Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Killed the Preacher Training Schools?

I love higher Christian education. My Bible College years as a student were some of the best of my life. I had great professors who both challenged me as well as made a personal impact on my life. It was while I was in Bible College that I began to aspire to actually teach in one at some point in my life. Little did I know at that time that such an opportunity was not that far off. And in the intervening years as a Bible College, now University Professor I hope that in some small way I’ve been an encouragement to my students and that things they learned from me they are now entrusting to faithful men who will teach others also (cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). But for the past several years I’ve become increasingly concerned that challenging and preparing preachers, while still given a lot of lip-service to donating churches and individuals, is becoming less and less a focus of schools that once began with the stated purpose and goal of preparing a faithful pulpit ministry.

It’s a dangerous thing to dare to challenge the motives of schools that used to produce preachers but no longer produce that many. You might as well look at your friend and tell them their momma is a rotten cook! One has to tread lightly when challenging the grand Alma Mater. Yet when each year’s graduating classes produces fewer men ready to go and preach than the year before, the questions need to be asked. Sadly, very few will ask the questions outside a quiet conversation with a preacher friend. Many lament the scarcity of those who desire to preach full-time, but few would dare to ask the hard questions of the institutions or their trustees who claim to be in existence to produce them. Even fewer would dare suggest that their future financial support depends on the commitment made to producing preachers first and foremost. It is near heresy to challenge a BibleCollege/Christian University administrator in such a way.

So, with no fear of not being asked to preach in their chapels again I am going to share a few of my own thoughts about why schools (be they called Institutes, Bible Colleges, or Universities) are no longer producing preachers as they perhaps could and should. I doubt that those who would be most shocked and personally offended will be reading this blog anyways, so I feel safe!

Most preacher training schools began as a single-focus institution. They came into existence for the sole purpose of preparing preachers. Many of these “Mom & Pop” Bible Colleges began on a prayer, a shoestring and a dime. But their earnest intentions took root and produced the very thing they wanted to produce, namely preachers.

My son went to Culinary School. He didn’t go to the Culinary Institute of America to learn architecture, or auto repair, or accounting. He chose a school that has one purpose: to prepare chefs. I’m thankful and proud that he is now very successful in his chosen career as a chef. My oldest step-daughter went to a Medical College to learn to become a physician. She now serves our nation as a pediatrician in the Navy. Single-focus schools are plentiful and do a very good job of producing the thing they are in business to produce!

Bible Colleges seem to think that expanding majors, career choices, etc. is the natural progression. So more majors are added – each requiring greater resources and placing more demands on the school, i.e. qualified faculty, library, and other infrastructure. They are still training preachers, and make sure those who send the monthly gifts know that, but they are also expanding their offerings and the “preacher training” becomes just one of the many career choices that a school seeks to offer. It no doubt helps young ladies who will never be full-time preachers. And we often hear of the value of a Christian education to those who may not serve in full-time ministry, but want that good solid Christian foundation for whatever careers they do eventually pursue.

I continue to see the value of a single-focus institution that exists for the express purpose of training preachers. These schools would exist to produce preachers - not nurses, not public school teachers, not auto mechanics,etc. There are plenty of community colleges, trade schools, or even Christian Liberal Arts colleges that can do a fine job in preparing people for those careers. It is a sad thing that graduates of Bible Colleges end up thousands of dollars in debt because of the high price that schools must charge to fund all of the infrastructure associated with multiplying majors. How can a young preacher afford to pay back his student loans, perhaps support a family, when he starts out in a ministry at a small congregation that can barely pay him enough to meet his monthly obligations? Discouragement and frustration often set in, and another preacher is forced to seek secular employment, and perhaps leave the ministry altogether. The skyrocketing cost of training a preacher is a dilemma that must be urgently addressed.

When a school leaves its single-focus purpose of training preachers and begins adding other majors and career choices, the next step for many of these schools has been Regional Accreditation. The reasons for this are repeated ad nauseum. It helps those who transfer to state schools to have their credits transfer. It gives the school more standing and prestige in the academic world. It may qualify the school for additional grants, federal aid, etc. Most promise their donors that it will greatly increase their enrollmentand allow them to do even more in the future. Oh yeah, and they’ll still be training preachers.

I’ve seen numerous schools go down the road of Regional Accreditation. Thousands of dollars are spent annually on the fees of membership. Tens of thousands of dollars are spent on hiring academically qualified professors {as determined by the agency} to teach the courses that need to be taught. Woe to that faculty member who doesn’t have the right degree as they may find a way to get rid of them to bring that next guy on board. Let me just take an aside for a moment and say that some of the very best, biblically sound, conservative, excellent examples of a preacher/professor that I had did not have very advanced degrees. Now if someone is a great teacher, biblically sound, conservative, excellent preacher/teacher who has an advanced degree, I’m all for it. But just having the right degree in no way guarantees that he is biblically sound, or even a halfway gifted teacher. But they make the regional accrediting team happy, so that becomes the deciding factor. So maybe the quality of professor has something to do with the qualityof the graduate, or even the number of them in any given program.

Each year the Directory of the ministry as well as the Christian Standard publishes a list of the Bible College/Christian Universities in the brotherhood. You will not find one who has exponentially increased their enrollment since they went the route of Regional Accreditation. Some struggleto maintain the same numbers they had before they got it. But you will see schools that have steadily increased their tuition and fees, and whose number of graduates who desire to go in the preaching ministry either remain stagnant or decline. Regional Accreditation may help those who want to go into a career field other than ministry, but I contend it is not necessary for those who would preach Jesus. I once got scolded for daring to preach in a Bible College chapel that our accreditation [approval] should be from God rather than man. Such is life. I was right then. And I’m rightnow! Having secular associations, secular accrediting teams pass judgment on a Christian endeavor such as preparing preachers seems counter-productive at best, and just plain wrong atworst. Yet that is the price that is paid, along with thousands of dollars, for the prestige of being able topublish a logo on your letterhead and website from the accrediting body. I don’t buy the necessity of regional accreditation for the purpose of training preachers.

So whatever did happen to the “Bible College”? Cincinnati Bible College; Minnesota Bible College; Great Lakes Bible College; Johnson Bible College; Roanoke Bible College (among a host of others) have all changed their name. Notice that Johnson is now called Johnson University (without respect to Bible or Christian). This is no isolated incident! There is something going on that speaks to the outcomes these institutions want to achieve, and I contend it has precious little to do with training preachers. My Alma Mater used to have a large banner on the wall in the front of the Chapel which read, “God, Give Us Preachers.” It was later changed to, “God, Give Us Servant Leaders.” Whether they have anything there any more or not, I don’t know. I’ve scratched my head at some of the rationales for the name change to“University” that I’ve heard. The most consistently used one has something to do with the idea that foreign students associate “College” with High School. So the term “university” then assists foreign students in knowing what level of education they will receive at a US school. I’m waiting to see statistics that (a) show a marked increase in the number of foreign students at an institution that was a former “Bible College”; and (b) that these foreign students are coming to learn how to preach when they go back home. I’ve seen great foreign nationals come and learn in a non-accredited Bible College who are doing amazing things back in their home countries. And they did it all without the benefit of a “University”education. I don’t buy the necessity of a name change.

Finally, I put a lot of responsibility at the feet of alumni, Church leaders, and Christians who are unwilling to speak up about these disturbing trends in schools that purport to exist to train preachers. Earlier I said something about the fear of not being invited to speak in a Chapel, or ending up on some supposed “Black List”. Trust me, they actually do have those lists although they may not be in written form! Dare to question these people and you probably will tick them off, but that’s ok. I’ve found you can still sleep at night!

Administrators and fund raisers will give the “right”answers. When they come into a church looking for students and especially for money, they will play to their audience. This sounds calloused of me I know, but I once raised money for a Bible College, and I know what they want to sell. I’ve seen the outside consultants come in to train staff on how to effectively solicit money. You will get the canned, focus-group driven responses about the importance of preacher training, regardless of how many are actually trained. Or if you send more money and students, more will be trained! Ask to see the numbers sometime of graduates in preaching programs. That will tell the story in a very objective way.

At Liberty University, Professor Elmer Towns used to say that the acid test of a leader is “nickels and noses.” You have to be able to raise money and bring in people to be successful. If there’s any truth in the adage that “money talks,” church leaders need to do a lot more talking with their Missions budgets. If we don’t like the food we get at one restaurant we’ll go to another. If one car dealer jerks us around we’ll find another one. Why is it any different to say to a school, “We don’t like the way you’re going”? Kindly inform them that that your future support is not guaranteed! Tell them “We’d like to see some changes made or we will take our support elsewhere!”

One radical idea is to go over the heads of the school’s administration. Go to the trustees. Voice your concerns directly to them. Don’t be so naïve to think that concerns you raise to administrators will be shared with the trustees. Most complaints to administrators get immediately filed in the trash bin, or the recycle bin if you email! Trustees may be more apt to discuss and then act upon the concerns of alumni and supporting churches when they know what is at stake, i.e. their ability to stay in existence. There is no more need to fear these people than the manager of a McDonalds you complain to when your fries are stale.

Ask yourself, “Is the church being effectively served by the new model of Christian Colleges and universities?” Is the staggering cost of tuition justified by what these schools are producing? Obviously, I have my doubts. I believe a new paradigm for training preachers needs to be implemented. Actually, it’s the old paradigm. Perhaps it will be churches that train up their own men to faithfully preach the Gospel. Or maybe it will be the return to the single-focus Bible Institute.

My heart’s desire is to preach and help prepare other preachers. It may be time to think “out of the box” to borrow a cliché, and find new ways to effectively recruit and train a faithful ministry. The current way just isn’t getting it done. The job is too big and urgent, and the needs of the Church, as well as a world lost in sin too great. I’d like to see a dialogue started that will address these concerns. The collective wisdom of those who share a similar goal, by God’s grace and provisions, could achieve amazing things in preparing preachers for the generations to come.

C’mon, Murphy, let’s go outside!