By Chris Moon
Stanley Helton believes Alberta Bible College is in the middle of a turnaround.
The president of the Christian college in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, has overseen doubling of the school’s enrollment during the past five years. Its adult learning population is starting to take off. And financially, the college finished 2019 in the black—the first time since 2014.
“We’ve been steadily chipping away and putting things back in place,” Helton said.
The turnaround has been five years in the making.
The college hit hard times after several years of inconsistent leadership following the 26-year tenure of Ron Fraser as ABC’s president. Helton said the college had a difficult time finding a new president after Fraser transitioned out of that role in 2010. The college went multiple extended periods without a permanent president in place, and that took its toll.
The student population when Helton assumed leadership of the college in 2015 hovered at about 50, which was down from a high of about 160 a decade earlier.
“There were conversations about the viability of the school at that point,” he said.
Now that attendance is bouncing back, Helton attributes the turnaround to a realigning of Alberta Bible College’s targeted audience for students. The college has put increased emphasis on adult learners. About 75 percent of its students are adults, and most of them already are in church ministry.
And some of them are international students who are serving their own ethnic communities within Canada. At least 14 different nationalities are represented in ABC’s student body, Helton said.
APPROACHING ITS 90TH YEAR
Alberta Bible College was founded in 1932 as a Disciples of Christ school serving western Canada. During the ensuing years, as the Stone-Campbell Movement continued to splinter, the school drifted more toward affiliation with independent Christian churches and churches of Christ.
But the college tries to remain active within all three streams of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Helton himself has served within the Disciples of Christ denomination, but he grew up in the churches of Christ in Oklahoma and is a graduate of Abilene Christian University.
“What I try to do is serve the church,” Helton said.
Alberta Christian College for years has had a program called PACE (Professional Adult Christian Education) that is geared toward adult students who already are working in their careers.
The program puts students in cohorts and runs them through a series of six-week classes as they seek to finish their degrees. Students meet one night a week in class, and ABC promotes “no memory exams”—stressing the application of what a student learns in class rather than the memorization of facts.
TRAINING MINISTERS IN A RELEVANT WAY
Helton said the PACE program is designed to train ministers in a relevant way. Fewer students today are graduating from high school and looking to head to Bible college to become pastors. Instead, adults are called into ministry from another established career.
“A lot of churches hire people with the right skills, and they come here for a theological background and filling in the gaps,” Helton said.
Alberta Bible College is seeking to find more of those students. Helton said he doesn’t believe the traditional path of serving large numbers of recent high school graduates will be a significant part of the ABC’s future.
“We have a viable ministry here at this school, as long as we’re meeting people in ministry as it is done today,” Helton said.
ABC offers diplomas in biblical studies, counseling, leadership, and nonprofit leadership.
The college has aligned its marketing efforts with its emphasis on adult learners. It no longer sends recruiters to high school college fairs. The most effective advertising instead seems to be with Christian radio stations, Helton said.
The next step is to refine technology to allow more people in remote areas of Canada and beyond to access Alberta Bible College’s PACE program.
“I think our enrollment is going to continue to increase,” Helton said.
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colorado.