Montreat profs quit over ‘life covenant’ requirements

Paul Clark

At least two Montreat College professors have resigned instead of signing a recent “community life covenant” that requires faculty to assert marriage is between “one man and one woman.”

Some students on the picturesque college north of Black Mountain are concerned that the covenant, part of a handbook that faculty had to sign last month, heralds a new conservative direction for what has traditionally been a progressive church-affiliated school. They note that faculty and staff were presented with the “Community Life Covenant for Trustees and Employees” shortly before the college announced a $100,000 gift from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for the college’s April scholarship fund dinner.

Among the covenant’s statements faculty and staff had to signal their agreement with were recognizing the Bible to be “the infallible Word of God and fully authoritative in matters of life and conduct.” Also to be signed off on was a commitment to “uphold the God-given worth of every human being, from conception to death” and a commitment to “affirm chastity among the unmarried and the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman.”

Montreat College is losing three full-time faculty who “have informed the college that they are pursuing other employment for the next academic year,” Adam Caress, the college’s communications director, said in an email. “This level of turnover is not an unusual occurrence on an annual basis. To the extent that these three faculty members have shared their reasons for moving on, the college is not at liberty to share that information publicly.”

In a statement the college issued last week, it said “We understand that people can and do have differing opinions about prevailing societal issues. We do not seek to impose our values on those outside our campus community, but rather seek to model Christ’s love through caring and compassionate response when we disagree.

“However, as a Christian institution of higher learning, U.S. law protects the freedom of religious educational institutions like ours to hire and employ … on sincerely held religious beliefs.” The college said it spent the last two and a half years “reviewing and refining its core documents” in a “transparent and deliberative process” that involved 13 “listening sessions” conducted with faculty, staff and alumni. “Substantive changes” were made in the draft documents as a result, the college stated.

“In keeping with best practice for businesses and organizations, the college asks employees to affirm, support, and comply with the provisions of the employee handbook,” it stated. The college’s mission statement, vision statement, statement of faith and community life covenant “do not represent a change in the college’s core beliefs, but are rather an affirmation of what the college - and orthodox Christianity in general - has always believed.”

Montreat College describes itself as “an independent, self-governing college, related to the Presbyterian Church by history, location, and long-standing relationships with … the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities.” Last July, Montreat College ended its membership in the association, which is affiliated with Presbyterian Church USA. The latter organization, the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, approved same-sex marriage, where allowed by law, in 2015. Same sex marriage is legal in North Carolina.

Montreat Conference Center and Montreat Presbyterian Church are also affiliated with Presbyterian Church USA. Presbyterians - retired missionaries and ministers among them - form a large part of Montreat’s population.

Because of the community life covenant, Margaret “Maggie” Ray, an environmental science instructor at Montreat College, submitted her letter of resignation to the college March 30.

“It's a central principle of Reformed theology that it is the individual's right to interpret holy scripture without the intercession of church hierarchy,” Ray told The Black Mountain News via email. “Even if I totally agreed with the contents of the covenant, I would object to our being asked to sign and support it.”

Melissa Wilson, an environmental sciences professor, has also resigned, according to two of her students (reached April 5, Wilson would not comment on her status, saying that she is still under contract with the college).

“She did tell me she resigned” because of the covenant, said Amanda Lott, Wilson’s teaching assistant. Kelly Ann Madden, a junior from Charlotte, also said it was her “understanding” that Wilson resigned.

Wilson “didn’t share about why,” Madden said, “but it’s my understanding that it was about sexual orientation, belief, race and personal identity. ‘Mel’ Wilson was a student at Montreat, and she feels there has been a shift in the culture and other elements (so much so) that if she continued to work here that it would (impinge upon) her career here at Montreat. Several students are concerned about the direction the college is going in.”

“My take is that Montreat College is moving in a direction that is not as welcoming as it once was,” said Lott, a graduating senior from Columbia, South Carolina, who said she read the covenant. “I asked the (college) president (Paul Maurer) personally that if we’re going to take on gay people, is he going to get rid of divorced faculty members. If we’re judging sin, why are we just taking this one on? If we have divorced faculty members, why can’t we have faculty members that believe in gay marriage?”

Maurer declined two invitations to comment, via email and otherwise.

“The professors who are leaving,” Lott said, “what they love about Montreat is, there is this openness, (an invitation to) come here and question things and figure things out and we will support you. And the new administration is saying that’s not marketable.”

David Joseph, a Montreat students who said he is an openly gay, said the framing of the covenant did not include students, who by and large are “very accepting” of gay and lesbian students.

“The way the school went about this, it’s very frustrating,” Joseph, a senior from Concord, said. “This has been in the works since 2014, is what president Maurer told us. They had panels, but no students involved, so we had no idea what was going on. The college is getting rid of the little diversity we have. It’s just another blow to the program.”

“I think the new life covenant is tied to money,” Lott said. “We just got a grant from the Billy Graham (Evangelistic) Association two weeks after the professors had to sign the covenant.”

On March 29, Montreat College announced the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association gave the college $100,000 toward its April 19 Keystone Scholarship Dinner at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove. The Keystone Scholarship is Montreat College’s primary fund from which traditional undergraduate students receive tuition relief.

“The relationship between Montreat College and the BGEA has continued to strengthen in recent years,” Maurer said in a press release at the time, “and we are honored to have them as partners in our Christian mission.”

The college’s insisting faculty sign the Community Life Covenant indicates a step backward, Lott believes. “Montreat College started because they wanted women to be educated. Martin Luther King spoke here. It’s always been progressive,” she said. “That’s why this is a shock and why so many professors are leaving. It’s always been a warm, welcoming place.”

The covenant and a perceived conservatism on campus have made Chlöe Greene feel uncomfortable. She grew up in Black Mountain and has been on Montreat College’s campus since she was a child. “There was never a place I couldn’t go where I wasn’t accepted for my beliefs. And then this document came out,” she said. “And all of a sudden I don’t fit anymore.”

Her discomfort started last year, she said. A theater major, she and her classmates were told they couldn’t stage “Crimes of the Heart,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that incorporates family dysfunction into its storyline. They were told it wasn’t “right” for the school, Greene said.

The school’s decision puzzled her because two years earlier, she had participated in “Proof,” a play with cursing in which mental illness is central. “Now two years later we can’t do a play (about) real family values and problems,” she said.