Illinois Wesleyan University

Tucked away under the main level of Evelyn Chapel is the nucleus of interfaith activity at Illinois Wesleyan University. The Chapel, built in 1984 to be the center of religious life on campus, is home to the Chaplain’s Office and the Multifaith Ambassadors Program. The Chaplain’s Office and the service and dialogue opportunities that are hosted therein contribute to IWU’s mission to promote “democratic citizenship and life in a global society” by “exploring what it means to be a person of faith in a pluralistic society.” [1] Opportunities include Alternative Fall Break, an interfaith engagement and service trip, and ReligiosiTEA, a weekly program intended to foster conversation. The University Chaplain also convenes a vital, yet lesser-known, campus resource: The Council on Religious Life (CRL). 

The Council on Religious Life is comprised of IWU faculty, staff, and students who have an interest in matters of religious diversity and climate on campus.[2] CRL brings together individuals of different religious and ethical commitments (including some who identify as atheist), ages, genders, and campus affiliations; intentional diversity is one of its core strengths. Like other university committees, faculty members are assigned to CRL (usually at their own request) as part of their University service. Staff representatives are drawn from the Offices of the President, Provost, and Residential Life, and students representatives may be drawn from registered religious/spiritual student organizations, the Multifaith Ambassador Program, and Student Senate. 

CRL’s bylaws outline its three purposes on campus: to protect, encourage, and support religious and secular diversity at IWU; to receive and, in cases of difficulty or dispute, respond to concerns about the status religious life on campus; and to advise the Chaplain and Office of Student Activities when granting official campus recognition to religious and spiritual organizations (RSOs).[3] The two-step process for recognizing religious and spiritual organizations was set up in response to past concerns from students who felt coerced by some religious groups on campus.[4] CRL seeks to help would-be organizations understand that any group wishing to be designated as an RSO has a responsibility to abide by University policies which state that each student has “the right to live, believe, and worship without pressure or coercion,” and that, “to practice ministry, every religious group must pledge not to seek conversions by depreciating other groups by harassment or proselytizing.”[5] Once an organization is recognized, CRL’s relationship with the newly established group continues through annual check-ins.

Members of the Council on Religious Life are provided with new reading materials each semester to help contextualize their focus for the year. In 2014, the committee read No Longer Invisible: Religion in University Education in order to begin a revaluation of CRL’s bylaws and to help clarify what “the mission was in terms of supporting, regulating, and protecting students.”[6] The book offered members a chance to reflect on the specific needs of the Illinois Wesleyan campus and to explore best practices for possible addition to Council documents and policies.

Despite the important role the Council plays in overseeing religious life at Illinois Wesleyan, it faces the challenge of how to “become more visible” on campus.[7] Rev. Nelson Winger envisions the Council as a resource for community members where they can ask questions and share concerns about religious life on campus. CRL also supervises the Secular Student Alliance, and she wants to hear more about “what it means [for them] to be under the umbrella of religious life…[while] making sense of one’s identity without religion.”[8] As CRL begins re-evaluating its by-laws to better suit the university’s current demography and sets its priorities for the coming years, Rev. Nelson Winger plans to invite campus leaders from different groups for conversation to strengthen existing relationships and discuss their role in the University’s emerging diversity.

Rev. Nelson Winger would also like to see a strengthening of the relationship between the University and the United Methodist tradition from which it stems. Illinois Wesleyan University’s affiliation with the United Methodist Church already comes with an expectation that religious life will be an institutional commitment and religious diversity was affirmed as a focus during a recent meeting of bishops. But, as it stands, few know of the institutional relationship between IWU and the UMC and, of those that do, even fewer realize it still exists. Rev. Nelson Winger wants to reimagine this association in a way that is authentic for an increasingly diverse campus and affirms common ground on social justice issues like racial inequality and academic freedom.  

Rev. Nelson Winger sums up religious and spiritual life at Illinois Wesleyan by saying “Everyone is welcome here but we are a place that is committed to inclusivity and welcoming to inquiry… if you can find authentic ways to live out your spiritual life in that context, then you’re surely welcome.”[9]

[1] “Mission Statement.” Illinois Wesleyan University. Accessed: August 2014; Council on Religious Life Bylaws. 2013.

[2] Council on Religious Life Bylaws. 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rev. Elyse Nelson Winger. Bloomington, IL. Interview with author. 31 July 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.