Category Archives: Higher Christian education
Saving a Seminary: The Re-imagination of the 21st Century Christian College and University (Part 2 of 2)
In part one of this series, I shared my personal affection, history and view regarding the news that my alma maters Cincinnati Christian University and Nebraska Christian College closed their doors. Both schools made bold moves, incurred massive debt, lost alumni support, failed to attract sufficient student bodies and, generally, lost their way…if not their historic focus.
To be fair, there was clear mismanagement and poor leadership at Cincinnati Christian University. However the closure of the much smaller Nebraska Christian College–who essentially failed to compete in a changing world–should not be overlooked. Most Bible colleges and Christian colleges are smaller institutions (under 300 students). They have little room for error let alone mismanaged error.
When Cincinnati Christian University faced losing accreditation, it was the nail in the coffin.
Accreditation is critical to any institution. Without it, students couldn’t afford to stay. If a school loses accreditation, it forfeits federal funding for student loans and other grants. Accreditation is also necessary to matriculate into graduate programs at other institutions. It’s very difficult to recruit to a school without accreditation. It’s why many smaller Bible colleges align with the Association of Biblical Higher Education. Accreditation gives a school outside muscle that defends its purposes, evaluates its work and supports its outcomes. It’s why it’s difficult to regain the integrity of an accreditation body once the trust is broken.
It certainly wasn’t good news for Cincinnati Christian University. It’s still not good for schools encumbered by massive debt, failing enrollments, teaching/staff reductions, and suspended academic programs. All schools face a re-evaluation of their accreditation every three to ten years. For schools aligned with the ABHE it’s once a decade. These evaluations include site visits, surveys, interviews and researched evidence to prove the school is fulfilling its educational outcomes. A school with red flags, like Cincinnati obviously had, can change everything on a dime.
As someone involved (either as a student, professor or administrator) in Christian higher education for four decades, I feel I have unique experience on this matter.
Can struggling Bible Colleges still survive?
The short answer is YES. But I’ll be honest, I have my reservations (and they’re serious ones), for the following reasons:
- Given the debt many schools now carry, the only way to save them would be through liquidating assets, courting private donors and/or recovering the church’s mission dollar. Another tuition and fee hike will not solve this problem. Cutting degrees and ending fund-sucking sports programs won’t save these schools. Reduction in salaries and staff won’t fix it it. What’s needed is for the school’s wealthiest alumni and most committed churches to return to the giving fold. Furthermore, debt-ridden schools will need to liquidate assets (sell buildings and/or land). And that’s not an easy prospect. It’s hard to liquidate hard-fought and traditional “brick and mortar” assets. It’s equally difficult to regain the lost trust with donors, alumni and churches.
- Given the current Covid-19 pandemic “moment,” many struggling schools still think they’ll shortly return to life “pre-Covid.” They won’t. The events in 2020 that locked down and shut down American schools–from preschool to graduate–was not an interruption. It will prove a cultural disruption. We are experiencing a new cultural landscape. Every industry–entertainment, restaurant, retail, news and sports–has evolved. Online, virtual and digital formats are immune to the virus, and consequently offer a portal for change and opportunity. Both the church and school initially played along with online, but still preferred traditional formats. Now, as September is at hand, many schools realize that students aren’t coming back. Church attendance is down 30-60% from pre-Covid numbers. To their credit, public educators used the summer recess to revamp, upload, create and improve new digital classrooms. Most Bible colleges, I fear, chose to ride it out. They’ll quickly discover that was a poor choice.
In summary, the present (and likely) future for learning will be through online portals. Similarly the future church will likely be smaller, home-based, digital and communal. Neither the school or church will look anything like it did to start 2020.
Why should Bible and Christian colleges consider online education?
In the early 2000s, I worked for a midwestern Christian college that was envisioning where it could be in 2020. As part of the process, the staff and faculty met for a day of visioning. At the time, I was teaching a couple online courses. I was also researching cultural change and how technology was radically altering the future. When it came my turn to “dream” out loud, I boldly suggested the school could sell its physical property and create a purely online Bible College.
The idea was met with stone cold silence. A few jaws hit the floor with a thud. Several thought the idea extreme and unnecessary. Some panned it as impossible (“We’ll always have brick and mortar schools,” one old prof said). But my youthful zeal still wondered. The digital photograph had already killed print photos. The newspaper was dying. The typewriter, overhead projector and VHS cassette–all educational staples at one time–were history. And this was before GPS, social media, smartphones, and Zoom.
I’ve now taught thousands of students through online classes at both the undergraduate and graduate level. My doctorate was a hybrid online-in person program and my dissertation project focused on reimagining a youth ministry degree into a purely online experience. I see many advantages to online platforms–for both the church and school. In the case of higher Christian education, , I posit these pluses:
- Online learning is timeless. It requires no particular day or time of day. Students log on and learn when it fits their schedules. Education moves 24/7/365.
- Online is far more interactive and experiential. The best learning happens through conversation and experience. Unlike traditional lecture-based classrooms (with scattered conversation), online learning operates via the discussion board. The online projects can be more contextual, practical and experiential. It’s not busy work. You also can’t hide or sleep online. In my classes, comments on the board are counted (if their sufficiently “substantive”) and the weekly participation grade is based on how much a student showed up. The best part? Learners can craft their responses (even edit after the fact). It’s pre-meditated and intentional learning that even the most introverted student can master.
- Online is more affordable for the institution. Online demands no classrooms, dorms, cafeterias, student centers, libraries, athletic fields, gymnasiums, large office buildings, print shops or other physical facilities. And since most professors live outside the area and work as “contracted employees,” there are no retirement plans, health care costs or other academic amenities (although such amenities would certainly be attractive). Outside of a skeletal, dedicated IT staff and hardware/software, online learning is more affordable in the long run.
- Online attracts better and more diverse instructors. I live in Boise, ID because I love to live in Boise, ID. I don’t want to move anywhere else, but I’ll teach all over the world if asked. Online professors don’t have to relocate to the institution and that means schools can draw a much higher caliber of professor.
- Online is already an accepted and expected way to learn. The youngest generations (born since 1990) grew up in a purely digital, cyber and social media culture. Many of them went to kindergarten with iPads. They prefer to “stream and cloud” (view/store digital content). They’re comfortable with e-learning pedagogy and can quickly adapt when forced into purely cyber formats. It won’t be hard for them to embrace digital learning. Most already have.
What can Bible and Christian colleges do to reimagine an online school?
This is where radical reinvention is necessary, particularly for administrators who now realize a shift is necessary to an online learning presence, whether partial, hybrid or entirely. Every school is different, with different existing resources in staff, hardware, software and programs, but here’s a possible path any Bible or Christian college could pursue to transition to an online or hybrid/online experience:
First, as much as possible, rent or sell school buildings and land to outside interests. Use the proceeds to pay down and off existing debt. Most schools need a financial jump start, if not a fresh start. Renting is a good option, but for schools blessed with the assets, the sale of unused land or buildings could prove beneficial. For schools looking to move completely online, sell off everything and move only a skeletal staff to a new location. A campus loses value every day its under-populated and/or vacant.
Second, retain (and/or rehire) only necessary faculty to teach courses in Bible, theology and pastoral training. Students currently enrolled in these courses could continue in their matriculation toward a degree (unfortunately without a dorm or cafeteria). General education subjects would now be transferred from other schools. All non-pastoral and biblical degrees and programs, including their respective teaching faculty, would end. Bible and Christian colleges need to return to their roots.
Third, for those considering a hybrid model (no dorm or cafeteria): relocate the institution to a local church . Develop a partnership with an area megachurch, particularly one with strong, past ties to the institution. Megachurches already have the facilities to host in-person activities, events and classes. Another idea: create a regional “university” with pastoral training centers in large market areas. One school with multiple locations. The difference would be these pastoral training centers are local churches. There would be no dorms, cafeterias or costly sports programs. In-person classes would be taught by faculty living in the area, via Zoom web conferencing or the pastoral staff of the host church. Internships and field experiences would be done in house.
Fourth, recruit a Board of Trustees firmly committed to the founding vision and values of the institution. For example, Cincinnati Bible College (according to a 1927 yearbook) stated: “On September 23, 1924, the new school began its first session in two brick buildings. Two things were evident from the beginning; first, the bible was taught with the earnest desire of arriving at its true meaning . . . and second, men and women whose earnest desire was to serve God, were received in classes and given work they most needed.” The school was launched for two reasons: 1) to learn biblical doctrine and theology; and 2) to use that learning in Christian service. Christian service is best defined in our current church climate as vocational work (paid ministry staff) or para-church organizations (missionaries, faith-based organizations, Christian schools). I don’t believe the original purpose of Cincinnati Christian University, for example, was to certify school teachers, train nurses, equip businessmen or launch the careers of aspiring athletes. This is noble work but it’s not the role of the Church to equip for these professions.
Finally, a reliance upon online education to fill in the gaps. As already stated, the younger generations currently entering higher education are more attuned and acclimated to online learning options. The advantages to online education continue to grow and this Covid-19 moment only proves its merit. It’s a win-win for schools who need excellent courses and faculty, but can’t afford the physical hires.
Nevertheless, let’s face the terrible truth. Even if Cincinnati Christian University or Nebraska Christian College pursued such a radical (online) reinvention, there’s no guarantee they have survived. It’s something we’ll never know. However, I am convinced if many Bible and Christian colleges don’t do something now, it’s pretty much a certainty that their school’s days are numbered. The debt will eventually be too much. The poor enrollments will mount. The reluctance to embrace change will prove evident.
Cincinnati Christian University’s situation in the summer of 2019 was considered “dire” and “at risk.” By December 31, they were no more. Few saw closure coming, but it still happened.
The irony is its never too late to change. This grave Covid-19 situation offers a unique and glorious opportunity for change, renewal, growth and resurrection.
The best is yet to come for those willing to get outside the brick and mortar box.
“Dire” and “at risk” is how the article in the July 19, 2019 Chronicle of Higher Education described the future of Cincinnati Christian University, a beautiful institution of higher Christian education once nestled atop Price Hill in the Queen City of Cincinnati. With panoramic views of the Ohio river, winding through the urban landscape, it was a perfect location to instruct the mind, refresh the heart and inspire the soul.
Founded in 1924, Cincinnati Christian University (formerly Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary) was a historic and influential institution among a fellowship of churches known as the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. These churches were part of a wider “restoration movement” that emerged in the early 1800s.
The school was reputed for its conservative biblical education, featuring a “who’s who” of scholars like R.C. Foster, Lewis Foster, George Mark Elliott, Jack Cottrell, Eleanor Daniel and Jim North. Many of the preachers, theologians, missionaries, editors/writers, musicians and Christian educators who defined the Christian churches in the 20th century were graduates (so many that I won’t even start to list them). From Standard Publishing (which produced the flagship journals The Christian Standard and The Lookout), to dozens of parachurch ministries and mission agencies, to some of the largest megachurches in America–including Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY (with a Sunday attendance topping tens of thousands)–Cincinnati Christian University was influential.
At the end of the fall semester in 2019, Cincinnati Christian University, after 95 years of fruitful educational ministry, closed its doors.
Later in the spring of 2020, my undergraduate alma mater Nebraska Christian College announced its closure. This smaller school located outside of Omaha, NE had merged with Hope International University in 2016. The move was unpopular with many alumni, but in reality probably gave the institution a few more years of existence. Nevertheless, with a Covid-19 pandemic shutting down schools across America, Nebraska Christian College opted to lock down forever.
It’s sad to me, because I know both of these schools well. After all, I am a 1986 pastoral ministry graduate of Nebraska Christian College and a 1992 seminary graduate (masters in Christian education) of Cincinnati Christian University. The latter school was particularly influential and transformative. Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary (as I knew it) was like Harvard or Yale to this kid from central Montana. A storied past. Renown scholars. Rich in academic resources. It provided me with much opportunity. I served on the staff of the school newspaper in 1986-1987. It’s how I met Rich Mullins, a young musician and former CBC student who’d later pen some of Christian music’s best stuff this side of heaven. It’s also where I met Sam Stone, then the long-time editor of The Christian Standard, who read my material and printed my first professional article (at the tender age of 25). I owe a lot to Cincinnati Christian University.
It’s the history and tradition of both Cincinnati Bible Seminary and Nebraska Christian College that attracted my attention. From the day I graduated high school, I’ve had an insatiable hunger to deepen my theological understandings, widen my historical knowledge of the Church and develop networks of pastoral relations. I moved to Cincinnati because I wanted to experience the heart of the Restoration Movement. But my enthusiasm was soon tempered by reality. I was literally told upon arrival in the Queen City (we hadn’t even unpacked the moving truck) that the school was struggling to stay open. I was encouraged to change my mind by the recruiter but I was too far down the road for that option. Some predicted Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary would not survive the summer of 1986. Only a new president and a miraculous infusion of donor dollars staunched the financial bleeding.
The ugly truth is Cincinnati Christian University had a long history of financial trouble and bad decisions.
In retrospect, the problems at Cincinnati Christian University and, to a lesser degree at Nebraska Christian College, are systemic, foundational and decades in the making. In Cincinnati’s case it started when the school forsook its original purpose to be a training institute for preachers, elders, deacons, church support staff, missionaries and other congregational leaders.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Cincinnati Bible College slowly departed from pastoral training to chase students more interested in school teaching and business. That decision, and its eventual move to “university” (in 2004) further convoluted the original vision and values of this storied institution. What ensued was a revolving door of presidents, staff and faculty. Occasional staff additions or program changes were band-aids. Nothing Cincinnati Christian University did could produce better student enrollment and retention. At one point I even interviewed as a professor for the school but was grateful when my candidacy stalled. Looking back, the school was not a good fit for someone passionate about leadership, Christian education and cultural change. I could tell my alma mater was stuck and growing into obsolescence.
In recent years, the decisions moved from bad to worse. In a move to cut costs, the school released (some say “forced retired”) most of its seminary Bible faculty, literally gutting the school of its most endearing and enduring attraction (for me anyway). The move angered many alumni, including preachers and leaders who held the purse strings to mission giving dollars. Cincinnati Christian University, following the path of other schools, simply hiked tuition to offset the loss of church giving, creating deeper debt for its graduates and apathy among its alumni. If the product doesn’t match the cost, your graduates will let you know. They won’t give, promote, affirm…or reunite.
In 2015, to infuse some enthusiasm, the school launched the most expensive (yet lucrative, if you can win) sports program on the planet: football. This decision, I believe, was the beginning of the end for Cincinnati Christian University. They tried other moves, like a mergers and cooperative programs with other institutions, but nothing corrected the tailspin. Rumors of its demise bubbled among friends, former staff, faculty and students of the school.
As a graduate of the seminary (1992) and a professor of Christian education who deeply values the learning I received from this storied Christian institution, I was saddened to read that my alma mater closed its doors forever. It’s clear that a mismanagement of funds, poor priorities, and a loss of leadership vision created this “dire” and “at risk” situation. As the article noted, if Cincinnati Christian University loses accreditation, it would likely produce the closing of its doors. And that’s exactly what happened.
Nebraska Christian College’s story is slightly different. In a bold move, the school moved from sleepy Norfolk, NE to the outskirts of Omaha in 2006 . This move angered many alumni who saw no need for the change of address, but I think it needed to happen. Omaha was a growing city with better resources and opportunities for pastoral ministry students. It also had more large churches capable of mentoring and hiring students. Nebraska Christian College eventually focused upon Christian leadership, which was lacking in traditional Bible colleges. They were doing a lot of things right.
Nevertheless, the move to a remote farmer’s field in Papillion, NE proved disastrous for student recruitment, local interest and the church mission dollar. In the 2000s, many churches re-focused their funds away from the Bible colleges (forcing schools to become more tuition-based). Many megachurches also stopped hiring Bible college graduates, preferring to grow their leadership in-house. Finally, a new Millennial generation (and their Gen X parents) now demanded facilities, regional accreditation, sports, educational programs, online learning and collegiate experiences that smaller schools simply couldn’t provide. It’s why the Hope International University merger was attractive. Unfortunately, it likely came too late to save the school.
So “what’s next” for the Bible college, Christian university and religious seminary?
Who will be the next Bible college or seminary to close its doors? What struggling school will hitch their future to a larger institution in order to survive? And how many of these larger schools can afford to risk their future by merging with institutions with wings clipped by deep debt, alumni apathy, failing enrollments, disintegrating facilities and loss of interest.
Furthermore, will this Covid-19 shutdown of schools (moving learning institutions to online portals) reimagine 21st century higher Christian education?
And, finally, can higher Christian education return to its original purpose and design?
The seminary, Christian university and Bible college is in trouble, so says my friend and church analyst Thom Schultz in his latest blog “Trouble at Christian Colleges.” Attendances are in decline. Revenue streams are drying up. Entire schools are folding. Over the past two years I’ve visited dozens of private Christian schools in my work. I’ve heard the stories. I’ve seen the struggles. I’ve watched layoffs, downsizing and forced retirements. I’ve even experienced it myself. It’s hard to be a Christian college professor today.
As a professor of ministry for nearly 25 years (15 years full-time), I think Thom largely hit the proverbial nail on the headmaster. I was blessed to be part of Christian higher education during its glory days. I love to teach and still miss the classroom greatly. It was a special blessing to disciple students in ministry leadership. I have hundreds of former students, most who serve successfully and lead powerfully in local churches, parachurch organizations, schools, businesses or other Christian institutions. I am still blessed to teach online at one of the best Christian universities in the world and adjunct courses at other schools whenever possible.
Nevertheless, I will confess I left the academy somewhat disillusioned by the institutional machine of modern Christian education. I served as a professor or staff in four schools, from a small Bible college to one of America’s largest Christian universities. Each had unique blessings, special challenges and proven successes. It was clear the larger the school the more she focused upon non-academic stuff, particularly sports programs and the never-ending campaign to erect the next building (supposedly to attract more students, which didn’t always happen). As a professor, I was discouraged to discover that faculty development, evaluation and improvement was minimal (with spotty training to help me improve as a teaching professor). Outside of semester student evaluations there was little constructive feedback and few budgeted resources to improve pedagogy. It wasn’t necessarily my dean’s fault either. These fine individuals were overworked, underpaid and doing the best they could.
My biggest disappointment is how schools, even those camped in the same denomination, are highly territorial. Outside of sports competitions (which naturally create an adversarial relationship), many Christian colleges operate inside their academic bubble high upon their institutional islands. There’s little cooperation or collaboration. Every school tries to reinvent the wheel, completely dismissing affordable and helpful resources easily obtained through sister colleges. Outside of annual meetings and conventions, where sister school faculty, staff and students, might occasionally rub shoulders, there is little camaraderie.
So I understand why students (and faculty/staff) move on. There are lots of learning options today, particularly digital formats. I personally believe the future of higher Christian education and ministry training is online. It’s faster, less expensive, more convenient and, in my experience, even more productive. Information is cheap in today’s cyber economy. You don’t need to pay big bucks to a school to learn something. Online education is the perfect fit for the emerging iTech generation. It’s even more fun (and lucrative) for the professor. You can’t hide in an online class and enrollments have to be sectioned small (under 25 students). Online courses require a higher degree of student commitment, involvement and attitude. Learning happens within the student’s (not the school’s) cultural context. In recent years, online learning has become popular, but few Christian schools have the expertise, funding and infrastructure to do it right, so most muddle along in mediocrity.
So WHY the “trouble at Christian colleges?”
First of all, most Christian colleges, seminaries or universities must jump through a variety of hoops to remain accredited by state, regional or national entities (essential to granting degrees). The U.S. government in recent years has pressed for clear evidence that a school is doing it’s advertised work and producing graduates. If an institution doesn’t pass the fed’s performance demands then student loans and other federal aid is at risk. Meanwhile legitimate concerns the U.S. government might soon become hostile to private Christian institutions are rising.
Second, Christian colleges, seminaries or universities focus on the theological not the practical. Many ministry graduates lament about how ill-prepared they were for real ministry, but it’s not because ministry professors didn’t want to include leadership classes. Rather, the lack of leadership training is again connected to accreditation standards. Many larger Christian colleges and universities pursue regional accreditation in order for their courses and degrees to better transfer to other state institutions. But regional accreditation cares little about ministry leadership training and demands four-year degrees to be loaded with general education courses (many of which, like math and physical education, have little value to a ministry student). And then Bible and theology departments demand their lion share of the ministry curriculum, chewing up dozens of hours. I remember a robust conversation with one Bible professor who defended his ministry epistles class as a required course. It was his only opportunity to teach “ministry,” he said. He was a good guy but his ministry experience was seriously limited. Consequently, my students lost three hours of practical education in order to take his required Bible class.
Third, smaller Bible and Christian colleges (and their ministry students) face a different problem: professors that have little to no experience teaching a particular subject. It can happen at larger schools too. I taught several classes over the years for which I had little to no experience, little to no educational background and little to no expertise, but somehow the class still got pushed on my plate. One semester I taught “women’s ministry” to a room full of ladies (I was totally out of my element). In another I taught physical education (because I was the young athletic professor, I guess!). Even if a professor has knowledge in a subject, including personal experience, it doesn’t mean they should teach it. Teaching is much more than transferring content.
Fourth, since the 1990s, many Christian colleges have watched their local church support dollar disappear. Fewer churches back a seminary or Bible college anymore with their mission dollar. Many larger churches openly say they won’t hire a Christian college graduate (unless they’re willing to intern for peanuts first), preferring to groom their pastors from within. When I attended Bible college in the early ’80s well over 50% of my tuition was paid by local church donations. Today, in many Christian colleges, church support has dipped below 10%. Most private Christian schools are now tuition-driven and that’s a problem for ministry students who rack up huge educational bills only to serve in a field with sub-standard salaries.
So there’s a lot of issues facing Christian universities, seminaries and Bible colleges today.
With that said, I want to categorically state that formal pastoral education remains valid, critical and necessary. Historically, the three most educated people in town were the doctor, lawyer and preacher. The Ivy League schools were originally created to train the clergy. So I don’t agree with some who argue a formal Christian college education isn’t important. Too many churches today, particularly of the megachurch type, are pastored by individuals with little to no theology or Christian ministry training (and their messages, teaching and leadership shows it). The Church is a spiritual enterprise not a business or school. The greatest issue facing the church in the 21st century is biblical ignorance and the Academy can solve this issue.
Naturally, critics of higher Christian education like to point out how Jesus’ disciples were “ignorant” and “unschooled.” However, such criticism only reveals a lack of biblical and historical understanding. In reality, the average Jewish boy wasn’t as ignorant or unschooled as you might think. A synagogue education (boys only) required memorizing the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Jewish homes were spiritual centers and “houses of the Book” served Jewish children with education in secular studies. Furthermore, when it came time to take Christianity into a pagan and educated Greco-Roman culture, God chose the highly-educated Paul (not to mention Apollos and Dr. Luke) over fishing-buddies-turned-preachers Peter, James and John. Early Christianity (AD 33-400) was served well by the academics who kept heresy in check, defended the Faith and carved fresh paradigms for leadership and ministry. Catechumenal schools, cathedral schools, monasteries and eventually the university guided the Church through twenty centuries.
Yes, Christian universities, Bible colleges, seminaries and other religious institutions are in trouble, but its largely due to its inability to think outside the modern-Enlightenment box. Our ministry schools, like the the churches they serve, must reimagine themselves. The future of the Church demands a highly-educated critical thinker, culturally-astute collaborative leader and dynamic communicator. Historically, the Academy has led both the Church and culture through massive societal change and it’s no different now.
Now is not the time for the Church to jettison the Academy.
But it is time for both institutions to partner to find fresh working solutions, innovative new paradigms and creative programming in order to reach postmodern generations.
In the future I intend to share a few of my bubbling ideas on what tomorrow’s Christian college, university and seminary might look like, but my time is up.