12 August, 2022

Christian College Closings & Mergers: The Search for Answers

by | 1 August, 2022 | 23 comments

By Paul E. Boatman 

No longer are we stunned to read, “A Christian college is closing its doors!”  

Some closures come through mergers in which a struggling school yields resources, debts, and identity to a stronger school that commits to serving the constituency of the closing institution. Other announcements are outright closures.  

Some closings attract little attention because of the school’s small size and limited constituency, but a few have been startling because of an institution’s lengthy and even glorious history.  

Because of my long career and a family history entwined in Christian college ministry, I am choosing to reflect on institutional processes currently unfolding among our people. 

Understanding closures requires reflection on school beginnings.  

THE RISE OF INDEPENDENT CHRISTIAN CHURCH COLLEGES 

Throughout history, the church always developed mechanisms for equipping leaders. Methods and institutions vary widely, but vibrant Christianity always responds to Christ’s commission to educate in making disciples.  

A movement developed in the late 1800s: Bible colleges and institutes emerged, at least partly in reaction to the secularization of mainline schools previously entrusted with educating ministers. Bible college development in the Stone-Campbell heritage seemed to be almost in lockstep with the trend of churches separating from the Disciples of Christ. “Independent Christian Churches” rejected what they saw as theological liberalism among the Disciples of Christ schools. This academic development reached a crescendo between 1940 and 1980. 

There was no consistent strategy for Bible college development and location. Independent Christian churches may have demonstrated their independence most vividly in Bible college proliferation. A theme for founding many of the schools was the “Bible college as a center of evangelism.” This philosophy, articulated eloquently by Vernon Newland, influenced the establishment of colleges in Dallas, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Des Moines, Memphis, Paducah, and perhaps a few other locales. Planting new churches in each of these contexts seemed to parallel the early stages of the school’s activities.  

Slightly different was the call for nurture of an educated ministry (a motive that goes back to the establishment of Ivy League schools in Colonial America). This impetus may have had any one of several concurrent urgings, such as a concern that existing institutions were not producing “true to the faith” ministers or the perception that there were no “suitable” schools available in geographical proximity to the church constituency.  

A few schools have specific cultural/ethnic concerns, such as preparing ministers for underserved peoples.  

Most schools were established through a sincere desire to bless present and future generations with well-equipped and educated Christian leaders. Paul’s commission to Timothy could well be cited as the impetus for most Bible colleges: “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).  

By 1980, about 40 colleges were committed to preparing the next generation of servant-leaders among the independent Christian churches. What has happened in recent years to reduce that number to fewer than 20? The search for answers to this question should never be a “blame game,” nor should the issues be oversimplified. No single cause pervades the diverse events. Indeed, many factors likely impact each difficult decision.  

NINE FACTORS IN CHRISTIAN COLLEGE CLOSINGS 

Here is a list of factors I have observed as influential in many of the closings: 

1. Financial management problems. Most of our colleges have never had the level of financial support or endowment that might enable them to weather “lean times.” In fact, some have argued against endowments with the position that “the Bible college should be dependent upon support from the churches in this generation.” Bonded indebtedness calls upon the next generation to pay today’s bills. With shallow resources, schools have little leverage when national or regional recessions limit donors’ funds or when significant donors choose to cease support. The specter of bankruptcy quickly chokes off the viability of a school. Sixty years ago, most of these colleges were primarily “donor-financed.” Today, most colleges depend on tuition as a major source of income. Enrollment declines produce financial crises that are often managed by further debt accumulation. A deadly cycle ensues. 

2. Education has become more costly. Operating a college in the current environment involves unprecedented costs. Dorms of the 21st century are more luxurious than those of yesteryear. Meeting standards of accreditation often mandates administrative and academic expenditures beyond what the accredited status produces in support or enrollment. All educational institutions operating in the American context face the dilemma of unfunded mandates—demands on the schools without any government supports. For example, the Title IX law of 1972 prohibits sexual discrimination in any area of institutional function. Though some praise the call for fairness, interpretation of the law is fluid and increasingly pervasive, sometimes taking precedence over theological convictions of institutions. Schools may be pressed toward unacceptable actions such as adapting to LGBTQ demands. Any school with students receiving funds from federal student loan programs is subject to government regulation. 

3. Cultural trends have devastating impacts on schools. Each high school graduation class exhibits an increasing secularization of priorities and moral/religious values. Hence the student recruitment pool is reduced. The fact that the American church in general is not growing makes leadership ministry, the primary outcome of Bible college education, less appealing as a viable career path. Some Christian parents steer their children away from ministry in favor of higher-income careers. 

4. The religious movement that produced the spate of Bible colleges is itself in transition. Christian churches tend to be less sectarian than one or two generations ago, thus they are more open to pastoral leaders who did not graduate from a “faithful Bible college.” Even the “Restoration Ideal” is less distinctive. Such principles as “Where the Scriptures speak . . . ” and “In essentials unity . . .” may be more strongly articulated in a variety of community/Bible church/independent fellowships than among some churches of the Stone-Campbell heritage. Some speculate that the “Restoration Movement” has impacted many evangelical churches, outgrowing the “Nondenominational Fellowship of Christian Churches/Churches of Christ.”  

5. The emergence of megachurches may have impacted Bible colleges in negative ways. Some call megachurches “mini-denominations,” referring to their providing many services formerly offered only by parachurch institutions such as Bible colleges. Such churches are less likely to depend on the schools for pastoral staff, especially in nonpreaching or teaching roles. They often choose to hire and train ministry personnel from within their own membership. While some megachurches strategically partner with Bible colleges or seminaries for field education of students, some may not see themselves as needing the schools. One concern relating to this dynamic is that theological education of church staffs may be diminished. 

6. Administrative mistakes often appear in the road to closure. Some would use stronger terminology: mismanagement, failure to cast/maintain/champion a viable vision, focus on the wrong things, etc. The difficulty is that such judgments are much easier to make in retrospect than in real time. Assessment of the final decade of a closed school often finds errors such as accumulation of too much debt, attempts to “spend our way out of debt,” spreading resources too thin by developing programs that were unprofitable, offering programming (diverse degrees or athletic opportunities, etc.) not central to the mission of the school. Sadly, such “mistakes” were often good-faith efforts encouraged by the college’s constituency. 

7. Higher education trends are presenting challenges to Bible colleges. The development of low-cost community colleges has undercut Bible colleges from both accessibility and affordability standpoints. Privately funded schools of all sorts struggle to compete with these tax-supported institutions. In the region where I live (Springfield, Ill.), the landscape is littered with the hulks of various once-thriving small colleges that closed during the past two decades. They survived world wars, depressions, and social revolutions, but they could not survive the new millennium. 

8. The digital revolution has dramatically transformed all education. Most schools scurry to keep up, and debate rages on the efficacy of online learning vis-à-vis the traditional classroom, but digital education is growing. Traditional education is not.  

9. Other contributors to closure might be cited. This listing is neither exhaustive nor judgmental. Today is a difficult era in which to operate a non-tax-supported institution of higher learning!  

But the question still echoes: Does closure of a Bible college indicate that it failed? 

ADDITIONAL PERSPECTIVES 

We must differentiate between the collective church and the institutions that support or are supported by it, just as we differentiate between the collective church and individual churches. Jesus promised that the gates of Hades would not overcome his church (Matthew 16:18). But many local manifestations of the church have come and gone.  

Where is the church in Jerusalem? The congregation in Antioch was a world-changer, but at some point the leaders apparently made a terminal decision. No congregation of the church can be expected to last forever. But the church today is still impacted by what God did in post-Pentecost Jerusalem. We still strive to implement lessons learned at Antioch. God used those local churches to impact communities, cultures, and the world. Parallel observations may apply to many entities emerging over the past two millennia.  

When a Bible college closes, many congregations cease to have a familiar institutional partner in a symbiotic relationship. But we may ask, “Did this institution fulfill its primary calling?”  

I have visited various mission stations around the world and met people who know Christ because a graduate of a certain Bible college took the gospel to that community. I have been in strong congregations where the dynamic worship reflects the theology and practice of the leaders’ alma maters. I have been in regions where the presence of numerous effectively serving congregations is a testament to the evangelistic zeal that emanated from a no-longer-open Bible college. In each instance, the Bible college was clearly successful in some dynamic of its mission.  

One can have a calling to ministry that is exercised through an institution such as a Bible college, but attempting to keep any institution alive beyond its reasonable viability borders on idolatry.  

I grieve some of the now-shuttered Bible colleges. But I, and future generations, will continue to be blessed by the successful carrying out of the missions of those schools over their duration of service.  

Do we believe God is incapable of raising up and equipping leadership for his church just because a certain college is gone? Institutions are called to serve the context in which God places them. If they survive into future generations, it is likely because they have found a way of meeting God’s calling in that changing context. But if the means of adapting is not available, it may be an act of selfless integrity to say, “It is time to close. Let us do it with honor. To God be the glory.” 

Paul E. Boatman is a pastoral consultant who served as a seminary professor and administrator with Lincoln (Ill.) Christian University from 1978 to 2012. Since 1945, various members of his family have served as administrators and professors in six different colleges in this heritage. 

Christian Standard

Contact us at cs@christianstandardmedia.com

23 Comments

  1. Roger L. Wever

    A most excellent article which I can relate to perspective wise.

  2. Tim Liston

    Thank you, Paul.

  3. Guthrie Veech

    You hit the nail on the head. Great job Paul.

  4. Demosthenes

    Interesting that there was no mention of work agenda, prayers of lament denying the Gospel, liberal arts push, faculty who do not believe the Bible is the Word of God…. I can’t say why all colleges have died but I know why I have abandoned support. See above.

  5. Dan Garrett

    Thank you for your analysis. The challenges go back years, and are often rooted in the very origins of the school, as well as the philosophies of the founders. We must continue to innovate and find creative ways to inspire young people to the awesome calling of dedicated ministry.

  6. Reggie Hundley

    Thank you Paul!! As you noted, your points may not be an exhaustive listing, but they are important markers upon which to reflect.

  7. David Wright

    Thank you Paul Boatman for your kind reflections and insight. Well done.

  8. Edgar J Elliston

    This is an outstanding article that certainly highlights the key variables for this change among Christian Church-affiliated colleges. Having attended, taught, served as an administrator, and lecturer in several of these colleges, I can certainly affirm this article.

  9. Dennis Ewens

    Paul Boatman has written a useful overview of a difficult and sometimes distressing topic. His breadth of experience and information combine with a clarity of expression and a non-judgmental spirit to inform and encourage us readers. I appreciate the timely reminder that God will continue to raise up and train leadership for his church despite changes in the methods and institutions employed in doing so. Thank you, Dr. Boatman! I hope that Independent Christian Churches and their members will continue to prayerfully and financially support our remaining Bible colleges that are faithfully and effectively on mission training church leaders.

  10. Keith Mitchell

    One important thing to remember is that the church is not a building or college, it is the people. And also, the family of God, followers of Jesus, is a diverse family made up of Christ-followers around the globe.

  11. Gayla Little

    Thank you, Paul, for clarifying the many issues that have brought us to what we see as a crisis. I could not get Ecclesiastes 3 out of my mind as I read the article. It is hard for us to perceive what God is doing, but we can be assurred that He continues to work among us.

  12. Al Edmonds

    Perhaps a new model is in order. If you want to train preachers . . . do you need a traditional, four-year, liberal arts style institution? How about the low-cost, online Bible institute that is sponsored by a deep-rooted church organization. . . . With modern communications, there can also be a person-person virtual contact available.

  13. Jon Weatherly

    Excellent analysis, to which I would add one significant factor: the declining number of high school graduates nationwide. Declining birthrates mean declining numbers of potential college students eighteen years later. All institutions of higher education face this pressure; those with the thinnest resources are the least likely to survive it. The number of high school graduates in the US peaked in 2006, and the closures of Bible colleges among the Christian churches accelerated from that point.

  14. Linda DeLay Wallace

    This article articulates many of the issues of colleges that have either merged or closed. I attended one of them for my undergrad and another for my graduate degree. While I am extremely grateful for my Bible college education, I believe the church (defined as the living body of Christ) will survive until the time Jesus returns. What it will look like may change and Bible colleges may be obsolete, but God’s Word will always hold true in any culture.

  15. Richard Brown

    Thank you, Paul. Articulate, on-target and sympathetic in tone. For 22 years, I was part of “the solution” and part of the problem. Because the church is His and not ours, I am confident He has a strategy for His church that will work for this generation and beyond, though He has not chosen to tell me. “Lead on, O King Eternal!”

  16. Ron Fraser

    Thank you for Paul Boatman’s excellent article on the diminishing Bible College movement. I especially appreciate his emphasis on the relationship between broader sociocultural trends and the Bible College movement. Further to that are the decreasing levels of service and leadership responsibility that are given to young adults, and taken by them, in both church and society at large. The challenge of protracted adolescence also decreases the student pool for Bible College education.

  17. Early Ferguson

    A thoughtful and honest look at what has and is happening to our “restoration” colleges. Thanks, Paul.

  18. Laura Cremeens

    Thank you Dr. Boatman. Your perspective is much appreciated.

  19. Danny

    LOSING THEIR FIRST LOVE
    We have to also consider colleges losing their first love. It goes this way. The financial picture gets bleak. The colleges begin to be more concerned with survival than training preachers. So they expand their degree offerings. Now they train Christians for all fields. Suddenly, ministry purpose is fading. Preachers are not encouraging their members to the ministry. Churches are not interested in supporting schools who are not producing preachers and missionaries.

  20. Jessica

    Praise God for answering prayers that my grandson would be able to attend a Christian college. God is still working in the lives of young people all across our country. God answered prayers for my Godly granddaughter to attend nursing school at a public college while gaining valuable experience being the hands and feet of Jesus at a Level 1 trauma hospital.
    Re: Jeremiah 29:11 “ For I know the plans I have for you, … “
    God has a plan for each of us. His plans are perfect. It may or not mean Christian college. But of one thing we can be certain…He has a plan for each of us!

  21. Steve Aden

    Here are a couple comments on this fine article:

    First comment: It is possible for preaching, and church work in general, to be learned apart from a college setting. I have in mind one gentleman from my youth who had no college preparation at all. His background was in farming. Yet he was one of the best preachers I’ve known. He, however, is the exception and not the rule. Effective preaching usually has to be taught, which assumes a teacher. An argument can be made that the disciples went to college for three years, with Jesus as their professor.

    Also, some of the basic tools needed to be an expert in Bible exegesis can best be learned in a classroom. I wouldn’t know Hebrew or Greek at all if I hadn’t attended a Christian college. We will need at least some brick and mortar colleges to teach academic fundamentals to the current and future generations of ministers. Many professional occupations need to have a foundation of college education. For instance, medical personal need to to be trained in a college setting. Would you let a “dentist” work on your teeth if he had never been to college, and didn’t have a degree on his wall? Many, if not most, of our preachers likewise need to have at least some academic training in theology, languages, education, history, homiletics, etc. If the Christian college ceases to be at a strategic position in our churches, I think the education level of our ministers and leaders will suffer.

    Second comment: This is more of a question for discussion than a comment. Can the closing of (some) colleges be the result of the Lord taking away his blessing? When the hand of God is detracted, the result is spiritual death. This is true of individuals. (I know some who have fallen away.) Some churches have closed because the Spirit left long ago. (Once again I’ve watched it happen.) Why should we be surprised if a college closes its doors because the Lord no longer has a kingdom purpose for it?

  22. Scott Jacobsen

    I really appreciate this article. We have seen our colleges decline in Canada (Ontario Christian Seminary closed in 1999) and doctrinal/social progressivism has overtaken denominational schools in Ontario.

    But it also needs to be said that it is the church, not the academy, that is ultimately judged or commended by Christ (Revelation 1:9-3:22). It is too easy to blame the schools for problems in the church, when it is to be the elders’ task to defend the church, even from what may be passed down through its educational institutions (Acts 20).

    So as goes the church, so goes the academy. If the church is faithless, or tolerates it in its schools, the schools will reflect that failure.

  23. John Mulholland

    I would love to see something about Summit Christian College in the Standard. They are focused on creating vocational ministers and seeing them graduate with zero debt.

    (I am an adjunct professor at Summit, my wife is the college admin, so yes, I am biased.)

    And, as a pastor in a church local to Summit, we have mentored ministry in our building each and every semester; we take our role in equipping them seriously.

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