Local Universities show increasing denominational diversity
By LORETTA FULTON
In March 2019, Bishop Michael Sis of the Catholic Diocese of San Angelo conducted Ash Wednesday services at all three of Abilene’s universities–and no one did a double-take.
All three universities are affiliated with a denomination, but none has a Catholic connection. The campuses are affiliated with the Church of Christ (Abilene Christian), Baptist (Hardin-Simmons) and United Methodist (McMurry).
During the Ash Wednesday service at Hardin-Simmons in 2019, Sis even joked about the students perhaps needing some education about the significance of Ash Wednesday and the 40-day season of Lent that follows, both of which are traditional observances in Catholicism.
“It helps you understand what these crazy Catholics are all about,” Sis said
Actually, Catholics aren’t nearly as rare on the local college campuses as they were in years past. In fact, all three universities draw students from denominations other than their own affiliate and even from other religions. ACU has a chapter of Lighthouse, a Catholic student organization. A few years ago, McMurry opened a Muslim prayer room on campus, which serves McMurry students and Muslims in the community.
McMurry also has the smallest percentage of students from its affiliate denomination of the three campuses with only 6 percent of freshmen and transfer students identifying as United Methodist in fall 2020, Grant Greenwood, vice president of enrollment management, said in an email. That number is consistent with previous years, Greenwood said. In fall 2016, 10.8 percent identified as United Methodist, down from 15.6 percent in fall 2012.
“While our United Methodist tradition is a cornerstone to our community,” Greenwood said, “it’s important to our university to create and foster a welcoming environment for all.”
In fact, McMurry’s president, Dr. Sandra Harper, is Catholic. A former professor at McMurry, Harper is the university’s first woman and first Catholic president.
“Our student body is diverse,” Greenwood said in an email,” and a wide representation of belief systems, religions, and denominations are represented in our community.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Hardin-Simmons University, with 37.9 percent of students identifying as Baptist in fall 2020. But that is down from 60.5 percent who identified as Baptist in fall 2000.
“Our Baptist heritage is a rich one, and the university continues to benefit from its partnership with the Baptist General Convention of Texas,” Michael Monhollon, HSU’s associate provost and chief data officer, said in an email, “but we have seen a significant growth in the number of students who identify themselves as nondenominational Christians.”
In fact, all three universities show a rising number of students identifying as “nondenominational,” which reflects a trend in the population at large.
In the middle of the local campus demographic makeup is Abilene Christian University, with about 25 percent of its students identifying as Church of Christ in fall 2020.
“This number has held constant for the past several years,” Garrett Sublette, ACU’s director of enrollment operations, wrote in an email, “and slightly fluctuates a percentage point up or down with each new class.”
Detailed information from each campus follows:
Michael Monhollon, HSU’s associate provost and chief data officer, said in an email that the university has seen a steady downward trend in its Baptist component from 2000, when 60.5 percent identified as Baptist: 54 percent in 2005, 52 percent in 2010, and 49 percent in 2015. Monhollon said the university keeps track of eight denominations, and lump the rest together under “Other.”
“Over the last 20 years, that category has grown from 7.4 percent of our students to 20 percent in 2015, Monhollon wrote.
In 2019, the percentage of “Other” fell abruptly to 5.9 percent, Monhollon wrote, “and the reason seems to be that 2019 was the year we first broke out ‘Nondenominational,’ which that year accounted for 14.8 perdent of our students. The sum of the percentages of students in the two categories (“Other” and “Nondenominational”) is 20.7 percent, only slightly larger than the 20.1 percent of ‘Other’ in 2018.”
In Fall 2020, Monhollon wrote, “Nondenominational” grew to account for 17.3 percent of the students. It is the university’s second largest category, followed by Catholic at 9.1 percent and Church of Christ at 8 percent.
A trend seen at ACU over the past several years, Garrett Sublette, ACU’s director of enrollment operations, said in an email, is that many students attend a historical Church of Christ but identify as nondenominational or Christian. Recruiting strategies have changed since Sublette started in admissions 18 years ago, he said, as the church landscape and ACU student population has changed.
“We are seeing students show interest in ACU from many different faith backgrounds and churches,” Sublette said in an email.
McMurry’s diverse student population reflects the university’s belief that a diverse thought community enhances the spiritual life of campus, Grant Greenwood, vice president of enrollment management, said in an email.
“It is this commitment to inclusivity that makes McMurry an attractive place to learn for students of all faiths,” Greenwood said.
The university’s application includes several options, including “Methodist,” “Christian,” and “No Preference.” McMurry’s mission and identity of being “an inclusive United Methodist institution” necessitates recruiting and attracting students of all denominations and faith, Greenwood said in an email.
“To this end,” he wrote, “I believe our denominational breakdown highlights our success in creating an inclusive campus that prioritizes spiritual growth for all students.”
Loretta Fulton is creator and editor of Spirit of Abilene