‘Merge’ Is Not a Dirty Word

By Mark A. Taylor

Last month, two Christian colleges announced their intent to pursue a partnership with each other. Johnson University, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Florida Christian College, Kissimmee, Florida, hope to become one institution, perhaps as soon as this year, according to Johnson’s president, Gary Weedman.

This is the second such possible merger being pursued between schools reporting in Christian Standard. It should not be the last.

Last year Milligan College and Emmanuel Christian Seminary announced a similar plan to consider uniting under one administration. According to Milligan’s president, Bill Greer, and Emmanuel’s president, Michael Sweeney, those talks are continuing on course.

The benefits of such actions seem clear. “There’s just not enough money in our movement to support all the schools we have,” Sweeney said to me.

“It’s in the nature of institutions that they want to maintain their independence,” Greer said. “But in today’s economy it is increasingly difficult and, in my opinion, not good stewardship. We have a lot to gain to partner together.”

In the case of Johnson and Florida, the numbers tell the story. Florida Christian College’s assets are far greater than the school’s debt. Weedman believes Johnson could restructure Florida’s debt, continue to build enrollment (enrollment has been growing at Florida for years), and serve many needs in the area. When the Florida trustees asked Johnson to consider merger talks, the benefits to both schools became clear.

We could wish the positive reaction in Florida were true in every situation when the idea of college mergers is introduced.

From other corners we’ve heard about bruised egos, leaders defending their turf, or alumni protesting a possible name change if their school entertained merger with another.

But isn’t it better to have a degree from a school whose name has changed than from a school that no longer exists? And here’s the rest of the story: Some in the know say more than one of the schools listed in our report cannot survive for five more years, maybe not even one more year.

It will be a tragedy if the future of these schools is left to wishful thinking when proactive decision-making could have resulted in a better future. Now is the time for administrators to offer, trustees to embrace, and alumni to support frank discussions about the best way to steward the resources that have been poured into these colleges for decades.

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6 Comments

  1. Matt
    March 5, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    It would be interesting to know what Johnson will get from this merger. Obviously, Florida will have their debt paid off and hopefully get SACS back, which is not the case at this date. It seems that merger is good, but more one way. Economic times are tough, and everyone is trying to figure out ways to stay afloat.

  2. March 6, 2013 at 3:49 pm

    Interesting to think this through on the local church level. Would the mission of the church be enhanced or contracted if churches struggling for life and vitality were to merge with each other, especially in the areas where they are only a few miles apart?

  3. Michael Hines
    March 6, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Several colleges and universities in the Restoration Movement’s orbit have talked merger. Some have come about, some have not. In many cases, the school’s constituency determined whether or not a college would merge or close.

    A number of years ago Nebraska Christian College and Manhattan Christian College talked merger. NCC had an opportunity to purchase a fully developed campus in Denison, IA, and that offered the opportunity for the merger. Graduates and supporters of the Nebraska school rejected the idea for several reasons not the least of which was the small size of the Denison community. The constituents did not want the merger. This sort of thing has repeated itself numerous times over the years.

    The statement about having a degree from a college that changed its name rather than one that closed is ridiculous. Most of our churches rarely look at degrees when considering candidates. Proficiency and effectiveness in ministry are far more important. A few churches think they need ministers with advanced degrees and seek such men sometimes to their own hurt. Intermountain Bible College closed its doors in 1985 and I dare say not one capable Christian servant from that school ever found his no-name degree from IBC a detriment. The only time it might matter would be if a recent graduate of a dying school wanted to go to graduate school. In most cases, access to transcripts and accreditation mean more than whether or not the school exists.

  4. March 6, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    While I appreciate the sentiment of collaboration, I believe this perspective is left wanting. Historically, our schools were structured as extensions of the local church and were discouraged from developing financial independence lest they fall into liberalism. RM congregations benefitted from our colleges far more than they ever gave financially but, now, the lion’s share of our churches have little regard for the schools’ survival. In essence, the overall struggle for our colleges to remain viable is directly related to the breaking of a sacred trust between the churches and the schools.

    Mergers for the sake of resource conservation, especially in an era where life-sized HD LED screens are essential for a church’s ministry, seems shortsighted.

    One of the hallmarks of our movement is our diversity of perspectives under biblical submission. If we continue to lose educational voices and perspectives, we’ll soon discover a movement that has amalgamated into general non-denominationalism, with no distinctives left at all.

  5. March 7, 2013 at 7:56 am

    It does take an amazing amount of humility on both sides in order to have a merger where both sides benefit. On one side, you have to be humble enough to admit you need help. On the other side, you have to be humble enough not to take advantage of the one who needs the help. On the local church level, I can see the benefit of sharing resources as long as both sides remember that the ultimate goal is for God to be glorified and lost souls are found.

  6. Richard Wilson
    March 17, 2013 at 6:55 am

    I have been involved in three mergers of educational institutions in my career in ministry. Two were successful, one not. As a participant, I have been an alumnus of the gaining school (Ozark and Oklahoma); and twice as an administrator (one institution was overseas in Haiti the other in the States).

    The one in Haiti was forced to close as a result of a security threat to its personnel. It merged with Son Light Ministry in Port-des-Paix, Haiti. The merger was successful because everyone involved had the goal of continuing to educate preachers–that was our sole educational product.

    Two were Stateside. The first, Ozark’s, went well. The alumni of both were merged with continued acknowledgement of both schools.

    The other Stateside school merger did not take place due to historical differences (College of the Scriptures and Kentucky Christian University and Louisville Bible College).

    I have also served on the board of Mid-South Christian College early in my ministry. They came close to closing their doors several years ago but successfully overcame that because of a board determined to succeed and the dedication of their staff, especially that of three presidents: Bill Griffin, Robert Secrist and Larry Griffin.

    Their campus has been reborn and they are largely debt-free. They operate on a cash-only basis with a focus on ministry in two areas, English language and Spanish. Their sole focus is preaching and hands-on ministry.

    It seems to me the problem many schools face is the divergence from their initial, primary goal–turning out preachers. Many schools seek to duplicate what is already being done by secular schools.

    Another potential danger to survival is dependence on federal and state funds to fund student enrollment. This results in student debt that sometimes prohibits being in ministry and missions due to inability to repay the debt. It also promotes expansion unrelated to local congregations.

    A second more serious threat is the danger that federal funding can suddenly be denied faith-based educational institutions as a result of the Supreme Court’s reinterpretation of the First Amendment to mean there must be total separation of church and state. This is especially significant given the effective work of the Foundation For Freedom From Religion in challenging any area of collaboration between church and state.

    Again, Mid-South Christian College serves as an example. They have made a conscious decision to limit participation in federal funding for their students to Pell Grants. Plus keeping tuition low.

    Our schools have always been rooted in a desire to produce biblically focused evangelists since Alexander Campbell’s time. This took on an added dimension when they rose to the threat of liberalism which threatened all Disciples of Christ educational institutions in the early- to mid-20th century resulting in the formation of the Christian Church (Independent). Coupled with this latter goal was that of the “Greatest Generation’s” goal following World War II to utilize Bible colleges as evangelistic centers nationwide.

    It is time to rein in the desire to expand into liberal arts and refocus on one goal–producing preachers and missionaries who are focused on the lost, not on “success” or leading “emerging” or “mega” churches.

    Winning the lost must be the goal of our schools, not providing Christian vocational programs that duplicate secular schools.

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