21 May, 2024

Concluding a Work, Leaving a Legacy

by | 7 May, 2024 | 8 comments

How One Christian University Chose to Finish Well

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SIDEBAR: “The Passing of the Baton,” by Matt Proctor, president of Ozark Christian College. 

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By Silas McCormick 

Every college president is something of a gambler. If we spend more money on marketing, will we recruit more students? If we hire someone as a campus pastor, will it improve our student experience? If we downsize our payroll, will it eliminate our budget shortfall? Most of the decisions we make don’t have right answers. Usually they are simply options, and we never know what will result from our choices. Indeed, if we have done our homework, the most we can say is what we believe will result. Sometimes we’re right; sometimes we’re not; often it’s a little of both. 

Additionally, those of us who lead ministries with histories don’t start at square one. We are dealt a hand to play by our predecessors and their circumstances. We then must begin making our own decisions, and each decision (or indecision) leads to more decisions, which then intersect with changing circumstances. All the while, the odds of “success” (which many would define differently) improve or worsen over time. Of course, the God who holds together the very fabric of the universe can and does intervene, but when, and how, and with what effort expected from us, can be very difficult to discern. 

There are, of course, fundamental distinctions that separate Christian college presidents from gamblers. Here are two. First, while skill matters, gambling ultimately is left to chance. As believers, though, we know that when we act in faith, our actions become the tools for God’s work through the Holy Spirit. Sometimes he uses them in ways that seem to reward our efforts. Sometimes he uses them in ways that suggest he has turned them to good in spite of us. Sometimes it is hard to see that he’s doing anything at all; but we can be certain that nothing is ever left solely to chance. 

A second fundamental distinction is that college presidents are not bankrolled like gamblers. We are entrusted with kingdom resources—of which money is only one. We also are entrusted with the well-being of our students, the livelihoods of our employees, and the unique theological and philosophical contributions of our respective institutions. We also represent Christ and his church to the many nonbelievers with whom we interact. 

A MATTER OF STEWARDSHIP 

Because we are kingdom stewards of what we have, if the ministry we lead is no longer viable (or at least viable in its present form), there should be a point at which there is a tension between using these resources to continue the ministry we lead and leaving them as a legacy. Stated another way: Is there not a point at which our desire to preserve our ministry (or even to preserve the way we do our ministry) can become an idol? 

“How do you know when it is time to stop doing something?” That is one of the most difficult questions I’ve ever attempted to answer. Everyone loves a “turnaround” story. Very few go looking for a “finishing well” story. In my own experience, even raising such a question is challenging. People tend not to believe that it could be time for a ministry to end—which I acknowledge is a particular hazard since an omnipotent God could always intervene. Others see the very question as a sign of a lack of vision or faith. There is also powerful guilt in the idea of ending something that has impacted so many people.  

I will be eternally grateful for my colleagues at Lincoln Christian University who were willing to ask these hard questions. We concluded in February 2022 that we could not afford to continue on as we had in the past. Our debt was significant, our campus climate was, for a host of reasons, not what we wanted it to be, our physical campus was larger and older than we could afford, and we had for some time been struggling to recruit students.  

We concluded that LCU’s core contributions to the kingdom had been to serve the church by (1) helping young men and women find their place in God’s world and (2) educating people for a life of ministry (whatever that looked like). For many years, we had done these concurrently, but increasingly we were finding that our world had, for many young people, grown a gap between the two. While we still deeply felt the need for the first contribution, we simply could no longer afford to offer the kind of residential college experience it required. However, we were convinced we could still offer the second, that we could do so living within our means, and that if it was our only focus, we could do it with excellence.  

Determining it was time to stop doing something on that scale was excruciating, but over the nearly two years that followed, our faculty rewrote our curriculum and reengaged our constituents through non-credit activities. Our students recast their experience, taking ownership of our weekly chapel services and student activities. We added new supporting churches and donors (and lost some too). We even found ourselves becoming a model for others. We reduced our debt from more than $9 million in 2019, to less than $3 million. It was tremendous progress. It felt good. And by spring 2023, people were finally feeling hopeful.  

CONFRONTING THE REALITY 

But the one thing we could not do was persuade enough students to enroll. Candidly, our constituents provided us with few prospective students. In their defense, many of them had few prospective students interested in a theological education. Others, though, simply didn’t see the need for a formal theological education to do ministry. The majority of our prospective students found us online. When we were able to talk to prospective students, they were often understandably nervous about our long-term viability.  

We missed our enrollment goals in the fall of 2022 and spring of 2023. Those weren’t complete surprises; we were still trying to persuade people we had not closed (the closure of neighboring Lincoln College in May 2022 didn’t help) and we were also rewriting virtually all the curricula. But then we missed our enrollment goal in the fall of 2023, bringing in even fewer new students than the prior fall.  

The hard conversations in February 2022 included some important discussions about what would happen if the new model “didn’t work,” and those conversations continued at each subsequent board meeting. We hit most of the metrics we needed to hit. Our giving continued at a sustainable level. Our non-credit efforts through Lincoln Christian Institute were very well received. None of our accrediting bodies put up roadblocks. Our employees, both those who were laid off and those who stayed, were incredible examples of grace and care, and that rubbed off on our students too. For the first time anyone could remember, we even paid off our line of credit.  

The one metric we could not seem to meet was our enrollment goal. We needed 250 to 300 students, and we projected that by fall 2024 we would have half that. We were in a good financial position at that moment, but we soon would not be. We could have kept going with the hope that our situation would somehow improve, but the risks were tremendous. Without an unanticipated intervention, we would run out of money midyear. That would be catastrophic for students and employees, it would trigger accreditation issues, and it would create a deep temptation to buy time by spending out our endowment. It would also mean leaving creditors—including a fellow ministry partner—unpaid. And there was also the fear of how such an abrupt demise would reflect on Christ and his church.  

There was, of course, the siren song of “what if things get better?” but even if we suddenly received a $1 million gift, at half our needed enrollment, it would likely still be years before we could recover from three more missed enrollment goals (after a decade of missed enrollment goals). And there was no guarantee our students, employees, donors, or accrediting bodies would stick with us for that long.  

INNOVATION AND ADAPTATION 

Alternatively, by announcing we would cease academic operations at the end of the next semester, we could leave much of our legacy as well as the work we had done in creating a new model in the hands of others who could be trusted to carry them on. We had an accredited seminary, students, an endowment, the non-credit Lincoln Christian Institute, and goodwill from many of our alumni and churches; we wanted to steward these people and things well. 

And so, in the fall of 2023, we made two very difficult decisions: (1) to become Lincoln Christian Institute, a non-credit educational organization that, in partnership with Ozark Christian College, will be devoted to offering non-credit discipleship opportunities to churches and those who lead them, and (2) to disperse those resources we can no longer use as intended to kingdom partners who can carry them on in our place. 

I could write a whole article about how Ozark Christian College came to be our primary partner in this regard, but by making the call when we did, we were able to pass along our Seminary to OCC with its students and accreditation, preserving a key piece of our Restoration Movement contribution and ensuring a sizeable number of our students could continue on seamlessly. It also gave us the time to build the kind of trust that made a partnership with them to continue the Institute possible.  

This time allowed other opportunities as well. Our Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership will go to Johnson University with whom that program has enjoyed a long and productive relationship. Our library will be passing along pieces of its collection to a number of places, including Lincoln Seminary at Ozark, but also Tavriski Christian Institute in Ukraine.  

Less tangible, but no less important to our legacy, is how we treat those we serve and serve with. We’ve had (and needed) months to negotiate teach-out agreements for our students with institutions that have agreed to help our students finish without additional time or cost to complete their degrees. And our employees have had nearly a year to find what is next for them. I know our efforts in this regard haven’t been perfect, but they’ve been far better than if LCU had closed abruptly; that is, without trying to wind-down operations in a God-honoring way. 

I grieve the loss of the LCU I knew. But at this point, no one can argue that this situation is specific to only our institution. Christian higher education is experiencing an extinction event. Candidly, I worry about the consequences. But I also trust God to provide, and my prayer is that he will use our alumni and our legacy partners to continue our kingdom work through their own for many years to come. 

Silas McCormick serves as President of Lincoln Christian University, and will continue to lead as it continues on as Lincoln Christian Institute.

8 Comments

  1. Paul Boatman

    I read this fine summary of this momentous and extended encounter with tears, grief, thanksgiving, and hope.

  2. Dan Garrett

    Thank you for your service and for this clear articulation of a painful process.

  3. Melinda Johnson

    Well done, good and faithful servants, well done.

  4. Kevin hieronymus

    The legacy of Lincoln Christian will continue through those who served Her and learned from Her!

  5. Tamsen Murray

    Having experienced the closing of one Bible college in 1985 and then serving as Chair of the LCU Board of Trustees in 2022 and 2023, this was indeed a painful process for me. But the clear-sighted service of Silas McCormick and his leadership team was and is a model of integrity and commitment to mission. As difficult as the decisions were, I remain convinced that they were the best ones to allow LCU to finish well and pass the baton to other Kingdom works.

    Holding the final Commencement service on the 80th anniversary of the school’s founding could easily have turned into an exercise in nothing but mourning. Instead, it was a celebration of the graduates, accompanied by an exhortation to continue on in hope, humility and encouragement from God — words for both the graduates and the larger LCU family, spoken eloquently by Dr. Mark Scott.

    The legacy of 80 years of Kingdom service preparing leaders for the church and society will go on into eternity; I’m grateful to be one of those prepared for that work through my years at Lincoln. I gained renewed energy to continue that mission, thanks to a bittersweet, yet wonderful, day last Saturday.

  6. Denise Houser

    As a faculty member at LCU, I am grateful for the way in which this was handled. Students and faculty and staff were given adequate time to determine our next steps. But perhaps equally important, we were also given time to process the changes as a community, and to be proud of our institution, as LCU finished well!

  7. Patty Stammler

    Silas, I thank you for your leadership through this difficult time. I would like to encourage you with the fact that Milligan College and Emmanuel Christian seminary at Milligan stand ready to receive students for Christian higher education. Students can get a thoroughly biblically sound education at Milligan and Emmanuel seminary. The restoration movement lives on.

  8. Russell Kuykendall

    “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, i press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way. And if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you” (Phil 3:13b-15, ESV).

    As a twenty-something fresh graduate from Alberta Bible College, it was my privilege to sit for studies at Lincoln Christian Seminary under James Strauss, Wayne Shaw, Bob and Patsy Wilson, Bob Lowery, Tom Ewald, Ed Tesh, Gary Hall, Bob Rae and Paul Boatman. I was also enriched by the winsomeness of Charles Mills, the still-firey vision of Earl Hargrove and sharing the love of our Plea with Enos Dowling. Schools do not stand alone and isolated in time and space as my conversations with these torch-passers taught me. Lincoln’s legacy of Great Commission faithfulness lives on vicariously.

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