Protestant ministries with long histories of serving students at Georgetown University were told last week they are no longer welcome and have been banned from holding on-campus events and using the school’s name.
The decision, which will affect the few hundred students belonging to six Christian groups, was announced during a meeting of leaders of the campus’s Affiliated Ministries in a letter from the Rev. Constance C. Wheeler, a Georgetown Protestant chaplain.
“As a result of our new direction for the upcoming academic year, we have decided not to renew any covenant agreements with any of the Affiliated Ministries,” she wrote. “While we realize this comes as a great disappointment, please know we are moving forward with this decision only after much dialogue with the Lord.”
The groups – which include Georgetown chapters of InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship, Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship and Crossroad Campus Christian Fellowship – were told their ministries “will no longer be allowed to hold any activity or presence (i.e. bible [sic] studies, retreats with Georgetown students, Mid-week [sic] worship services, fellowship events, move-in assistance …) on campus. As well, there will be no Affiliated Ministry presence or participation at our annual Campus Ministry Open House held at the end of August.
“Additionally, all websites linking your ministries to a presence at Georgetown University will need to be modified to reflect the terminated relationship. Your ministries are not to publicize in any literature, media, advertisement, etc. that Georgetown University is or will be an active ministry site for your ministry/church/denomination.”
Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship has already responded to the letter by modifying its website to read, “Due to circumstances beyond our control, this website is no longer available.” A cached version at Google shows that the original site featured a background image of the Georgetown campus.
Georgetown, one of the most prestigious Catholic institutions in the U.S., was founded in 1789 as a private Jesuit university. The Washington, D.C., campus had about 4,200 students enrolled last fall.
While the university maintains its Catholic character, students from many faiths attend. Chaplains, employed by the school, minister to Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox Christian and Protestant students.
“Students are permitted to join any group they wish,” Georgetown spokesman Erik Smulson told the Washington Times. “This decision affects [only] campus ministries.”
Officials say they removed the affiliated ministries, most of which were evangelical in their theology, as part of a restructuring of Georgetown’s Protestant chaplaincy and based on the desire to “unify Protestant students under university leadership.”
“With this restructuring has come a desire in the Protestant chaplaincy to build the ministry from within Georgetown and its Protestant student leaders, rather than rely on outside groups or fellowships,” Smulson said. “Hopefully, this restructuring of the chaplaincy will provide a more consistent and focused effort to work with the Protestant students to ensure that their spiritual needs are being met.”
Not unexpectedly, many of the student and adult leaders of the banned groups saw the matter differently and defended their organizations’ roles in the spiritual life of the university.
“It was definitely one of those moments where your mouth drops to the floor,” InterVarsity member Joyce Gray told The Hoya, Georgetown’s campus newspaper.
“They sat us down and gave us a letter that was already signed,” said Tim Ratp, an adult leader of the Crossroad Campus Christian Fellowship. “Their rationale was, [they] have no idea what we’re doing, and therefore [they don't] want us on the campus.”
According to Rapt, university officials refused to attend some of the affiliates’ meeting to learn more about their activities.
“We had a difficult time trying to get to know them and understand them,” he said. “We thought they were just busy, but we found out from other groups that they were just like that.”
In the past, the Georgetown Protestant chaplains have required leaders of the now-banned groups to attend school-sponsored services and to encourage students to as well. They have also required the leaders to sign a covenant promising not to “proselytize nor undermine another faith community.”
“I’ve never really heard them say, ‘No, you may not evangelize,’” said Kevin Offner, a staff leader for InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship. “But I do think we need to be careful in our defining of words and terms.”
“The manner in which they pursued this was that they weren’t going to allow any other voices other than their own,” said Chi Alpha co-leader Jay Lim. “It’s not just what they did, it’s the manner in which they pursued [it].”
Rapt says he’s still willing to work toward a compromise with the university if officials are willing.
The summary move by the Campus Ministry office has prompted letters and complaints from some students and alumni.
“A lot of us alumni are kind of worked up about it,” said Alyson Thoner, who sent a letter to Georgetown President John J. DeGioia. “We’re all sort of miffed.”
Thoner, who participated in the affiliate ministry program while a student, said the university’s official Protestant ministry doesn’t “encompass the full range of the diversity of the Protestant faith at Georgetown.”
“All we’re wanting is diversity,” said Offner. “We’re simply saying, ‘Can’t we worship and conduct our meetings in a way appropriate to our tradition?’ And it feels like [Georgetown is] saying ‘no.’”
According to David French, an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, more than 50 colleges, including Harvard, Princeton and the University of Wisconsin,, have attempted to end associations with religious groups.
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