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Oklahoma Christian University closing its Graduate School of Theology

The move is part of broader budget cuts blamed on overall enrollment decline.

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Oklahoma Christian University has become the third university associated with Churches of Christ to close or restructure its graduate programs in theology that prepare students for ministry.

The Oklahoma City university’s closure of its Graduate School of Theology is part of a broader set of budget cuts announced this week to faculty by Provost Brian Starr.

Previously, Harding University in August announced the closing of its Memphis, Tenn., campus of the Harding School of Theology and plans to move the program to its main campus in Searcy, Ark.

In December 2022, Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., announced the closing of its Austin Center, a Texas branch campus previously called the Austin Graduate School of Theology. Lipscomb still has its Hazelip School of Theology in Nashville.

Related: Harding School of Theology set to leave Memphis

In a written statement, Starr blamed the cuts at Oklahoma Christian on overall enrollment decline leading to “restructuring some areas of Academics, including sunsetting the Graduate School of Theology program.”

In an email to Bible faculty, Jeremie Beller, dean of the College of Bible, said, “The gravity of ending OC’s first graduate program is keenly felt by the leadership team.” 

The graduate program was begun in 1988, and the first class of M.Div. students graduated in 2007, a group of which Beller was a part.

The university has offered two other graduate degrees in theology in addition to the M.Div.: a Master of Christianity and Culture and a Master of Biblical and Theological Studies.

Beller told faculty “the move to sunset the program is based on continued enrollment decline, market outlook, and limited resources.”

Graduate enrollment in fall 2023 was 22, down from 39 a year ago.

Jeremie Beller

Jeremie Beller

“Our commitment to serve the church by providing quality academic and practical ministry training will continue through our undergraduate program,” Beller said. “We are also engaged in promising conversations exploring opportunities for our College of Bible to continue contributing to theological education in other ways. I will update you on those conversations as I am able.”

In a separate email, Oklahoma Christian leaders told current graduate students that “the university is committed to helping each of you complete the remainder of your degree. All of the remaining courses in your degree plan will be taught as scheduled over the next 1-4 years, depending on the needs of your program.” That email was sent by Jim Baird, chair of the Graduate School of Theology, and Josh Bailey, Oklahoma Christian’s director of graduate program effectiveness.

The Association of Theological Schools has reported a significant decline in the number of schools and number of students enrolled over the past decade, across denominational boundaries. 

A survey by The Christian Chronicle in May 2023 revealed that the largest graduate programs among universities associated with Churches of Christ are at Abilene Christian University in Texas with 165 students and Freed-Hardeman University in Tennessee with 70. Harding did not respond to the survey but had reported 110 graduate students a year earlier. However, significant declines in enrollment were among the reasons for Harding’s restructuring, according to Jim Martin, vice president of the Harding School of Theology.

Related: After over a century, Lipscomb’s Austin Center to close

In his statement to Chronicle, Starr said, “Though we must make difficult decisions at times to balance our budget, we are confident in OC’s bright future. We are exploring opportunities to partner with sister schools and to continue contributing to graduate theological education in new ways.”

Carson Reed, dean of the Graduate School of Theology at ACU, confirmed that his university is still offering “a wide array of programs and (is) actively engaged in conversations with how we can help sister institutions either continue to offer graduate education or provide entry points for students to come into our programs or in some other way continue training for ministry.”

Oklahoma Christian University

The entrance to Oklahoma Christian University campus.

CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle contributing editor who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected].

Filed under: Association of Theological Schools Austin Center Christian universities Harding School of Theology Jeremie Beller Lipscomb University National News Oklahoma Christian University Partners seminaries Theological library Top Stories

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