Enrollment outlook: It’s complicated
Are Christian universities in trouble? Yes — and no. In…
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — “In the beginning.”
Faulkner University President Mitch Henry began his inaugural address with those familiar first words of the Bible before reading its final words: “Yes, Jesus says, I am coming soon. Amen.”
Genesis to Revelation. Beginning and end. Totality. Completeness.
That’s the perspective from which Henry, 56, laid out God’s “plan and purpose” for Faulkner, which is associated with Churches of Christ.
And from start to finish, the ceremony’s organizers made it clear that Faulkner’s Christian mission is paramount — not an afterthought.
To anyone among the several hundred seated in the Tine W. Davis Gymnasium Jan. 30 as Faulkner inaugurated its ninth president, there could be no doubt that this is a Christian university in deed — not just in name only.
Speakers at the inauguration ceremony noted “significant” and “unprecedented” challenges facing American higher education: declining enrollments, deteriorating finances, waning confidence.
The Chronicle recently reported on some of the challenges facing universities associated with Churches of Christ in particular, including a marked demographic shift in student enrollment.
Related: Enrollment outlook: It’s complicated
But one of the greatest challenges of all, said Jack Hawkins, chancellor of Troy University about 50 miles south of Montgomery, is “the feeling among many, particularly parents, that American higher education has turned its back on traditional values.”
For that reason, Dave Rampersad, Faulkner’s vice president of academic affairs, stressed the importance of Christian universities’ survival as “the last bastion in academia where God is venerated and not vilified — where the Bible is believed and not belittled.”
And those speakers saw Henry as a paragon of such traditional values who is well-suited to the task of leading the university and committed to facing those challenges — not despite or at the expense of Faulkner’s Christian mission but through it.
“The life of the man we inaugurate today as president of this institution is a picture of the essence of what it is to seek to glorify God in everything,” observed Faulkner Chancellor Billy Hilyer.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who spoke through a prerecorded video, said Henry is perfectly positioned to “guide the students at Faulkner University into becoming our state and nation’s Christian leaders of tomorrow.”
Henry, a husband and father of three, has emphasized “vocational ministry” since he succeeded Mike Williams as Faulkner’s president last June.
That means training students not only to become experts in the field they pursue but to be examples of Jesus and to share the Gospel with everyone they encounter in their careers.
“We need students like you … to courageously share the values that you learn in this place, to shine your light, to make your work a ministry to other people.”
“We need students like you and we need people like those in this audience to courageously share the values that you learn in this place,” Henry said, “to shine your light, to make your work a ministry to other people.”
In an interview with The Christian Chronicle, he added that he wants to enable students “not just to make a living just for the sake of making a living but to make a living so they can give to others and make sure that they serve people in what they do while they work.”
Henry — who worships and teaches at the nearby Vaughn Park Church of Christ, where he previously served as an elder — sees a mission field on campus, too.
“Though most of our students are not affiliated with Churches of Christ, we have an opportunity to share some solid core values that many other religious groups share and to share with you the faith that brought many of us to this place,” he told the crowd of attendees.
“As president of Faulkner University, I declare to you today that this university is committed to growing Christians and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. We’re committed to fanning the flames of what I believe is a spiritual awakening that is happening on our campus.”
The president noted that more than 20 Faulkner students have been baptized over the past year.
Meanwhile, Henry recognizes the challenges his university faces and is intent on ensuring its survival by increasing enrollment, raising funds, growing endowments, paying for capital projects and improving the campus.
“I want my grandchildren to go to this university,” he told the Chronicle.
But he also displayed a strong outward focus on the needs of the community and broader fellowship of Churches of Christ — and a desire for Faulkner to make a difference in those areas.
He noted in his speech that Montgomery ranks poorly in education, crime, socioeconomic status and access to health care compared to many cities across the U.S.
“How do we engage with these challenges in order to fulfill God’s plan and purpose for us (as a) distinctively Christian, God-glorifying university with a mission?” he asked.
Likewise, he highlighted Faulkner’s efforts to combat the decline of membership in Churches of Christ, loss of churches and shortage of preachers that is the focus of a current series in the Chronicle.
“It is our intent to help replace preachers in congregations that have lost their preachers,” Henry said. “It’s our intent to help plant churches. It’s our intent for these and all of our young people to be involved in foreign missions.”
Last year, the university launched the Jack Zorn Scholarship, named after the late founder of Lads to Leaders, to provide full tuition for a limited number of undergraduate Bible majors.
Related: Small churches: a mission field?
Henry, who spent the previous part of his career as an attorney, professor and cattle rancher, planned to go into ministry himself before he took on Faulkner’s presidency. He had been interviewing with churches when Williams, the previous president, announced his departure for Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
Even then, Henry had no aspirations for the role and initially declined invitations to apply.
But Hilyer, the Faulkner chancellor and former president, explained that “being the president of this university is a ministry,” Henry told the Chronicle.
“And I am a minister in that respect. So that’s the way I’ve approached it.”
In that sense, the president serves as an example of the vocational ministers he wants Faulkner’s students to become. That is perhaps why he doesn’t shy away from “doubling down,” as he called it, on the Christian mission in every aspect of his university.
“When it comes to public worship, we stick with what we’ve done, our traditional worship, our traditional role of men and women in worship,” Henry said. “We’re going to stick with what God’s called us to with regard to our stance on abortion, on gender issues, on homosexual marriage. We’re going to stick to traditional core values. …
“We’re not running from Christianity. We’re going to be courageously Christian in what we do.”
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