a logical step toward all kinds of changes at Goshen and other colleges. "We have moved toward inclusivity in a whole variety of ways. This seems like a natural outcome of that conclusion."
Both presidents said they weren't influenced in a significant way by the Supreme Court's recent decision affirming the right of same-sex couples to have marriages recognized throughout the country. But they said the decision helped their policies in that same-sex couples where one partner wants to teach at one of the colleges are assured full marriage rights.
Both presidents said they kept CCCU leaders aware of their colleges' processes for moving on this issue, and they hoped their institutions would remain active members of the organization. They noted that CCCU requires members to be "Christ-centered" and employ Christian faculty members, and that they have and continue to do so.
"There are a variety of perspectives on many issues within CCCU membership," Swartzendruber said. "This happens to be most current, and perhaps most emotional because it happens to be the question of the day. We want to be at the table. I want us to stay at the table as long as they want us at the table."
Nancy Heisey, professor of biblical studies at Eastern Mennonite, said she has been involved in the discussions there for a number of years, both as a faculty member and as an active Mennonite, and that she applauded the decision.
She said that the process there, while slow, was consistent with "Mennonite understanding of discernment of the community." She explained: "That's very central to our history and I'm grateful to the board that it did this deliberately, thoughtfully and carefully." At the same time, she said, it was time to act. "The decision needed to be made. I'm gratified."
She stressed that the university was sticking to its principles that human sexuality should be expressed through committed marriage, and that the university's rules for hiring would not be acceptable for many individuals, straight or gay. "We are holding to our understanding of faithful committed marriage, but we are saying we accept people in either gay or straight relationships."
From her participation in search committees over the years, Heisey said, "I have seen the impact" of the past policy in creating "a lot of stressors in discussing candidates."
Some of those stressors may remain, Heisey said. But the university is now aligned with the principle of equity. "It's an important principle. It's particularly important in an institution of higher learning," she said, and to a Christian college with values such as those of Eastern Mennonite. "We have a strong commitment to Christian principles, including that justice is central to the scripture's teaching," she said.
The CCCU issued a short statement about the new policies: "The CCCU is a voluntary membership association that advances the cause of Christian higher education institutions whose missions are rooted in the historic Christian faith and are informed by deeply held Christian thought, belief, and practice. Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College have made the CCCU aware of the change in their employment policy. The CCCU is grateful for the transparent process engaged by both of these institutions. The CCCU meets regularly both as a board of directors and as a full membership to discuss association business, and it will discuss these changes at these regular meetings. The CCCU has a 40-year history of being fully committed to Christ-centered higher education. We remain unwavering in that commitment."
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