My Simpson saga (my plight in doing everything I can to get Simpson University right on mission) has so many themes and aspects to it because Simpson’s self-made, slow demise is emblematic of the times in which we live.
We are bearing witness to the tragic demise of higher education in America. Christian schools, like secular, are falling apart due to the dishonest business model upon which they shakily stand. Most Christian colleges overly depend for their existence on huge bank loans that are floated by government student loans that strap massive debt onto students while the schools themselves fall deeper into debt.
Oh, how the mighty fall. Granted, Simpson University has never been mighty. But it has had $26m of government student loans mixed with tuition and grants roll through it financially within a school year. Though that amount is relatively small, it’s enough to make Simpson’s positional leaders, including its long-time board members, susceptible to the sickness that takes institutions down.
About a decade ago I wrote an article for Relevant magazine on how Jim Collins’ book, How the Mighty Fall, echoes some of the principles in the New Testament book, I John. Today I want to apply those to Simpson University in particular, and to Christian higher education in general.
Before unpacking the correlation between Jim Collins’ five stages and I John and what I see happening at Simpson University, it might help to achieve effective communication if I say plainly that when top positional leaders of Christian institutions sin and cover up their sin with glitzy image management, that sin spreads and contaminates the entity and leads to the institution’s fall.
Unless, of course, the full board repents.
Let’s begin with I John, then consider Jim Collins’ five stages.
In I John 2:15-17, the apostle John says:
“Do not love the world, nor the things in the world . . . For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life—is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away.”
Now compare that to Jim Collins’ research that reveals the first stage of how the mighty fall:
Stage 1: Hubris born of success. In the language of I John, this stage refers to “the boastful pride of life.” Giving glory to oneself instead of God. Typically this stage applies to genuine success such as the ministry success of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois (which has recently been very compromised).
Stage 1 can also apply to success that people perceive unquestioningly without realizing that such success is not actually real. An illustration of what I mean can be seen in the pretend-like success of all the Christian institutions that have long been floating loans that they, as corporations, have never had any intention of paying back. These Christian organizations look impressive–they have large buildings and prestigious, high-paying salaries–but so much what they have is funded by debt. Borrowed money.
Take, for instance, Simpson’s long-term debtload that keeps swelling in the pseudo-name of “God.” Back in 2001 or so, then-President Jim Grant, launched a capital campaign to get facilities built on Simpson’s otherwise undeveloped, almost building-less campus. Though Simpson folklore says that “God” provided the funding and that all of Simpson’s building were paid for with real money, the truth is that the campus is largely built on debt. In other words, Simpson’s financial “success,” really was not success, except in the sense of its successful borrowing.
Stage 1 sets in when people brag about their success or feign to have success instead of remembering that success can only be sustained by hard work and God’s unmerited blessing.
Stage 2: An undisciplined pursuit of more. The apostle John calls this “lust.” Grasping, ever grasping, for more, more, more is a recipe for ending with nothing. When Christian colleges and universities try to grow their way out of debt by borrowing yet more money–which is precisely what Simpson did when it erected the Betty M. Dean School of Nursing–its “pursuit of more” qualifies as undisciplined.
I am apprised that Simpson (like Azusa Pacific University) still hopes to grow and grow without taking responsibility to discipline itself by paying down its debt, operating in accordance with Christian principles, and making sure it stays “right on mission.”
Stage 3: Denial of risk and peril. In the book of I John, this, too, is an iteration of “the boastful pride of life.” At Simpson, the Board of Trustees behaviorally continues to deny that breaching its own contracts is risky and perilous. When Simpson blatantly breached Dr. Pieter Theron’s employment contract in 2016, Pieter told me that President Dummer said that Simpson has “the right” to disregard its written contracts as part of Simpson’s religious privilege.
Mind you, Simpson University was required by law to issue Pieter Theron a written employment contract in order to secure for him a visa to work in America since Simpson hired Pieter to move to the USA from Mongolia. I physically eye-balled Pieter’s express Simpson contract; thus I have firsthand knowledge that it was a 2-year contract. But guess what? Simpson dismissed Pieter only after ten months–not for performance reasons, but for financial reasons–which could have been understandable had Simpson honored Pieter’s contract and followed the contractual steps for enacting financial exigency. But Simpson didn’t do that. Apparently Simpson doesn’t think that breaching a person’s contract presents possible risk and peril to the university.
So poor Pieter and his wife, Haniki, were left to themselves to face having to move back unexpectantly to Mongolia. Thankfully, someone in the C&MA denomination intervened and found a (lowing-paying) post for Pieter in Tiller, Oregon. But still, Pieter’s contract was breached, and still he and Haniki suffered, and still Simpson did not repent or restore the Therons.
Here Jim Collins’ secular research verifies a basic biblical principle: that in order to survive long-term, one must heed the siren sounds of benevolent warning and repent after doing something wrong. Otherwise wrong-doing will result in the undoing of the organization.
Whether in personal life or business life, it is self-destructive to rationalize bad decisions and deny that risk and peril truly matter.
Stage 4: Grasping for salvation. In I John, grasping for salvation means rebelling against God by being worldly instead of choosing by faith to be other-worldly. I John says, “Do not love the world or the things in it” precisely because “the world is passing away.”
Groping for a savior who offers a painless plan of kicking the can of responsibility even further down the road and who avoids the hard work of building the organization and who delays the organization’s fundamental need for corporate repentance is to “grasp for salvation.”
At Simpson (and APU perhaps as well), it means hiring a new president to be the ringer, the silver bullet—as opposed to Simpson coming clean and repenting and making things right and washing Simpson’s (stinky, dirty) laundry.
Note: To be stuck in Stage 4 is to wind up in Stage 5.
Stage 5: Capitulation to irrelevance or death. In effect, these words are interchangeable because capitulation means letting go of life and clinging to death—that is, clinging to the “world” that the apostle John says “is passing away.”
Examples of Stage 5 capitulation or death are numerous:
- Having Christian board leaders who generate lies or who wink at lies told by school administrators;
- Using the university deceitfully as a financial instrument instead of treating it as receptacle for gifts that support the mission;
- Spending money you don’t have on things you do not need such as when a Christian university buys a three-story building for school administrators almost entirely on the basis of borrowed money;
- Conforming to worldly trends instead of standing up for time-tested truths;
- Secularizing the school instead of steering it back “on mission” for the sake of the gospel.
Stage 5 happens when there is inefficient accountability.
Without accountability–from some higher authority that has legitimate, legal power over the prodigal institution; or from a newspaper that can summon the court of public opinion; or from the courts that are part of the judicial system– the institution sinks by plunging down into Stage 5 where it self-destructs.
Did you catch that? The entity self-destructs. It is not brought down by a lawsuit (exposing the entity’s illegalities) or by people posting negatively on FB (such as Franklin Graham recently did about APU). It is brought down, rather, by its own poor decisions of devaluing itself.
Important Hopeful Warning: Collins’ research definitively shows that a company or church or Christian university can pull out of the downward spiral, no matter how deeply they’re into Stage 4.
So now, we’re back to I John which says:
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us from our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
However, once an entity slides down into Stage 5, the gig is up.