Business or Ministry?

As I was read comments from Bethany University graduates yesterday–and there were dozens, if not hundreds, of voices clamoring to assert their perspective about the possible closure of our alma mater--myriad arguments swirled about Bethany having lost its direction or its mandate; and its weak alumni base; and its fiscal responsibilities; and its strong orientation toward Christ-minded service. None of this is surprising. Nobody wants to see their alma mater close, and the strongest critics are sometimes the ones on the inside. In all these arguments, I saw a pattern emerge that went something like this:

  • Premise 1: The university is financially in danger of closing.
  • Premise 2: I had a wonderful experience at Bethany 5 (or 15, 25, even 40) years ago.
  • Conclusion: It’s God’s will that we should keep the University open.

I’ve heard it said of Bethany dozens of times over the years, that Bethany is a business when it’s convenient, and it’s a Christian institution when it’s convenient, but it’s never managed to be both simultaneously. When faculty or staff complain about their low pay, they are consistently told that as ministers, they shouldn’t expect earthly compensation. Yet the same group reduces staff size when it’s fiscally convenient, saying, in effect, “Hey. Like it or not, we have a business to run.”

It is precisely this tension making the decisions all the more difficult.  A few weeks ago, the trustees told Faculty, in no uncertain terms, that if $1.5 MM wasn’t raised by April 8th, the school would be in jeopardy. Yesterday, rather than making that difficult decision, the District Council decided to defer their decision for a day, to give time to pray.

We are a people of an experiential religion. When we go to church we “experience” God. When we worship, we feel better.  A peace descends on us, when our sins are washed away. Speaking in tongues, dancing as unto the Lord, slain in the spirit: our religion is defined by our experiential (emotive) manner of worship. I occasionally ask churchgoing friends “How was church today?” The usual answer is either a noncommital “good,” or if it was a particularly nice service, “God really moved today.” When God moves, the congregation leaves happy.

My question is this: do we allow our decisions to be clouded by this experiential worship? The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. We tend to examine our feelings as the primary source of decision making, because as a denomination, we’ve consistently told ourselves that, barring the Bible, these emotions, associated with our experience at the altar, points us to God’s will. I don’t claim that we’re alone in using emotion to guide our decision making. Plenty of people do, every day. I did last night, when at 4AM, I got off the bus, and was too sleepy, and anxious, and frankly, annoyed, to make eye contact with the homeless guy who was trying to get us to give him money in exchange for directions to Union Station in Washington DC. For better or worse (probably worse), I just wanted to sit down, find a cup of coffee, and wait for the Metro to open so we could get home. Logic wasn’t really a factor. My emotions (and my bladder), however, were substantial in my decision-making process.

So, we loved Bethany. I did. I still love many of the people I associate with the place. It changed my life as an undergraduate. I made lifelong friends. It shaped me in untold ways. I dedicated 20 years of my life to the mission of Bethany Bible College (then just College, then University), and her students. My emotions are mixed. But I can’t say that since I had experiences that were good, or poor, I should even consider it in that light.  One person on the Bethany Alumni Facebook page pointed out that experience is different for everyone, based on upbringing, and generation gaps, etc.  What may have been a wonderful time for me in 1997-2006 could very well have been the worst years of hundreds of students’ lives.  It should have no relevance in decision making. In my mind, some of the most horrific moments of my life have made me a better person. It doesn’t follow that I should get rid of the bad people, places, or things in my life if I had a chance, because my experiences with them were bad ones. Neither does it follow that because Bethany was a good place to me, and to hundreds like me, that it should never close its doors. Just because you agree with Bethany’s mission doesn’t mean the place should remain open, either. Correcting the problems of understaffing, administrative mismanagement and insurmountable indebtedness (or cashing in the chips and calling it a 92-year legacy) may be more important to furthering the mission of the University.

It’s impossible to divorce all emotion from decision. Just be sure you’re aware of it when you’re deciding, or else you may find you’re celebrating what’s comfortable, rather than what’s right, just, or necessary. It may be possible that, upon closing Bethany, there something greater in store for the Northern California/Nevada District of the Assemblies of God, and the act of closing it will open new, unforeseen avenues.


3 thoughts on “Business or Ministry?”

  1. Well said Brian. As much as I love Bethany, I think that it should close if given the opportunity, or become a much smaller ministerial school (that is, focus on its strengths). Now being removed from Bethany and being on the outside looking in, I think it has struggled so hard to be all things to all people. Of course I know the quality of the education and faculty is excellent. I just think that without a well focused and intentional district that is the financial backbone of the University giving the necessary support, then Bethany will continue to accrue more and more debt and eventually have to shut down. I would love for it to stay open for sure, but I don’t see that as being feasible in the current situation.


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