By Greg Swinney
Collectively, they have nearly 70 years of faithful service to Christian higher education, six bachelor’s degrees, six master’s degrees, and four doctorates. They oversaw total combined annual budgets of $43 million. And they all have recently stepped down from presidencies of Christian colleges.
We asked them to roll up their sleeves, sit back, and share their stories with us.
In alphabetical order, they are:
• David Faust, Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University (president, 2002–14)
• Richard Milliken, Nebraska Christian College, Papillion, Nebraska (1999–2014)
• Ronald Oakes, Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri (2005–13)
• Keith Ray, Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University (1998–2014)
• Dusty Rubeck, Dallas (Texas) Christian College (2004–14)
• Michael Sweeney, Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee (2009–14)
What led you to accept the call to become president of a Bible college?
Rubeck: My passion for Christian higher education, my deep love for Dallas Christian College and its impact on my life, coupled with God’s clear prompting was more than I could resist. I’ve reflected how some “middle of the night promptings” gave me great assurance and strength during difficult days.
Faust: I believe in the multiplying impact of teaching and empowering others for ministry—handing the baton to the next generation of leaders (as the apostle Paul described in 2 Timothy 2:2). I felt challenged by the multifaceted role of the president: vision-casting, teaching, pastoral care, public relations, fund-raising, community involvement, organizational leadership, strategic planning, church relations, hospitality, preaching, presiding, and speaking for public events. I found all of this appealing and energizing.
Milliken: I love the church. The body of Christ has been such a dynamic influence in my life, and I desire for her to reflect the beauty of the gospel. The thought of calling, equipping, and sending out qualified vocational leaders for the church has captivated me.
Oakes: Obedience to God’s direction. The overwhelming personal conviction that God wanted me to step into this role even though it was never something I intentionally sought.
I imagine you have experienced some amazing answers to prayer during your years of service. Would you mind sharing one of your best memories with us?
Sweeney: We had just completed a major campus expansion, incurring millions of dollars of debt in the process. Then 2008 happened. The economic crisis wiped out a good portion of our endowment, had a negative impact on enrollment, and caused donations to plummet. So we were heavily in debt with nowhere to turn. The bank was feeling its own stress and informed us they wanted their money.
Then, out of the blue, through the connection of one of our alums, we were introduced to someone who was “looking for a good Christian cause to support.” With the help of this donor and several others, inside of 14 months we were able to reduce our debt by 75 percent and set the school on a far more stable financial footing. This had little to do with my administrative skill or fund-raising ability—it was purely an answer to prayer.
Milliken: In the summer of 2005, on the hottest day of the year, hundreds of friends of the college gathered on a Sunday afternoon to dedicate ground for the new campus of Nebraska Christian College in southwest Omaha. This groundbreaking and prayer service was a demonstration of God’s ability to do more than the friends, staff, and alumni could have imagined. He was sustaining the ministry of Nebraska Christian College for a new chapter, and had done it in dramatic fashion.
It is a day I will never forget. God’s mercies are present every day, though sometimes hidden, I know, but that day they seemed to be absolutely glorious.
What are a few of the biggest changes you have seen over the years?
Oakes: Students come with far greater expectations for what the college needs to provide in facilities and both quality and quantity of student life activities. Though they arrive with a compassionate heart for helping people in need around the world, they come with little biblical understanding and doctrinal foundations. There is great tolerance and acceptance of others’ faith and opinions, as well as a cognitive disconnect between the teaching of the Bible and one’s own personal life as it is lived out in the world.
Milliken: The need for our Bible colleges to decide their identity, niche, and core mission brought significant changes to the higher education landscape of our Christian church colleges. The realities of the 21st century demanded that we in leadership demonstrate greater resolve, collaboration, and innovation to equip a new generation of leadership for our churches. Many colleges developed new programs, new incentives, and new sites to address the increasing issues of access, affordability, and enrollment.
Sweeney: As a graduate seminary, we are finding many more students are coming from out-of-state university campus ministries. We can no longer assume our students come from church backgrounds, since many began following Christ in college.
Also, the Internet has changed things dramatically. Students use the library less now, since so much information is available online. Students will sit in class with their computers in front of them and fact-check the professor now; I’ve had students who are logged on correct me on names and dates during class.
What problems kept you up at night?
Faust: Financial challenges and personnel issues (which were often intertwined).
Ray: Personnel and finances.
Rubeck: A few times it was money. A few times it was the long list of tasks to be completed. A few times it was people problems. A few times it was worrying about students who were on the edge. I really don’t see these concerns as much different from any other leaders, or even most parents.
Oakes: The challenges of budgetary reductions as well as the need to downsize personnel. Though decisions are made in light of what is best for the institution and for the accomplishment of her mission, the emotional pain and angst of letting a brother or sister in Christ go, knowing how much of a disruption it will be to them, is perhaps the most dreadful part of the presidential position.
Christian higher education faces immense obstacles in today’s world. What do you think will be the No. 1 challenge Christian colleges will encounter in the years ahead?
Rubeck: When the federal government determines that students in our institutions no longer qualify for Title IV federal funds (Pell grants, guaranteed student loans, etc.), it will be a financial shock to the system unlike anything we have experienced in the history of Christian higher education. I estimate this battle will heat up within the next three to five years and probably be related to the required hiring of gay faculty members.
Sweeney: I believe mergers, such as Emmanuel Christian Seminary is experiencing [with Milligan College] and Johnson University went through with Florida Christian College last year, are going to be happening more and more if our schools are going to be able to face the challenges of the future. Our churches are able to support only so many schools. There are significant financial advantages to being larger, not to mention greater educational opportunities for students. The challenges are only going to get greater as time goes on.
Ray: Stewarding the resources of the Restoration Movement among autonomous churches and schools will be a challenge. Helping students discover their gifts, passions, and sense of calling and the shift to off-site and online education has created numerous challenges. Along with these, the tension between ecclesiological priorities and academic excellence tops the list for faculty challenges. The Great Recession has significantly unsettled the finances of our middle-class churches and their consequent capacity to support parachurch operations like our colleges.
Oakes: The foremost challenge is fiscal viability amid the changing demographic and declining economic societal trends. Student expectations require hefty investments in technology and facilities that will strain the reallocation of college budgets.
Milliken: Affordability/sustainability is going to continue to challenge our colleges and our leaders as cost-of-education increases and the political climate puts pressure on faith-based educational institutions. The second challenge for our colleges is to build bridges to the increasingly diverse ethnic populations in our country. We need to successfully call, equip, and send out qualified leaders of churches that represent the ethnic diversity of our cities and villages.
A generation or two ago, Bible college presidents either retired from the position or left for health or other reasons. What factors led you to accept the call to serve in other kingdom work?
Ray: The average tenure of college presidents in the United States is eight to nine years. I felt this chapter in my life ending and another beginning. God opened another door for me, and Lincoln Christian University will have an opportunity to be blessed by another younger, energetic, and visionary president.
Rubeck: When the Church Development Fund called me last winter, I sensed a very clear leading to leave this role and move on. There is also a sense that my new role may afford different opportunities for advancing Christian higher education. The kingdom of God is a big place with many options for service.
Oakes: I had reached that point of physical and emotional burnout caused by the stress of the job. The drive to push hard and to work tirelessly had morphed into a state of despondency where I lacked both motivation and desire. I could not continue to occupy a position, and not give 110 percent in service to advance the ministry.
Faust: My wife, Candy, and I love CCU, but our highest loyalty is to the Lord and his church. We sense a growing desire to serve in the local church for the next season of our ministry. I look forward to focusing on pastoral and outreach work, teaching God’s Word, and serving as a senior adviser to the elders, senior minister, and staff at East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis. The Lord has been tugging.
Would you recommend this position to a son or daughter, brother or sister, or close friend? What are the top two personality traits someone needs to do this job well?
Rubeck: I would recommend it to anyone who has a passion for the mission and the gift of leadership. A healthy blend of optimism and realism along with severe determination are certainly needed.
Ray: Making a recommendation for this role would involve knowing a number of variables related to the candidate, the institution, and the circumstances. It is not a job for everyone. Two traits would be persistence and prayerfulness.
Sweeney: I would recommend this position to someone only if they had the right gifts and a strong sense that this is where God wants them. It can be a very rewarding job—but one that can cost you a lot of sleep in the tough times!
If you could offer one piece of godly counsel for your replacement, what would it be?
Ray: Do not let the demands of the role diminish your soul. Personal, spiritual, and cultural formation should be the top priorities in sustaining your well-being.
Rubeck: Seek God’s direction and follow it courageously.
Oakes: Remember why God called you into the ministry and that you are not alone. Seek help and advice from others. You don’t have to know it all or shoulder the burden by yourself.
Faust: This job will stretch you in ways you can’t fully comprehend until you do it. You will serve as the “face” of the school with a broad constituency ranging from teenage prospective students to elderly alumni and donors. You will encounter unique challenges as you work with the board, supporting churches, and faculty and staff. A Christian college isn’t a typical “company” to oversee; it’s part school, part business, part church, and part family.
Sweeney: Courage has to be near the top of the list of personality traits. When you are the president of a school, you realize how little you actually control. You always have to make decisions based on partial information. People depend on you for their livelihood, and mistakes are costly.
What have you most loved about serving as a Christian college president?
Milliken: I have loved seeing the transformation of youth through the study of God’s Word and their growing vision for the Great Commission, and I have loved sending them out for effective service. I am honored to have served with incredibly gifted men and women who also have been captivated by the vision of multiplying disciple makers.
Oakes: I had never been in a position where I was more certain of God’s call for that period of ministry. And there is great peace, even amid the challenges and struggles of the presidency, when one is certain of that call.
Sweeney: I love the sense of being on a team that is involved in changing lives. I love seeing where students are when they graduate in comparison to where they were when they came here.
Rubeck: The people. The students, the faculty, the staff, the board, the donors, the church leaders, the accreditors. Everybody.
What excites you most about the future of the institution you have served?
Sweeney: There has never been a time in our history as a movement when the schools have been more cooperative and mutually supportive than they are now. Our presidents have formed themselves into a great support group where we are able to talk about anything and lift one another up with prayers and words of encouragement.
The possibilities of new types of degree concentrations at Milligan College are amazing. And the possibility of forging new types of partnerships with local congregations, beyond merely being a line item on their budget, is also exciting.
Rubeck: The team at Dallas Christian College has built an incredible culture focused on serving together to educate and mentor every student at every stage of every year. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the country. And it is changing lives.
Faust: At CCU we “train thousands to reach millions for Christ.” I am confident our school will continue pursuing that vision for years to come.
Oakes: God is raising up an incredible group of committed servant leaders for the church. Their passion to serve and their aspirations to minister to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people around the world are such an encouragement. Seeing them graduate and go forth into ministry to a world that is in need is what excites me the most.
Before we finish, do you have any questions for us?
Ray: Who is casting the vision for our brotherhood?
Faust: How can we preserve our mission while expanding our reach? How do we keep our spiritual vitality while at the same time achieving financial and marketplace viability?
Sweeney: The significant value of Christian colleges as they train and equip the next generation of ministers is sometimes questioned because a few megachurch preachers never attended Bible college. Does that make sense?
Rubeck: In light of the overwhelming percentage of young Christian men and women who leave their faith while attending a secular college or university, why don’t all of our churches dramatically increase their investment in campus ministries and Christian colleges?
Greg Swinney works as the ministry facilitator for Crossroads International Student Ministries located in Kearney, Nebraska, and serves as the national representative for the Association of College Ministries.