By Rob Cunningham
Central Bible College, Evangel University and the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary will be consolidated into one combined institution under a plan approved Thursday by the General Council.
There were 1,764 votes cast on Resolution 27, with 1,138 favoring the measure (74.7 percent) while 446 opposing it (25.3 percent); only a simple majority was needed for passage of the proposal, which will merge all three schools into one institution known as Evangel University.
Before the result was announced, General Superintendent George O. Wood promised to carry out the will of the Council regardless of whether the resolution was approved or rejected.
"We submit matters like this to you knowing that God, through His Holy Spirit, speaks to His people," Wood said. "We know that it is our responsibility as leaders to lead, but that our decisions are submitted to you and to your response, and your response, to us, is the will of God."
All three schools are located in Springfield, Missouri, and while the idea of consolidation isn't a new notion, the idea gained traction in October 2010. According to the resolution, the day after leaders prayed in the general superintendent's office about the idea, an unsolicited gift of $5 million was pledged.
Through a series of task force meetings in the subsequent months, the proposal gained momentum and then received the endorsement of the Executive Presbytery and the boards of directors for CBC, Evangel and AGTS.
On Thursday, the Council discussed the resolution for about 90 minutes ---- a shorter debate than many people would have expected going into this week's business sessions. Some microphones featured no lines of speakers waiting to share their opinions.
Much of the public opposition in the past few months has centered on the idea of Central Bible College ceasing to exist. Opponents have highlighted CBC's position in the Fellowship's history and its role in producing a vast number of pastors, missionaries and leaders since the college's founding in 1922.
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, addresses ministers in the Thursday morning business session.
"A single-purpose institution is still relevant and wanted in today's culture," said Michael Scott, who served last year as student body president of CBC. He said there is still a segment of people within the Assemblies of God who want to attend a place like CBC where there is a clear purpose and focus on training ministers.
The proposed consolidation of the Springfield schools has been a hot topic of discussion on some Facebook pages and around many tables this week. One speaker during Thursday's debate took issue with the tone of some of those conversations.
"I have never felt that the consolidation effort was an attack on Central Bible College," said one pastor from Tennessee. "What I hear in the rhetoric, what I read on Facebook, is that it's the killing of CBC. It is truly a consolidation, not an elimination or attack on any of our schools."
Thursday's discussion featured pro-consolidation presentations by Executive Presbyter Bryan Jarrett, who earned his bachelor's degree at CBC, and Robert Cooley ---- a CBC graduate, former administrator at CBC and Evangel, and former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Speaking on behalf of the General Presbytery, Jarrett argued that merging the three institutions into one university in fact would strengthen their core purposes. The new Evangel would help the Fellowship respond to current and future challenges in the areas of training ministers, equipping leaders in the marketplace, handling enrollment and growth, and keeping pace with trends in higher education.
He readily admitted the appeal of opposing the consolidation because of the deep emotions he and many other CBC alumni feel toward their alma mater, but he rejected that response. "I have learned, at least for me, the idol of nostalgia is a jealous taskmaster," he said. "Being in favor of this resolution has not been a whimsical decision or one I've come to easily."
About 740 students are currently enrolled at CBC, but fewer than 300 of them are on-campus students, Jarrett said. While having so many off-site students is an innovative approach to education, it doesn't provide the needed level of finances, he said. CBC also faces the challenge of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance, he said.
CBC faces other issues with finances and enrollment, Jarrett said, but those issues haven't arisen because of a lack of effort or passion or giftedness. They reflect the changing face of education, including education of men and women who feel God's call to full-time vocational ministry.
In his presentation, Cooley focused on the details of the new university and how the consolidation would work. He said consolidation would safeguard the Fellowship's values toward educating future generations and would help ensure that the mission of providing that education remains strong. The new university would feature five schools: arts and sciences, education and behavioral studies, business and professional studies, fine arts, and theology and church ministry.
Approval of Resolution 27 means the consolidation process can now begin. A steering committee will be appointed to monitor the consolidation process; mediate any problematic issues; guide the application process with the Higher Learning Commission, which offers accreditation; and design the framework for the strategic plan.
Under the plan Cooley presented, the actual consolidation process will take nearly a decade to complete. September 2013 is the target for the beginning of classes for the newly merged Evangel University. Evaluation and assessment would continue from 2014 to 2020. During that time, leaders would initiate a $50 million campaign to sustain the university into the future as a debt-free institution, with the goal of completing that campaign by 2020.