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Ph.D. optional: Why a Christian university with doctoral programs chose a preacher president

With the selection of minister David Shannon, Freed-Hardeman trustees emphasize spiritual leadership, communications skills and connections with Churches of Christ.

When trustees of Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., first identified preacher David Shannon as a candidate for the Christian university’s presidency, a key alumnus voiced concern about Shannon’s lack of academic credentials and higher education experience.

That alumnus: Shannon himself.

“I didn’t want to do anything that would show disrespect to the university or to the academic community that is so strong here,” said Shannon, who has served for 18 years as minister for the Mt. Juliet Church of Christ, a growing congregation 20 miles east of Nashville.

David Shannon — Now: Minister for the Mt. Juliet Church of Christ, which has grown from Sunday attendance of 500 to more than 1,100 during his 18 years as minister. Soon: Will serve as the 16th president of Freed-Hardeman University, his alma mater. Family: Wife Tracie; son Colton, daughter-in-law Rachael and grandchidren Max and Meryl; daughter Lacie Haynes and son-in-law Clint Haynes; son Rong Yang; and daughter Emilie.

“It wasn’t a quick process for me to overcome,” the 1989 Bible graduate told The Christian Chronicle. “After the first meeting, I told them I would have to think about it. … My wife (Tracie) and I prayed over and over about this, and never once did we pray for it.”

But eventually, the couple came to the same conclusion: God was leading them to return to their alma mater.

“We finally just reached a point where we said to each other and (to God) in our prayers, ‘If this is what you want, we’ll do it, but your will be done,’” said David Shannon, who traces his Freed-Hardeman roots to the mid-1980s, when former President E. Claude Gardner walked into a Centerville, Tenn.-area sawmill and recruited him.

Freed-Hardeman, which is associated with Churches of Christ, has 1,900 students from 33 states and 20 countries. It offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees and is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, known as SACS.

However, as Freed-Hardeman’s trustees searched for current President Joe Wiley’s successor, they weren’t worried about Shannon’s absence of a master’s degree from an accredited university — much less a doctorate — or his unfamiliarity with the inner workings of Christian higher education.

They were more interested in his spiritual leadership, his communications skills and his close ties with — and affection for — both Freed-Hardeman and its faith heritage, board Chairman John Law said.

A view of the Freed-Hardeman campus. (PHOTO VIA TWITTER.COM)“The present situation at Freed-Hardeman is that we’re blessed with solid academic leadership and stability, from the (administrative) cabinet all the way to our faculty,” said Law, an elder of the West Seventh Street Church of Christ in Columbia, Tenn.

Law, a chief operating officer for Tennessee Farmers Insurance Companies, said the university has benefited academically from nine years with Wiley at the helm.

Wiley, who will retire this summer, earned a Ph.D. in mathematics. He came to Freed-Hardeman with 34 years of higher education experience but had no background — as a student or administrator — with a Christian university.

“In addition to the academic improvement, his tenure will be marked by increased financial stability and an improved physical campus,” Law said.

That academic and financial stability will allow Shannon to focus on other pressing needs, the board chairman said.

“Never has there been a time, in our board’s opinion, in which the keys to success in a very challenging Christian higher education environment revolve more around relationship building, fundraising, recruiting of new students and church relationships,” Law said. “All of those demands today are higher than ever, and David Shannon is the person that the board believes can fill that role.”

The trustees selected Shannon as Freed-Hardeman’s 16th president at an April 21 meeting. The minister said he did post-graduate studies in church growth and leadership, but not at an accredited institution. “It was very helpful,” he said of that coursework.

Dwindling pool of students

For Freed-Hardeman and its sister universities, the pool of potential students from Churches of Christ has declined along with overall membership in the nation’s 12,240 congregations.

Nationwide, the total number of men, women and children in the pews has fallen to 1,510,490 — down 8 percent from 1,645,645 just since 2000, according to “Churches of Christ in the United States,” a national directory published by 21st Century Christian.

The decline is even more dramatic in terms of freshmen who identify as members of Churches of Christ and choose to attend one of 14 accredited universities — including Freed-Hardeman — that are associated with the fellowship, said Trace Hebert, a higher education researcher at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.

In 2000, 4,411 freshmen from Churches of Christ enrolled in an associated university, an annual survey by Hebert found. In 2016, that number stood at 2,405 — a 46 percent decline. Christian university presidents supply the data to Hebert on the condition that he can release aggregate figures but not individual institutions’ numbers.

Trace HebertFreed-Hardeman and Harding University in Searcy, Ark., have “performed better than most” sister institutions in recruiting students from Churches of Christ, Hebert said. Together, they accounted for 41 percent of all freshmen from Churches of Christ who enrolled at the associated institutions in 2016.

However, Hebert stressed that “the downward trends have impacted them as well.” Between the two, freshman enrollment from Churches of Christ has fallen nearly 10 percent in the last five years, he reported.

Total enrollment at Freed-Hardeman rose 4.3 percent this past fall, “which we were excited about,” Law said.

“While our enrollment has been flat for several years, we have witnessed similar liberal arts universities shrink during the same time period or even close,” he added.

Another Lipscomb scholar, Richard Hughes, who has spent 40 years studying religion and culture, noted that many Christian universities years ago abandoned the practice of hiring academics as president.

“Instead, the trend in our fellowship is to hire lawyers,” Hughes said, suggesting that “the chief job of presidents these days is fundraising and public relations.”

Among current presidents with law backgrounds: Andrew Benton of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.; John deSteiguer of Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City; Randy Lowry of Lipscomb; and Tim Perrin of Lubbock Christian University in Texas.

Preachers as presidents

While Shannon’s lack of a terminal degree makes him an unconventional choice, he is far from the first minister chosen to lead a university associated with Churches of Christ

In recent times:

• Rubel Shelly, who spent 27 years as pulpit minister for the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, served as president at Rochester College in Michigan.

• Harold Shank, who served the Highland Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., for 32 years, accepted the presidency at Ohio Valley University in West Virginia.

• And Bruce McLarty, whose quarter-century of full-time ministry included 14 years preaching for the College Church of Christ in Searcy, was hired as president at Harding.

All of those ministers, however, had advanced degrees and at least some higher education experience.

On a chilly morning last year, Harding University President Bruce McLarty took a cold dip in a campus fountain to support Special Olympics. (PHOTO PROVIDED BY HARDING)

Accrediting standards by SACS require “qualified administrative and academic officers with the experience and competence to lead the institution.” No standard speaks specifically to the office of president, and SACS spokeswoman Pamela Cravey said the accrediting agency would not take a stand on any president or his credentials.

“We do have significant historical precedent among our institutions to hire candidates who have been noted ministers from Churches of Christ,” said Hebert, associate dean of Lipscomb’s College of Education. “I would also confidently say this practice has yielded mixed results when it comes to their preparedness and effectiveness.

“The higher education environment in this country has become extraordinarily complex, and effective educational leadership requires a tremendous amount of insight into that environment,” he added. “Leading a private, faith-based institution is one of the toughest jobs there is in this country, and ineffective leadership can prove to be very costly for an institution.”

Hebert said he prays that God will use Shannon “mightily” at Freed-Hardeman.

David and Tracie Shannon and their extended family. (PHOTO PROVIDED)

‘His heart beats’ for FHU

In contemplating the Freed-Hardeman position, Shannon said he talked with two presidents of Christian universities, including Harding’s McLarty.

In an interview with the Chronicle, McLarty said he told Shannon that serving as Freed-Hardeman president would be a challenge and that the question of Shannon’s academic credentials would be raised.

“The thing that I shared with him was there’s no one road into the presidency, and there’s no single academic road into the presidency either,” said McLarty, who earned his doctorate while serving as Harding’s vice president for spiritual life before becoming president four years ago. “I encouraged him along the lines of being a person who can articulate the mission and draw the Freed-Hardeman family around that mission.”

Two of the Shannons’ four children — and their spouses — attended Freed-Hardeman, while their youngest daughter chose Harding.

“Another thing David brings to the table for Freed-Hardeman is, I think his heart beats for the heritage, history and passion of Freed-Hardeman,” McLarty said. “He’s someone who’s experienced Freed-Hardeman as a student, as a parent, as a preacher … and I think he will enjoy having a place at the table as he shapes the future of Freed-Hardeman.”

David Shannon at the Mt. Juliet church with Lucas Jenkins, the 5-year-old son of youth minister Philip Jenkins and his wife, Laura. (PHOTO BY LAURA JENKINS)

Marketing that’s hard to buy

Among many Freed-Hardeman alumni and supporters, Shannon’s appointment has sparked excitement.

“God doesn’t need degrees. He needs open and willing hearts,” said Paula Harrington, a Christian writer and member of the Lone Oak Church of Christ in Paducah, Ky.

Paula Harrington“I’m sure he’ll bring his compassion, wisdom and love for God and others to his office as president,” Harrington said of Shannon. “I’m excited to see what God is doing at FHU.”

Daniel Courington, a 2006 social work graduate of Freed-Hardeman, preaches for the Palisades Church of Christ in Birmingham, Ala.

“I believe David’s speaking ability will be a huge recruiting asset for the school,” said Courington, who serves on the board of the Exposure Youth Camp, where Shannon regularly speaks. “He’s in front of thousands of high schoolers that Christian universities target every year. That’s marketing that is hard to buy. It’s something most Ph.D.s don’t have.”

At Freed-Hardeman, Ryan Fraser, an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling, said he has not heard a single negative word about Shannon.

“I think there’s a hope and energy on campus,” said Fraser, who is also a minister and elder of the Bethel Springs Church of Christ. “David brings a lot of excitement. He’s an inspirational person. He’s got a magnificent personality, and I think folks really connect to him as a real disciple of Christ. He’s the type of leader you want to follow, because you like him.”

For his part, Shannon said he’s humbled by the chance to lead his alma mater.

“I want and need people’s prayers,” he said. “I want to glorify God in what I do, and I want Freed-Hardeman to continue to exist for the same reason.”

Filed under: Christian higher education Freed-Hardeman University National Partners

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