Church, college plot path forward after firings

BUCKHANNON — The West Virginia Annual Conference is working with West Virginia Wesleyan College to provide religious life services after 27 positions were eliminated last week, including the United Methodist chaplain.

The loss of the chaplain/director of spiritual life position at Wesleyan caused concern across campus and in the broader Buckhannon community. Several questions were devoted to the issue at a town hall meeting last week that allowed students to raise their concerns with president Dr. Joel Thierstein.

One of those students, Caitlin Ware, said, “I’m here because I need to have a sense of understanding on how this will affect the religious life. I can’t comprehend how the chaplain of a United Methodist-affiliated school would be removed. This affects service projects. This affects classes, where every student on campus has to take a religious class. This will affect spiritual counseling and spiritual guidance.”

Thierstein deferred those questions to Sandra Steiner Ball, the Bishop of the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The Record Delta reached out to the Conference for comment last Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. On Monday, Nov. 13, an administrative assistant to the bishop said Steiner Ball was unavailable for a phone interview but could receive questions by email.

In her written responses, the bishop said the West Virginia Conference is not involved in any personnel decisions at Wesleyan, including the chaplain, who was an employee of the college and not the conference.

However, the Conference does provide financial support to Wesleyan, according to Steiner Ball.

“The amount provided to Wesleyan is not restricted or designated by the Conference,” she said. “The college is free to administer these funds wherever they choose in order to fulfill the purpose and mission of the college.”

The bishop expanded on how the Conference is helping the college continue to have a United Methodist presence on campus. 

“From the beginning of his presidency, the president has invited my help and ideas on how to best strengthen the relationship between the United Methodist Church and the college,” she said. “We have been and will continue to work together on new ways to strengthen our involvement and fashion our Conference relationship with the college. Some of these ideas will begin to manifest themselves in the months to come. 

“The president has consistently reinforced his desire for a strong United Methodist engagement with students, presence on campus and partnership between the West Virginia Conference and West Virginia Wesleyan College.” 

The bishop said the Conference will work with the college to ensure events will continue as normal.

“Conference leadership has offered and was invited by the college administration to become an even greater presence on campus in this time of transition,” she said. “A number of Conference pastors have been and will continue to be present on campus, planning and providing for weekly Chapel services, taking responsibility for teaching a freshman seminar previously facilitated by the Director of Spiritual and Religious Life, providing for other needs as identified by students involved with campus religious life and other campus organizations, and responding to other needs as requested by the college administration. 

“Conference leaders are walking alongside the college administration and are collaboratively working to make sure all regular and holiday activities and events that are on the calendar have pastoral leadership and presence.” 

At the student-organized town hall, Michael Ludle, a Wesleyan alum and current pastor in the West Virginia Annual Conference, said he had talked to clergy members since Monday’s announcement regarding the reduction in force.

“Is there a desire amongst the administration, the faculty and the leadership of the school to disenfranchise from the United Methodist Church?” Ludle asked.

Thierstein replied, “The answer is absolutely not. I wouldn’t be here if this wasn’t a United Methodist College. I went to a Methodist college. I was involved in the religious life council. I value that contribution. That is a huge deal to have that foundation and to have that history. That’s a powerful intellectual launching point for the liberal arts here at the college.

Responding to the concerns of students, Steiner Ball said she does not feel the elimination of the chaplain has diminished the role of the church on campus.

“The role of the church has not been lessened,” the bishop wrote. “There are seven members of the Board of Trustees of West Virginia Wesleyan College who are clergy members of the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. This subgroup of the trustees has been working with President Thierstein to do everything in its power to help the college move through this transitional period with the least disruption in spiritual and religious life and programming for students. The college and the Conference have been and will continue to work together to ensure complete coverage of the religious, spiritual  and educational needs of the students.”

Gavin Appleby, president of the board of trustees, said the West Virginia Annual Conference was approached about how to continue a United Methodist presence on campus if the chaplain position were removed.

“We talked to the church before that decision was made,” he said. “We didn’t just say, ‘Is it OK to make that decision?’ We said, ‘What else can we do to make sure we don’t mess up the relationship?’”

Those discussions are continuing, according to Appleby.

“I recommended about six months ago that we try to create more of a relationship with the church than we currently had,” he said. “There’s six church members on the board. I felt like we could really do more. We created a task force on church-college relationships to further development. That task force has just met. The whole idea was to strengthen that relationship to make sure that we help each other.”

Appleby also said that if the Conference had strongly protested against the removal of the chaplain or felt the relationship between the church and college was faltering, the college may have gone another direction.

“If that had not been in place, or the church had been very concerned about that, then I would be concerned,” he said. “That was really well thought about, about not eliminating the church relationship.”

Despite the school’s current financial struggles, Steiner Ball predicted a bright future for Wesleyan.

“I have no doubt that there is a bright future for West Virginia Wesleyan College – it’s students, faculty, staff and administration,” she said. “I have no doubt that the relationship between the college and the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and the United Methodist Church in general will become even stronger. 

“I am thankful for a college president who unknowingly inherited a challenging situation and yet is passionate and excited to take advantage of the endless opportunities that lie before West Virginia Wesleyan College not only to continue to be a great institution of higher education but to lead it to be an extraordinary place for students to discover and use their gifts in ways that will transform this world into a better, more peaceful and more joy filled place for all of God’s people.”

More In Local News