By David Fincher
(This article is adapted from comments delivered at the Cincinnati Christian University alumni homecoming on November 9 and at the International Conference on Missions on November 15.)
As a graduate of Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Mo., I have long known the influence of Cincinnati upon our Christian churches and colleges. In 1989, I began as a freshman at CCCB. My teachers were primarily graduates of Cincinnati Bible Seminary who quoted their teachers and shared memories of their school.
Before I ever visited the Cincinnati campus, I was already grateful for the work of CBS. So when the trustees of Cincinnati Christian University asked a few months ago if Central would work with them to continue the legacy of Cincinnati ministry education, I recommended to our trustees that we do everything possible to help maintain the historic impact of this ministry. No matter what happened, we knew there would be a season of uncertainty, frustration, and sadness.
Many who read this have direct personal ties to Cincinnati through its campus and their experiences there. Even more owe a debt of gratitude to the influence Cincinnati has had on the ministries and leaders of the Restoration Movement. We all grieve the loss of this flagship school that was started by the Christian Restoration Association and which served for so long.
This tragic loss reminds me of the fall of Jerusalem, described by the prophet Jeremiah. But in the midst of passages about grief in the aftermath of that loss, Jeremiah includes words of hope: “Because of the Lord’s faithful love, we do not perish, for His mercies never end. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness! I say: The Lord is my portion, therefore I will put my hope in Him. The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him” (Lamentations 3:22-25, Holman Christian Standard Bible, emphasis added).
As we reflect on the closure of Cincinnati Christian University, three stories of hope help us understand what happened in the past, what is occurring now, and what might develop in the future.
A Story of Passion from the Past
Central Christian College of the Bible emerged from the 1956 closure of Chillicothe (Missouri) Bible College. Charlie Gash was the only graduate of that college, and he was one of the kindest and happiest preachers I ever met. When Chillicothe Bible College closed, some of the area preachers decided to help start a new Bible college in northern Missouri. They asked John Hall, a graduate of CBS who was preaching in Vandalia, Missouri, to be the first president. They promised to find the location and supporters if he would recruit a faculty to come to Missouri. This was February 1957, and the preachers’ goal was to start classes in September. Hall would ride a weekly train from Missouri to Cincinnati during the summer of 1957.
Hall asked various faculty members at Cincinnati whom they would recommend as faculty for a new college in Missouri. From those suggestions, Hall contacted Reuben Bullard, Gareth Reese, Lloyd Pelfrey, and Frank Watson. They met to plan the effort. Pelfrey was preaching in Tennessee, but the others began meeting around a red card table in the Bullards’ home to plan the curriculum, while Lynn Bullard provided refreshments. Reuben Bullard sketched an initial design for the new college seal; he placed a torch in the center, similar to Cincinnati’s seal.
Faculty members moved to Missouri with their families, one at a time, not knowing where they would live until after they arrived. They left ministries, homes, and familiar surroundings and traveled hundreds of miles to a place they had never even visited. Frank Watson, Lloyd Pelfrey, and Gareth Reese all came to Moberly to teach at Central and never left.
Meanwhile, the churches of northern Missouri pulled together to buy a three-story parochial school building in Moberly for $17,500. A 100-year-old lady who still supports the college told me about the Saturday when church members came together to prepare the facility. People in the area heard a college was starting, so they volunteered to clean and remodel it.
The first convocation was September 3, 1957, at Moberly’s Municipal Auditorium. Almost 500 people showed up to celebrate this great accomplishment: The people in northern Missouri were passionate in their support of a Bible college, and the people in Cincinnati were passionate about teaching God’s Word. Together, they said, “Let’s start a new college in six months,” and 63 years later, it’s still working.
A few people remain who still remember fondly the joy, energy, and work that made it happen. For some, it was the most important moment in their lives, and it will ripple throughout eternity. Over the years, more than 5,000 students have enrolled at Central Christian College of the Bible to learn about New Testament Christianity and take it into their lives, families, and churches.
The new school started small. Only one student transferred from Chillicothe Bible College, but she subsequently met her husband at Central. That couple, Karen and Jack Richardson, spent the rest of their lives serving the Lord, building churches and Christian college facilities with Goodman Church Builders, supporting the college, and talking about its origins until they passed away a few years ago. The first graduate of CCCB was Donald Stirrup, who became the first full-time preacher at Nebo Christian Church in western Kentucky. That church still supports Central and sends students.
But to me, the most personal part of the passionate story of the early days of CCCB involves Pat and Earl Ferguson, early students who were in John Hall’s youth group. Hall asked them to consider going to Bible college instead of the University of Missouri. They agreed, and Earl started preaching for churches in the area.
At one church he served, they went calling on people, inviting them to church, and leading them to the Lord. One of those families was a young couple with two small girls. The parents started attending church, were baptized in the early 1960s, and raised their girls in that church. Later, their third daughter was born and raised in that church. In 1992, I married that young lady in that church. We met because of Central, and we both can trace our spiritual development to the passion of people who in the 1950s decided that the closing of one college wasn’t going to stop the work of training leaders for the church.
That passion was fueled by the influence of Cincinnati Bible Seminary on some of its students; men such as Grayson Ensign, Edsil Dale, Bob Stacy, Wayne Lowen, Richard Koffarnus, Larry Pechawer, Aaron Welch, Jim Estep, Kris Small, and others who later came to teach at Central. And the same passion by our supporters has led them to continue sending gifts and students to our campus, to our online programs, and now to be part of what’s next in Cincinnati.
Stories of passion from the past show us that God’s power brings hope. God is always at work, but he brings hope through passionate people who are also at work. When we approach a task with passion, we can confidently hope that God will do more than we could ask or imagine.
A Story of Providence from the Present
In November 2018, I was preparing to start a seven-week sabbatical and Central Christian College of the Bible was conducting a feasibility study for a stewardship campaign. In February 2019 came approval of that campaign to expand the college’s programs in several important ways. That decision led us in March to interview Dr. Jim Estep, a four-time graduate of Cincinnati, to become our vice president of academics.
After taking Jim back to the airport, I drove to Mason, Ohio, for the Annual Summit of the Center for Church Leadership. While there, I met many of the key workers and leaders of both CCL and the CCU ministry department. That trip convinced me to schedule a trip to Ohio in June. While in Cincinnati late that month, CCU’s current president asked me if we might discuss working together in some way that would allow Central to oversee CCU’s Bible and ministry programs.
With his permission, I asked three trusted advisers for input: Dr. Jim Estep, Dr. John Derry, and Gene McCoy. All three expressed positive opinions about the possibility and urged me to seriously consider it. By that point, I had already personally spoken with more than 15 college and university presidents about possible collaboration opportunities, but with limited results. However, I had never considered partnering with Cincinnati. When they approached me, I saw it as providential. Over the next few months, we began to see how this partnership might help preserve and expand ministry training in the Cincinnati area.
Also, Central providentially has several supporters in Ohio and Indiana who have shared that they wished we could offer programming in Ohio. Comments such as that encouraged us to keep pursuing the opportunity.
In early October, when we became aware CCU’s closure might be imminent, I was in Orlando for board training at our accreditation headquarters with a group of Central’s trustees. John Derry was in Florida as our coach, and several trusted advisers were also in Florida for the Spire Conference. In less than eight days, we worked through the most pressing issues and prepared a tentative plan that would allow us to step in and help.
The next week, when our board’s annual meeting was scheduled, the planning committee recommended we go through the open door to work in Cincinnati.
In this story of providence, God brought together the right people at the right time, during a season when our donors were supporting new initiatives that would help enable such an undertaking. When you see God at work in ways such as this, it builds hope that he can do even more. While advisers were helping us determine possible courses of action, we were learning to trust in God’s providence.
Even as this article is being published, providence is still at work, bringing together the right people at the right time to meet specific needs.
A Story of Preparation for the Future
Central Christian College of the Bible is preparing to work in the Cincinnati area to provide ministry training in the aftermath of the closure of Cincinnati Christian University.
To provide a legal entity for this work in Cincinnati, we are planning a new foundation that will be legally separate from Cincinnati Christian University and the Cincinnati Christian University Foundation. (More information is available at www.cccb.edu/cincinnati.) Our new foundation will not be led by any current CCU trustees or be legally responsible for the university’s debts or campus. Nor will it operate any of the other university functions that are closing. CCU’s trustees will retain control of the university during its wind down and assist Central as much as possible in the coming months. With their encouragement, we plan to continue the mission of training men and women for church leadership.
Seven people have already agreed to serve as founding trustees: Dr. Phil Claycomb, Dr. John Derry, Bob Hightchew, Gene McCoy, Shawn McMullen, Dr. Larry Pechawer, and Dr. David Roadcup. All are respected, experienced Christian church leaders who are highly committed to this vision. Their first task will be to work to establish the bylaws, policies, and spiritual culture of the foundation for its long-term success.
This foundation will continue the mission and spirit that both colleges have embodied. Our new foundation will encourage effective collaboration between the colleges, congregations, and organizations within our Christian churches. In the meantime, we are maintaining three ministry enterprises that CCU will be unable to continue: the Center for Church Leadership, Russell School of Ministry, and George Mark Elliott Library. These enterprises represent the focus on training students, serving churches, and preserving doctrine that have characterized Cincinnati ministry education.
The Russell School of Ministry has been the name of the ministry department of CCU; it utilizes an innovative “teaching church” program involving more than a dozen churches in the Cincinnati area. With the blessing of John and Bob Russell, we will use this name to symbolize and promote successful ministry leadership within the Christian church tradition.
We are working with the Ohio Department of Higher Education to operate The Russell School of Ministry under the state exemption for Bible colleges in spring 2020. We are preparing an application for ODHE to evaluate an accredited extension site in the Cincinnati region sometime in 2020 to educate ministers by offering Bible and ministry degrees. Pending necessary approvals, this effort will serve to recruit and train more students to become ministers.
The Center for Church Leadership is a national network of Christian churches that has received primary funding from The Lilly Endowment and The Solomon Foundation. It will continue to provide strategic resources that empower church leaders to thrive in ministry. With the closure of the university and the end of Lilly’s support, we have agreed to pursue fundraising and provide oversight for the CCL’s ministry in the immediate future.
The George Mark Elliott Library has a world-class collection of print and digital resources, ancient and contemporary artifacts, and special items from the heritage of Christian churches and churches of Christ. We are working to maintain the library with a vision that it can be used not only for our extension site in Cincinnati, but by any of our colleges, churches, organizations, and leaders.
These three ministry assets exist today only because of many gifts over the past decades. The only way they can continue is through the support of Cincinnati constituent friends and church families. Several have already sent gifts to show their support. We ask all individual and church friends of the university to consider including this work in their stewardship. Gifts to maintain these three ministry enterprises at this time can be received only through Central Christian College of the Bible.
Gifts to support our Cincinnati work can be made online at www.cccb.edu/cincinnati or by mailing a check to this address: CCCB, P.O. Box 14721, Cincinnati, OH 45250. Checks should be payable to CCCB or Central Christian College of the Bible. (Checks made payable to either CCU or CCU Foundation cannot be accepted at this time. If we receive a check payable to either, we will need to contact the sender and ask for a new check.)
Thank you for your prayers, encouragement, and support of this effort to add a new story of hope as we put our hope in Him.
Dr. David Fincher serves as president Central Christian College of the Bible.