Education

Wesley Center at University of Iowa in 'ongoing negotiations' to sell

Campus ministry feels fallout over United Methodist LGBTQ stance

The Wesley Foundation’s board of directors is considering selling the building at 120 N. Dubuque St. in Iowa City because of an expected decrease in funding from the Iowa Conference, the United Methodist Church’s legislative body for churches and campus ministries in Iowa. (Grace King/The Gazette)
The Wesley Foundation’s board of directors is considering selling the building at 120 N. Dubuque St. in Iowa City because of an expected decrease in funding from the Iowa Conference, the United Methodist Church’s legislative body for churches and campus ministries in Iowa. (Grace King/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The Wesley Center is negotiating with a potential buyer of the home of its University of Iowa campus ministry because of financial difficulties brought on, at least partly, by a schism in the United Methodist Church over gay rights, leaders say.

The Wesley Foundation’s board of directors is considering selling the building at 120 N. Dubuque St. because of an expected decrease in funding from the Iowa Conference, the United Methodist Church’s legislative body for churches and campus ministries in Iowa. In an email last week, board member Christopher Cheatum said the board is in “ongoing negotiations” to sell the property.

Leaders said that, if there is a sale, they would seek to move to a new location and use proceeds to help continue the ministry.

During the Iowa Conference held June 9 to 11 in Des Moines, the United Methodist Church’s Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry was budgeted $200,000 for grants to support campus ministries and United Methodist colleges in Iowa for 2020.

The Board of Higher Education had requested far more — $544,993 — from the Iowa Conference. It proposed distributing $146,465 of that to the Wesley Center.

While the Board of Higher Education has yet to decide how to divide up the $200,000, if it keeps the same proportions initially proposed for various operations, the Wesley Center would be allocated just $53,749, said Sean McRoberts, who also is on the Wesley board of directors.

The Board of Higher Education is “evaluating how the dramatic change in funding” changes the way it does ministry, according to the 2019 Iowa Conference preconference manual.

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“We are on a journey to self-funding status, but not able to make a dramatic shift without major changes. At this time, we are working through options,” the Board of Higher Education stated in the manual.

In 2018, the Board of Higher Education apportioned $161,916 to the Wesley Center. The 2019 contribution was similar.

“The year is not over, and it may change, but we have not, yet, seen significant reductions in support,” Cheatum wrote.

The United Methodist Church Conference made international headlines in February when it strengthened a ban on LGBTQ clergy and same-sex weddings.

Global delegates reaffirmed the church’s definition of marriage as “the union of one man and one woman” and banned the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” Delegates adopted strict penalties for clergy who violate the rules.

The decision has further roiled the church, the largest mainstream Protestant denomination in the nation, leading to speculation the church would end up breaking into conservative and progressive wings.

Declining revenue in the United Methodist Church is partly because churches angry over the decision are withholding their apportionments.

Cheatum said his own church, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Iowa City, has withheld its apportionments for the past year because of the denomination’s stance against LGBTQ clergy and same-sex marriage. St. Mark’s apportionments would be about $80,000 a year.

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Cheatum believes the budget cut to the Board of Higher Education is being driven by “traditionalist pastors” who think college programs are driving “inappropriate behavior.”

When the former director of the Wesley Center, Anna Blaedel, came out as gay in 2016, the board of directors stood behind her.

But she now faces a church trial on charges she is in violation of the ban on gay clergy, according to an August report in the United Methodist News.

Cheatum said board members felt their mission was to justice, inclusion and ministry to young people, including those who feel church is an unsafe place.

“They’ve made an effort to steer cuts directly to the programs that serve people who are queer or trans and served by queer and trans pastors,” Cheatum said.

While Blaedel since has stepped down from her position as director, she still serves as the Wesley Center’s program manager of “Tuesday Table,” a time of worship, food and conversation for students.

“It would be naive to think the cuts to higher education ministries have nothing to do with Anna’s coming out,” Cheatum said.

McRoberts said that while financial difficulties are an expected part of ministry and nonprofit work, the decreased funding from the Iowa Conference to college programs is “rooted in a shift in the denomination’s priorities.”

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McRoberts said the Wesley Center is in the position having to sell the building to continue investing in the ministry. It is working toward financial stability apart from the Iowa Conference, he said.

Jacob Simpson, Wesley Center board of directors vice chairman, said the Wesley Center has been “lucky” to have a great facility to host students. He said board members are looking at options for similar spaces.

“No matter where we end up, our goal is to continue providing the community atmosphere we currently have, whether that means renting or purchasing another property,” Simpson said.

Simpson said location for the Wesley Center “matters a lot.” He wants the center to be in a convenient location and accessible for students with different abilities.

The Rev. Harlan Gillespie, assistant to the bishop of the Iowa area in the North Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church, said local church property is held in a trust, which requires several levels of approval before church property can be sold.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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