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David Shannon snaps a selfie with a Freed-Hardeman student during a fall event.
Photo provided by Freed-Hardeman University

Keeping Christian education on mission

After a year at the helm of Freed-Hardeman, David Shannon reflects on his move from pulpit to presidency

David R. Shannon remembers the day when E. Claude Gardner walked into the sawmill near Centerville, Tenn., where Shannon was working and asked him to attend Freed-Hardeman College. 

“It changed my life,” Shannon recalled. 

David Shannon

David Shannon

But he never dreamed he would one day fill Gardner’s shoes as president of the Henderson, Tenn., school, now a 2,000 student university that prepares students to serve Churches of Christ — from the pulpit and in the pews. 

Since age 14, Shannon had preached for small Churches of Christ in Middle Tennessee. After graduating from Freed-Hardeman in 1989, he and his new bride, Tracie, moved to New York to work with the Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch. 

A long preaching career followed, including eight years with the East Gadsden Church of Christ in Gadsden, Ala., and 18 with the Mt. Juliet Church of Christ in Tennessee. 

He has served on the board of Heritage University in Florence, Ala., and has participated in mission work in El Salvador. John Law, chairman of FHU’s board of trustees, described him as “an expert communicator, collaborator, team builder, motivator and encourager.” 

This year, Shannon and his wife celebrate their 30th anniversary along with their four children and two grandchildren.

What motivated you to leave a long preaching career to become a college president? 

One of the hardest decisions Tracie and I have ever had to make was whether or not to leave the Mt. Juliet church to accept another opportunity to serve in the Lord’s kingdom as president of FHU. 

As we worked through this decision-making process, we continually considered the powerful influence FHU has had on the Lord’s church and upon Christian families for over a century. Perhaps we all have observed how difficult it is for Christian institutions of higher education to stay on mission. If I could have an impact on FHU’s future in helping students love the Lord and his church even more when they graduated than when they enrolled, I was willing to serve.  

After a year in the presidency, how do you find the challenges to be different from ministry?

David Shannon, president of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., speaks to the teens at Exposure Youth Camp.

David Shannon, president of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., speaks to the teens at Exposure Youth Camp.

First, the university’s almost 2,000 students and more than 400 full- and part-time employees cannot wait for the new president to catch on. The university needs decisions today. 

Second, the difference in the ministry and the presidency is the simple reality that the buck stops here. As a preacher, it stopped with the elders; as a president, it stops in this office. 

Third, the present culture of higher education is volatile. The student demographic is changing. The marketplace demands more from universities — as do the students. Perhaps there has never been a time when education is more competitive.

How does FHU maintain its high percentage of students from Churches of Christ?  

Our board mandates that we keep enrollment at 75 percent members of the Church of Christ. We place a concentrated effort on going to where these high school students live, worship and learn. 

We know where the majority of high school students who will enroll in FHU are on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. Church visits are important for this reason.  Reaching out and showing up at youth retreats, church camps and youth rallies also give us contact with these youth. 

We want youths who already are investing their lives in the Lord to know of a place where they will be given the opportunity to grow deeper in their faith and expand their abilities to serve while preparing academically for the career of their dreams. All of this will be strengthened as they are surrounded by friends who will become as close as family and who also love the Lord and his church.  

Is Christian higher education worth the cost?  

Most definitely! Our mission is for our students to grow in their faith and expand their love for God and others while receiving an excellent education and having fun along the way. 

Here it is possible for a student to begin their young adult life away from home in a godly environment. They have the opportunity to enjoy and to grow by gaining an education that will serve them well, to form Christian friendships that will last for a lifetime. 

“The cost of Christian education at a university that will grow the student closer to Christ and his church is an excellent value.” 

We also value Christian spouses. I was 18 years old and thought Freed-Hardeman was expensive. But even at 18, I knew that if I found a Christian wife here, it would be a good investment. 

We are often a student’s first home away from home. It is here students will begin to form adult habits. Consider habits and choices many of our 19- to 22-year-olds develop who are not attending a Christian university. 

In a survey of graduates of one year out (most of them 23 years old), we asked them several spiritual questions. One of them was a multiple-choice question: “How often do you go to church?” Of about 80 percent who came to us as members of Churches of Christ, 98 percent said they attend most of the time while 90 percent attend every time the doors are open.  

I could give many examples of daily, weekly and semester-long experiences that add to the value of Christian education. The cost of Christian education at a university that will grow the student closer to Christ and his church is an excellent value.   

Why should people support Christian higher education?    

If I am concerned about the future of the church, I should be concerned about whether or not she can retain and attract young people in their 20s. FHU is a successful option. 

We recently named “Mr. FHU” as part of our annual awards. The young man who received the award mentioned in his speech that he was leaving FHU as a faithful Christian but did not enroll as one. 

“I have noticed through the years in preaching and teaching that if you feed God’s children well, they tend to come back for another spiritual feast.”

The academics are worth supporting. At Freed-Hardeman, 100 percent of our classes are taught by members of the Lord’s church, with a 13:1 student-teacher ratio. Our instructors are dedicated to the Lord, to FHU and to their field of study. 

This has translated into 100 percent acceptance into law, optometry, epidemiology and several other professional schools. Employers are impressed with not only the academic preparedness, but also with character and work ethic.  

Another reason to support Christian education is the fact that, in the United States, many of our preachers are trained in our Christian universities. Who will produce the next generation of preachers in your home congregation? 

Our Bible department offers classes to every student. If we do not support them, where will our future scholars, educators, researchers and writers be produced? Our congregations want them, but often the absence of their financial support makes one wonder if they think they just fall out of the heavens.

Why is FHU’s annual lectureship continuing to thrive as so many others are losing attendance?   

If I knew the answer to this, I would be a highly sought-after lectureship consultant! But what I observe at FHU is that the lectureship is like a reunion. Attendees know they are going to see many Christians they already know and love. The expectation of well-prepared lessons from God’s word is honored. 

I have noticed through the years in preaching and teaching that if you feed God’s children well, they tend to come back for another spiritual feast. It truly is a spiritual feast and fellowship, causing us at the end of the week to begin to look forward to the next one.

Filed under: Christian education David Shannon Dialogue Freed-Hardeman University Partners

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