3 Lessons from the Mid-Continent Tragedy
Sixty-five years of Baptist education and investment in west Kentucky has come suddenly, abruptly, and grievously to an end. I spent two semesters at Mid-Continent University eight years ago but chose not to pursue my Bachelor’s degree there due to the culture of the institution, which is only now slowly coming to light.
For those of us who know the churches and individuals who gave sacrificially to create Mid-Continent Bible College, this story is a sad one. Even so, we might be able to salvage some of that investment if Baptists will learn the lessons that this tragedy can teach.
1. Organizations easily drift from their mission, and leaders exist to keep this from happening. Mid-Continent began as the West Kentucky Bible Institute. Its mission was singular: to train the gospel ministers serving Baptist churches in west Kentucky. Towards the end of the 20th century, this mission was chucked as the college expanded into a university. The College of the Bible plummeted down the list of priorities. When I was on campus eight years ago, the College of the Bible was only a shadow of what it once had been. Why did the leadership make this change in its mission? I don’t want to speculate here, but to put it bluntly it was an unnecessary change. There was no lack of educational opportunities in west Kentucky for those seeking a secular degree. The major hole in the educational landscape was a program to train gospel ministers, but this mission was not enough for the Mid-Continent leadership.
2. Trustees must hold organizations accountable to their mission. The greatest failure in this story is not the presidencies of David Jester or Robert Imhoff. The failure of the institution belongs to the board of trustees. The Baptist associations of west Kentucky selected board members to safeguard the investment of Baptist churches. Instead they acted as a rubber stamp for the wishes of the administration. Over a decade ago, they should have said, “We are funding this institution to educate our pastors and ministers. Let’s not get distracted from that mission.” Trustees should never just trust the administrators of an institution. If they do so, they abandon their main role, which is to hold the organization accountable.
3. An institution can either train gospel ministers or accept federal funding, but it cannot do both. The move from Bible college to university allowed Mid-Continent to open the door to federal funding. The formula is simple: The more students an institution has then the more federal dollars that flow into that institution. I don’t question the motivations of the leadership here. Whether their motivations were good or bad, the reality remains the same. In pursuit of federal money, Mid-Continent expanded rapidly by adding programs and extension centers, promoting itself as the fastest growing university in Kentucky. As the university grew, the Bible college became a relic of the past. The number of Bible college students dropped just as the investment in and quality of the Bible program dropped. If the driving force of an institution is training gospel ministers, then forget about making money. If the driving force is money, then forget about training gospel ministers. The two do not go together.
As the investigations continue, I am sure that even more lessons can be drawn from the tragic demise of Mid-Continent University. For now, we grieve the fact that the sacrificial investment of west Kentucky Baptists has been squandered, and we grieve with those who have lost their employment. But let’s make sure that we learn the lessons that this tragedy can teach us.