An Open Letter to American Churches: The Crisis of Christian Higher Education

Chris, a Christian college professor and church chairperson,

To the pastors, lay leaders, members, and friends of the churches and denominations that founded and still sponsor the Christian colleges and universities of this country:

Before today is done, no small number of faculty members at the Christian college where I work will be asked to meet with administrators who will tell them that they are being let go at the end of the academic year. In no case will the professor be told that their dismissal is the result of inadequate performance. (On the contrary: our deans — all of whom I respect highly, all the more for doing their jobs in recent months amid impossible circumstances — will very likely take time to honor each professor’s many contributions as a teacher and scholar.) Rather, their loss of employment will be framed as a regrettable but necessary element of the institution’s plan to address a serious budget shortfall and ensure its longer-term fiscal health. (A number of staff were already let go earlier this year; more such announcements will come before December.)

And I have no doubt that similar days loom ahead for a significant number of our peer institutions in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, given reports like the one from Forbes magazine that graded American institutions of higher learning on their financial health: we were among the 74% of CCCU schools to receive a C or lower. By most accounts, we are among the top 10-15 Christian colleges: allowing for the possibility that that relatively high standing rested on much flimsier supports than we imagined, I fear that our situation augurs poorly for our consortium as a whole.

Of course, the loss of employment is always sad, but what makes today especially hard to bear is that there is no guarantee that it will resolve our financial problems. And so I don’t write to beg sympathy for myself and my colleagues (for the record: I wrote this letter last night so that its substance and tone wouldn’t be influenced by any decisions announced today that affect me or my closest friends and colleagues), but to draw your attention to what I fear is a crisis in Christian higher education: one in which declining revenues and rising costs will put pressure on Christian colleges (a) to engage in destructive competition with each other as they chase the same dwindling pool of students, and/or (b) to abandon their commitment to the transformational model of education known as the Christian liberal arts.

The Problem: Revenues, Costs, and Subsidies

There are a number of factors contributing to the economic problems facing schools like ours. Some are specific to our model of education, or have to do with decisions made by our particular leaders; others are beyond their control and pertain to many institutions of higher education. Already weakened by the Great Recession, American higher education seems to be undergoing a rapid restructuring that has economic, political, cultural, demographic, and technological inputs. Schools that have smaller endowments (the CCCU median here is less than $8000 per student) are especially at risk: many have small student bodies to start with, and all struggle to recruit and retain enough students willing to pay/borrow the shocking amount of money it takes to do the work that earns the degrees we grant. For many years, such schools could simply raise tuition to cover spiraling costs. But, as many have argued, what students and their families are willing and able to pay seems to be reaching a ceiling.

So what can be done? Economist Robert Archibald (co-author of Why Does College Cost So Much?) frames the problem as a trilemma:

Everyone has three objectives for higher education: lower tuition, higher quality, and less government spending on subsidies. The unfortunate truth is that we can have any two of these, but we can’t have all three. If we mandate low tuition, we have to give on one of the other two. Either the government has to increase spending on subsidies, or the quality of the education schools will be able to provide will suffer. There are no easy choices.

Now, the cuts being announced today result from a prioritization process meant to make Bethel more cost-effective, which is worthwhile… to a point. There is no easy way to reduce costs significantly when your goal is not merely professional training, but the transformation of 18-24 year olds into “whole and holy persons.” What we do rests on highly skilled, professional workers engaging in a kind of teaching that requires relatively small classes, plus expensive co-curricular programs like intercollegiate athletics and residential life.

So if we’ve reached the capacity of tuition to keep up with such expenses, we seem to be left with three options.

  1. The closure of a significant number of Christian colleges. Such that there’d be significantly less competition for the same, shrinking population of potential students. And even that might only postpone some of our problems.
  2. A drastic change to our model of education. We can eliminate programs that don’t enroll many majors, but several of them are absolutely foundational to the curriculum at the heart of a Christian liberal arts education. Faculty can be rendered more “productive” by doubling or tripling our class sizes, but then you’d be providing students something that cannot honestly be described as the Christian liberal arts. We can do more and more online and perhaps even save students the costs specific to a residential experience, but we would abandon the embodied relationships and community that make it possible for us to engage in anything like “whole-person” education.
  3. Increase our subsidies. Our model of education needs to be subsidized to remain even remotely affordable for more than the most wealthy strata of society. Unless we are to rely even more than we already do on federal and state governments that may or may not continue to view faith-based institutions as worthy recipients of public funds, such subsidies need to come from private sources: individuals, but also churches and denominations.

Unfortunately, schools like ours have experienced a steep decline in financial support from the denominations and churches that founded and continue to sponsor them. About three-quarters of CCCU members retain some denominational connection, but a recent study found some evidence that financial support from those sponsors has fallen off sharply in the last decade — from around 5% of schools’ budgets in 2002 to 2.7% in 2011. Some CCCU schools receive much greater support from their churches; some much less — the last time we received anything close to 2.7% of our budget from our denomination was the early Nineties; it’s been far lower than that in recent years (less than half a percent the last year the denomination published an Annual).

Now, I’m grateful for the money that is given by our denomination — knowing that some colleges receive no such support, and that it results from the sacrificial giving of individuals, families, and congregations who could put that money to good use in other places.

But what is given now is but a fraction of what a smaller denomination gave not too far back in living memory. Adjusted for inflation, what the denomination gave our school in 2005 was $1.7 million less than what it gave in 1985 — which happens to be roughly the amount that needs to be cut from our College of Arts and Sciences budget, in significant part through the reductions to be announced today.

Or to frame it in another way: our denominational support in 2005 was the equivalent of $2.15 per member of the denomination; twenty years before it was $15.05 (in 2005 dollars).

When I wrote about this topic last month, one of our former administrators pointed out that we’re supported generously by several congregations whose giving does not go through the denomination. I’m sure that’s true, and am grateful for that support. (Please let me know if this describes your church — I’d love to offer a less impersonal thank you.) But it’s equally true that other congregations have done like the denomination and cut or eliminated such support.

The Value of Christian Higher Education for Churches and Denominations

As a church chairperson myself, I understand that budgets are tight. Even those of our congregations that have weathered the Great Recession and managed to expand our ministries have had to make hard choices, sometimes cutting back in one area to support growth in another. I’m in no position to tell any church or denomination that its priorities are out of line.

But I do know how easy it is to undervalue what Christian higher education — particularly as it is rooted in the liberal arts — accomplishes. Much of what we do pays off in the long run, and then often in hard-to-measure ways that might seem only indirectly connected to the mission of Christian churches.

So let me take a shot at persuading you — as someone who makes or votes on a church or denomination budget — of the value of what we do in Christian higher education, particularly via the liberal arts. There’s much that I want to say, but knowing that I’ve already tried your patience and eyes with this missive, I’ll limit myself to one argument:

If you want to be missional, you need to support Christian higher education.

Supporting the mission of the Body of Christ is the oldest, most enduring value of church-subsidized higher education. Indeed, the founding impetus of most CCCU members was the need to train pastors, missionaries, evangelists, church musicians, and Christian education specialists. And schools like ours still provide their sponsoring churches with such essential labor.

To be sure, much of this training happens in seminaries and divinity schools, and our seminary needs financial help as much as the college. (Its faculty are also steeling themselves to receive administrator calls today.) But I only need look to the three pastors who preach most regularly in my own church to know the value of supporting colleges that are strong in the liberal arts: our senior pastor is a former History major who is able to bring biblical context to life; on the Sundays he doesn’t preach, the pulpit is usually filled either by a former English major whose sermons are rich with poetic language or by a former Philosophy major who helps us navigate the paradox and ambiguity we encounter in some of Scripture’s harder, more opaque teachings.

But in churches where all believers are priests, called to minister using whatever gifts and talents the Spirit provides them, then it is also important to think about the ways that Christian higher education founded on the liberal arts prepares laypeople to share in the millennia-old mission of Christ’s church in our present contexts.

First, it produces graduates who have the knowledge and skills to be part of a shrinking world in which Christianity is growing much faster outside our borders than inside it. Thanks to our curriculum, for example, our graduates have proficiency in a language like Spanish, French, or Chinese and have taken multiple courses on cultures other than their own (and engaged in experiential learning across cultures). Something like three-quarters have them have spent at least some of their undergraduate education outside of this country.

Second, in an age when American churches have to recognize that the “mission field” is next door, that it’s as important to be Jesus’ witnesses in our equivalents of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria as to the “ends of the earth,” it’s impossible to overstate the value of an education that gives its graduates the knowledge and skills to live in their culture but not of it. Where I teach, general education begins with a multidisciplinary course that prompts students to study the history of Christianity’s interactions with Western culture — not to glorify the West, but to help largely middle-class Americans think critically about the values, practices, and assumptions of the culture that surrounds them. That curriculum continues with courses that help students think more deeply about the role of science and technology in our society, and many other contemporary issues — and all in light of our conviction that Jesus Christ is the source of all truth. I know of no other model of education that is better suited to renew the minds of young adults who otherwise face enormous pressure (sometimes from educational institutions) to “conform to the pattern of this world” (Rom 12:2).

Third, a Christian college education — unlike most others — engages in transformation, not merely information. Education is often said to focus on head, heart, or hands. Most colleges and universities aspire to shape one, perhaps two of those. Some offer tremendous intellectual rigor, but are unconcerned about moral or character formation. Some do an excellent job of training graduates for important careers, but have limited intellectual scope. Christian colleges are some of the only such institutions of which I’m aware that take seriously the whole person: we cultivate the life of the mind and foster the habits of lifelong learning; we soften hearts to love God and neighbor; and we train hands to do the work of Christ in this world, in all manner of careers and callings.

“My education,” said one alumna I interviewed this summer, “didn’t prepare me to do any specific job, but it prepared me to be the person that I am…. Who I became [there] has everything to do with how I got a job and how I stay in it, and who I am – having fidelity to who I am in Christ…”

Of course, churches engage in formation as well as worship, evangelism, missions, outreach, and other ministries: but many will struggle to do so lacking pastoral and lay leaders who have received a holistic, Christ-centered education that teaches them who, and whose, they are.

Conclusion: “The Church on Mission in Higher Education”

About fifty years ago, the longest-serving, most influential president of our college and seminary wrote to the leaders of his denomination. He described our institution as “the church on mission in higher education… related to her churches as the arm is to the body. They are of the same quality. Their individual functions are specialized, to be sure, but these are essentially Christian in both instances.” Our “raison d’être,” he said, was to be an “educational instrument of Christian strategy in our world mission for Christ.”

He wrote in a time when the historic ties that bound denominations and churches to the colleges they had founded were only just beginning to fray. Now, we can no longer assume such connections, and it may be that some of the original rationale for churches to support colleges have diminished in importance, if not dissolved altogether. But this much is unchanged: Christian colleges are both an extension of the mission of the church in the realm of education, and a source of renewal and enrichment to congregations and denominations whose leaders and members we prepare for mission and ministry.

So whether you’re already working on a budget for the next calendar year, or that decision will come next spring and summer, please consider the ways in which your church and denomination can support Christian colleges: either by direct financial contributions; or indirectly, by providing scholarships that help your young people receive the education they want and need rather than the one they can afford, or the one that promises immediate worldly success.

I write not in despair, but in hope: that you will help us transfigure this moment of crisis into a moment of decision, by recommitting to a model of higher education that has served well the Body of Christ, and through it the world.

Grace and peace to you all.

Read a postscript and follow-up posts>>


28 thoughts on “An Open Letter to American Churches: The Crisis of Christian Higher Education

  1. Excellent statement of a very difficult situation with no easy answers. I grieve for the programs and faculty who will be dropped. I have been through this before and was on the evaluation committee years ago that had to begin this kind of downsizing. It is the most painful experience of my academic life. The loss of excellent faculty is not only a loss for the person, but the school loses their history and commitment to the mission of the college.

  2. It seems to me that Christian organizations such as churches, denominations, colleges, etc., ought to consider reducing salaries across the board (on a proportional, percentage basis) before laying off employees. They often claim to be communities, not just institutions. But then, when finances are tight, they do what secular organizations do–lay off employees. Another option is early retirement. I taught at a Christian liberal arts college from 1984 to 1999. During a financial crisis the college laid off a few employees (including faculty) but also offered early retirement, with incentives, in order not to lay off more. One department volunteered to take salary reductions in order to keep a faculty member who was slated for lay off. That seemed to me the “real Christian thing to do.” Of course, nobody would enjoy taking a salary cut, but if they claim to be “in community” it is the “community thing” to do–if the only alternative is seeing colleagues laid off.

    1. Early retirement was an option in this case; not sure how many faculty took it. As far as I understand it, salaries have been frozen and benefits reduced across the board. Salary reductions were proposed when a smaller version of this problem first occurred a few years back, but it didn’t seem to gain much traction (including at higher levels, where there was concern that salaries for full professors were already becoming uncompetitive).

      1. This is a response both to Chris and to Roger: no faculty took early retirement at Bethel last year. Why should they? They had already signed contracts for 2013-14, whereas the early retirement (Voluntary Separation Incentive Plan) agreement resulted in a payout of salary effective in May through December 31. They would have sacrificed five months salary, at least, when their positions were guaranteed through June of 2014. One thing Roger doesn’t mention about the faculty reductions in the 1980’s at Bethel was that they were recommended by a faculty committee, and resulted in several programs being closed–linguistics and languages, to be specific. “The college” may have done the layoffs, but the faculty made the recommendations, and largely on the basis of what was good for the institution.

        I don’t agree that the “real Christian thing to do” is for everyone to volunteer for salary reductions. I think, instead, the prudent thing to do is to make choices about which programs ought to continue for the sake of the institution–the ones that we are good at, that set us apart, and that establish us in a unique way. Not all the things we do fulfill those criteria.

        A small but important correction: the only benefits changed in the current fiscal situation are those related to retirement. No other benefits had been changed as of the end of last year. Salaries were frozen, but not for faculty who were promoted–they received a salary increment this year.

    2. Typically, faculty at Christian schools are already living on considerably less salary than their peers who work at secular or public schools. At my institution we took a salary freeze for a while, but I already earn about $20k per year less than my post-doctoral office mate makes at his school. How much less are we supposed to be able to live on. It is also a Christian value to pay workers well and consider them worthy of their wages. That is a value I have never actually seen to be seriously pursued by any Christian organization. That said, it is often better to simply let a person go, to find other employment, so that those who remain can earn enough to get by, and the organization can learn to operate with that number of employees.

  3. I have never attended Bethel, but I felt betrayed by my own small Christian college experience. The college as a whole was far more liberal than the denomination to which it belonged (at least as I grew up in it). I could pay a fraction of the cost to receive the same kind of information at a State University without a condescending belittling of my faith, which is why I eventually transferred. When my family friends from church found out the reasons I came home from their alma mater, they dropped their support. Today, I think that the lion’s share of this financial struggle has to do with the economy and the push within Christianity to steward our financial resources accruing as little debt as possible along the way, but I think there are also many people who are speaking with their tuition dollars and donations. I think they are telling Christian colleges that they are out of touch with their constituents; that perhaps the colleges are transforming their young members into people that are more of the world than they expected, that there is not as big of a difference between Christian colleges and other schools as they would like to see. I think Christianity is going through a huge transition right now, into a more-practicing, less-preaching kind of faith, and I think there will be pains felt in many traditional institutions. It is a new era. Post-Christian, post-American (maybe?); different certainly. I am interested to see what comes of it, but I doubt it will look the same as the prosperous, American way that has been supporting our institutions. I grieve for the solid teachers who pour out themselves into their students as professors. It will not be easy for them to find other work, but I know that they will continue to develop meaningful relationships that impact others for their cause, because that is who God created them to be.

  4. This one is tough for me as I wonder how well institutions of Christian Higher Ed have practiced stewardship. They certainly appear not to have done so nearly as well as secular colleges and universities. Take a look around at some of the secular institutions in Bethel’s category, so to speak, in US News & World Report’s college rankings. Creighton, Butler, and Drake have endowments that blow Bethel out of the water, and maybe that’s to be expected. But even Hamline and St. Kate’s – right in Bethel’s own neighborhood – have double and triple the endowment that Bethel does. None of these other institutions relies on denominational support. Over the last 20 years their level of giving from the BGC has remained steady: $0. And their tuition rates are comparable to Bethel’s (without accounting for the massively higher financial aid and scholarship packages they offer which drops them to a level significantly lower than Bethel). Why do they survive? Why do they offer significant scholarships in comparison to Bethel? They have large endowments. Bethel does not. That could easily prove your point. But Brushaber Commons, while beautiful, cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million. How many jobs could that have saved? And for how many years? And what would Bethel’s financial future look like if $30 million had been added to the endowment? I know that it would have meant continuing to eat in a cafeteria that wasn’t state of the art and gorgeous. But at the end of the day, sometimes you lie in the bed you made.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Mike: it’s an important set of questions. To which I have no great answers… Though I’m sure we’d be told that buildings like Brushaber Commons are essential to recruitment, I’ve also wondered at what point schools like Bethel need to make the choice to focus development efforts on building up endowment rather than paying for new or renovated facilities.

      1. I know the “recruitment” pitch would be made. And maybe it’s fair. But the 5 schools I mentioned are all – at least in my opinion – uglier campuses than Bethel, even without the Brushaber Commons. A few of them are significantly uglier. I don’t want to see Bethel struggle, but I do think that for too long they’ve made poor decisions in the stewarding of what resources they have. And Brushaber Commons is the cherry on top. So asking for more donations from churches that are barely scraping by is just a tough one for me to fully embrace.

  5. As a Bethel grad working in the financial industry, I’ve been able to pay off the loans I took out to afford such a pricey education. I luckily was offered many scholarships to attend Bethel and worked 30+ hours a week all four years, making it financially possible. However, I feel greatly for fellow student who graduated with teaching, social work, or ministry degrees. They are paying exorbitant amounts toward student loans, which doesn’t match the income levels in their fields. Today, many of them would not say the Christian Liberal Arts experience was worth the cost.

    The majority of students I met at Bethel had wealthy parents paying for their education. As costs continue to rise, Bethel will lose out having a group of economically diverse students, which is highly important in an educational setting. Good luck as you strive to find some way to improve the situation.

  6. Great letter, Professor Gehrz (I still have problems calling my old teachers by their first names). As you know, I have personal connections to the situation at Bethel as well, and I fear that Bethel will dismiss programs that are essential for providing a good liberal arts education and keep programs that are not. I have never been impressed with Bethel’s financial decisions, to the extent that I have been aware of them, though I suppose that, as you noted, this is a confluence of factors to which there are no easy answers. I might also suggest the reduction of building and investment projects/new campuses, as well as the dismissal of the football program (heresy, I know) and other high-ticket non-academic programs, but I have no doubt that these will be the last things considered. If hard choices have to be made, I’d rather see Bethel giving fewer students a high-quality Christian liberal arts education without many of the bells and whistles, including a lot of the co-curricular programs like football. But I think the problems are much greater than that, including denominational support and the structure of American higher education, which is going to see some serious changes over the next few decades, even at schools with big endowments. My wife and I (both Bethel grads) will just be praying that Bethel can survive the storm. We sure won’t be able to send our kids there unless we suddenly become ridiculously wealthy or feel like encouraging our children to incur unhealthy levels of debt. At some point, nothing is worth that much money, even a great and holistic education. It is becoming an unwise waste of resources to spend $100,000 or more on a liberal arts degree. It’s getting to the point where the cost of university is bordering on the obscene. And as you noted, that’s a tough hurdle to overcome.

  7. Since I haven’t had time to address all comments individually, please let a general thank you suffice. Whether they’ve agreed with my analysis and recommendations or not, I appreciate that so many have taken the time to read what I had to say and share their own thoughts.

  8. I appreciate your article and the thought behind it. My Dad went to Bethel Academy and my family has had various ties to Bethel over the years. I didn’t go to Bethel because I couldn’t take French as a foreign language and had a good start on that. Of course, I SHOULD have taken Swedish since some of my family teases that Swedish might just be the language of heaven! 🙂 I taught forty-seven years at a fundamental liberal arts university and we face similar problems. Change is very difficult and it is hard for those of us who have labored for so long at such sacrifice not to feel betrayed when the change hits us.

    Christian education involves sacrifice for almost everyone: for the parents and families who pay the bills; for those who founded the school and invested lives over the years; for the students who apply themselves and learn to love the Lord with heart, soul, and mind; for the students who will be different because of their identity with our Savior and because of a post-modern culture with which we increasingly have little in common and which doesn’t really “tolerate” Christianity with the essentials as we define them from God’s Word. All of this comes with the American idea that our children in most cases should go to college. Education is important and especially the liberal arts college which teaches us not just how to make a living but how to live. However, that is not the only kind of education available in America. Dividing the funds for college education will again become more competitive and education may become more elite for this reason. And of necessity, students may need to train for different vocations and not all will be able to go to college.

    One of the answers to our problem lies not in a denomination or churches — though their contributions help — but in the lives of the alumni. My alma mater stays in touch with alumni — professors phone me, classmates phone me, current students who shared my majors call me, they write me thank you notes for small gifts, and they take pride and publish what percentage of each graduating class contributes to the school each year AND then notes the total amount. The percentage is NOT based on the amount so many of my classmates who have small means still give. They have encouraged each alumnus to give a total of $1,000 every four years and though I have not been able or felt led to do that, a surprising number have. They have built buildings with this money, added it to the endowment, and built a loyal following. I share very little of the beliefs they espouse today because they have become increasingly liberal but I do value the academic training I received and the mentorship which continued through my graduate work in earning a Ph.D. and which has helped me develop as an academician. The amount I paid for my education is not what it really cost them to educate me. Each of us owes a huge debt to our parents who invested in our futures, to those who helped us, and to the institution that educated us. We need to wake up and bear some of the burden or we won’t have distinctive liberal arts colleges for the next generation.

    The alumni of the institution where I have been teaching have personal belief in Christ in common but find fault with their alma mater and use that as an excuse not to give. Some think we’re too strict, some think we’re not strict enough, and everything in between. I suspect Bethel gets in the same pickle.

    I join a host of current and former Christian educators who rarely earned what our contacts in public institutions did. But my Dad often reminded me of a line from hymn which in our cases is very true: “O Zion Haste” has a line in it that says: “And ALL thou spendest, JESUS will repay.” God blesses individuals, missions, and institutions in some very unique and unexpected ways. Some of the results of sacrifice are visible now — but Heaven will reveal souls won to Christ, those who have even unknown to us chosen to serve the Master, and victories won for eternity. It is so easy to see and want what the American dream offers and I have far too many former students who have bought into that mentality. They don’t understand the sacrifices of the greatest generation who weathered the depression and World War II. We’re so easily self-absorbed regardless of our generation. But we can give up going to out eat a couple of times a month for a cause, or not spending as much money on going to movies and putting that aside for a cause. And certainly there is something our graduates and former students value from their experience even if they don’t value it all. Alumni need vision and it needs to start getting closer to 20/20.

  9. This is a sad development to read about. And Bethel certainly isn’t alone in facing these difficult financial hurdles within the Christian College slice of higher education. It’s one that hits close to home. Both my wife and graduated from Bethel for undergrad and I later graduated from the seminary. We lived on campus all four years and were highly involved in student life and extra-curriculars. We experienced first hand what the philosophy of being made into ‘whole and holy persons’ was all about. Likewise, my only sibling, my wife’s whole family graduated from Bethel. All that to say, Bethel is near and dear. And it is sad to hear about what is happening.

    However, it is also understandable. Regrettably so. I believe a large reason for decreased support from the denomination and individual churches can likely be traced to the drift theologically I’ve observed at the institution. It was discernible when I attended and has only been amplified in recent years. As a comment above references, is there any surprise that when a church sends its students to a school for education, only to find them returning with a theology that is more left-leaning, said congregation feels disinclined to continue sacrificial giving to said institution? In general, Bethel’s theological leanings – both broadly speaking and as evidenced by the BTS dept and seminary – are more progressive than the typical church it is purported to serve (NB: I’m not saying Bethel is a bastion of Liberalism in the classic sense, or that every bib-theo prof is either).

    To give an example, the chair of the BTS department recently said publicly he would *never* hire a professor who held to a complimentarian position on male and female roles in the church. While Bethel has an ‘officially’ neutral position on this subject, in practice it is an egalitarian practicing, affirming and promoting institution. Completely aside from which position is correct or not, it is quite understandable that if the denomination has churches on both sides of the issue (and it does), local churches on both sides would/should expect to find representation at the denomination’s educational institution. This isn’t the case at Bethel. And this in only one theological example. Because of the breadth of theological positions held within the denomination, this isn’t an easy tension to walk out. However, when Bethel seems to consistently come down theologically on the moderate-left to left side of doctrinal issues, churches that are moderate to conservative on the spectrum will be less inclined to give.

    Speaking to the seminary side. The seminary has a lack of vision for what it is about. In an attempt to keep enrollment numbers up and meet the bottom line, it has attempted to be all things to all people. The healthiest and most successful seminaries are those that are most closely connected to and supported by their denominations. I agree with your post in this regard. But the primary reason a denomination supports and feels connected to its seminary is because said graduate school is in the business of training pastors for its denomination. The average seminary classmate of mine was not there to become a pastor. They were there to pursue a swath of other interests. Many of which had little connection to local churches (And many of these were worthy endeavors). But a seminary’s main goal, if it expects significant denominational support, should be to train up workers for the ecclesiological body.

    Even worse though, this vague sense of who they were seeking to train meant the M. Div program was sub-par in what it delivered academically. It pushed out core biblical and theological courses to make room for ‘spiritual formation.’ It had to, because it had failed to foster and maintain strong relations with its churches, where spiritual formation should have been taking place. The end result are students inadequately equipped for pastoral work and disconnected from the local church. Sadly, one result of the financial hardship is that the seminary has eliminated Church History! So the gap in education only deepens, which is why I would not encourage people in my congregation to attend Bethel Seminary (and that breaks my heart).

    Which goes to the biggest issue. Bethel has not positioned itself as a para-church arm of its denomination, seeking to serve the needs of that denomination (its churches and its students) as well as the world at large. It is by and large simply a para-church entity. Undergraduate students are encouraged to find mentoring and participate in student life and campus ministries. All of which I benefited from greatly during my time and was often active in leading. However, the there is a *glaring omission* of stressing and promoting the local church. Students are trained to get their ‘spiritual fix’ on campus. Chapel replaces church membership. Vespers replaces congregational worship. RIOT replaces instruction, Bible study and training in the local church by qualified elders. None of these are bad things, if they are made to *complement* the local church. Instead they compete and replace it.

    Almost to a person, I can trace the spiritual well-being of my undergrad classmates by thinking back to who was active in a church body while attending Bethel. The students that weren’t, who were spoon fed community and worship in an environment completely untethered from how they would be called to live out their faith in the world upon graduation, by and large, drifted from the church or the faith all together.

    I love Bethel. And it saddens me to see the financial situation she is in. I have great empathy for the professors and their families who were let go this week. But speaking personally, and for the church I work for, it is hard to imagine supporting an institution that is so consistently out of step with our theology and the value we place on the local church. And that breaks my heart!

    1. First of all, having such strong comments and not listing your name is somewhat to very suspect. Secondly, if churches were fostering a “spiritual formation” maybe there wouldn’t be a need for a seminary to do so. As a recent graduate of the seminary I found the spiritual formation classes to be some of the most influential. How do you have a seminary teaching theological education without providing some form of spiritual formation?! It’s a seminary. Bethel has never been known or even meant to be known for it’s place in the Academy? It’s intention is their Three-Centered approach, which is one of it’s main and purposeful goals. The spiritual formation piece is what sets it apart from other institutions.
      Which is also to say, there are many other seminaries that are not “in-line” exactly with their denomination, or as you put it a “para-church arm” if they even are tied to a particular denomination (Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, Denver Sem, Dallas Theological Seminary, Asbury, Beeson Divinity school, Liberty, should I keep going)?

      “The healthiest and most successful seminaries are those that are most closely connected to and supported by their denominations.” This is simply not true. Check Bethel in the 80’s. Trinity (TEDS) is falling. United in St. Paul. Again, there are so many schools that don’t thrive because they are tied to a denomination.

      Assuming you then knew every student at Bethel undergrad and why they weren’t connected strongly like you to a church community? Doubtful they let you in enough to really have you know where the church saw them. Maybe the church didn’t want them there because they didn’t strictly follow the rules set forth by the church. Maybe the questions they asked in church were too threatening. The point being, to label everyone who seemingly didn’t agree with you as disconnected and drifting from church as the same person is unfair. Maybe the church didn’t want them. Spoon fed community? Is community while at college unfair? It’s college, you better have community. Maybe the community at their church wasn’t really a community, but an unwelcoming group of people that if you weren’t “in” you were out.

  10. When academia became the place for serious theology instead of the church, when academia cut itself off from the ultimate purpose of training pastors who major in acts of service using theology as the bedrock (instead of the reverse) this became all but inevitable. Some of the best thinking is done in our colleges and seminaries, but many of these are still a far cry from the pastoral and apostolic work that is needed to equip the ministry of believers in society. Blame the churches or blame academia – there are faults on both sides but if academia wishes to repair the bridge so the supply wagons can cross, it certainly has the imperative to do so. Bemoaning a lack if support without giving leadership back to the churches won’t get us far. Frankly I’m unsympathetic. There are a number of things I don’t quite agree on with the southern baptists, but the relationship between their churches and seminaries is much closer to ideal than the typical separation if ivory tower snobbery that appears to plague many evangelical colleges and seminaries.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jason. I’m working on something of a follow-up for next week, and one issue I did want to broach was the responsibility of colleges to their churches (since the initial letter focused so much on that of churches to colleges). The fault, as you say, is on both sides.

      1. I look forward to reading it, Chris. In any case you’ve opened up a good discussion that needs to be had. Status quo won’t promote a surviving (much less thriving) garden of development for future church leaders if support isn’t forthcoming. This crisis isn’t merely endemic to Christian colleges or seminaries – as we all know higher education is in death throes everywhere, but I’m not surprised that the financial squeeze is so widespread among Christian institutions for many of the reasons you mention.

  11. I am the administrator of a Christian day school (K-12). We spend a great deal of time and influence to get our students to consider Christian higher education to continue the spiritual formation we begin. We realize that the default choice for most students (evangelical as well as non-) is some type of public, government subsidized institution, so what we do is intentional and counter-cultural. However, I am constantly amazed at the ignorance, complacency, and sometimes outright hostility toward Christian education from the evangelical community as a whole and, sadly, from the clergy specifically. What this article laments, a “dwindling pool of students,” should come as no surprise if our evangelical church leadership continues to play dumb about the statistical abandonment of our young people (70% attrition). When 90% of our evangelical homes choose to educate their children in the government’s indoctrination centers, just how often do you think those graduates will choose Christian higher education?

    I am doing a study to find out what percentage of this year’s freshman class in evangelical colleges and universities came from a) public school, b) home school, and c) Christian school. If I find that a significant portion came from c), then it behooves us to enter into a full-circle effort: evangelical seminaries TEACH their pastoral candidates the critical importance of teaching their congregations to be engaged with Christian education, so that graduates of Christian schools would form a larger pool choosing Christian higher education, so that we might have more well-equipped evangelicals to live in and engage their culture with the claims of Christ and be good church members in future years.

  12. However, it’ll more difficult for Bethel to bring in and maintain it’s students when you let go two of the most important faculty. One of which was arguably the most popular and loved among students and the other who is closest with the largest donor of scholarships and funding for students and the seminary. I guess I was thinking and holding to the fact that the institution was actually about the students and that the financial and resourcing decisions would be made on behalf of the students.

  13. Bethel University and Seminary has left our family so disheartened. You are by every definition the epitome of dysfunction! Where is God in all of this mess? While by no means am I learned scholar of the Bible, I however clearly remember the story of Babylon! When I see Brushaber Commons or read about the “much needed” new piece of property I wonder is this your Babylon? You have clearly lost sight, in my opinion, of what Bethel University and Seminary was built on! Students who want to grow intellectually and spiritually and faculty who want to grow them. Every time I read “Whole and Holy” in a Bethel publication I cringe! It’s not happening folks, wonderful concept, worked with us. We bought into it, but it’s not happening! You have become a secular business in the guise of a Christian university. The once prestigious Bethel is failing! You can hire all the “top guns” you seem to think you need to “brand” and “rebuild” Bethels image! Your future is not contingent on building another building or fixing your public image….. your future is contingent upon where you see God and about glorifying Him in everything that you do. Faith and trust trumps bricks and mortar!!

  14. I feel differently about the issue. A lot more people have been going to school in the last several years, in many cases because of the economic downturn. If Bethel can’t compete, there’s likely a reason for that which needs to be addressed. More money may ameliorate the problem, but I suspect it won’t address the root causes of the problem.

    Ezra Klein (Washington Post reporter and prolific guest columnist) and many others have written several articles in the past few months on why there’s a crisis in higher education, specifically why it’s so expensive — increasing in cost at a much higher rate than even health care expenses. In many cases it’s because there are far too many administrators (i.e., the administrator to teacher ratio has skyrocketed in the last 20 years and administrators have also received the vast majority of gains in compensation).

    I love higher ed and I think Christian colleges are important for many reasons, but I believe that the people who work in higher ed are very fortunate (and hardworking) and should find a way to address their challenges, which are real, without taking an even bigger chunk of the Church’s finite charitable contributions that could make even more of a difference if directed to addressing the root causes of more pressing issues like hunger, preventable disease and death, human trafficking, environmental destruction that threatens human life and other issues that pose an immediate and long term threat to humanity.

    The issue of increasing student loan debt, by the way, is tragic and I think would be most effectively addressed through a population based approach rather than on a case-by-case basis.

    I do very much appreciate your desire to be of service to the Church and to the many students who you clearly care about. They’re lucky to have you as their teacher and I wish you the very best in your good work.

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