Difficulties for Christian colleges and seminaries continue. Our last post on theological education highlighted the sad story of the closure of two Christian schools in New York City earlier this fall. I recently learned from my former colleague Bayard “By” Baylis about a somewhat more positive story that is unfolding 3000 miles west of there. Multnomah University in Portland OR recently announced it would be merging with Jessup University in Rocklin CA. In what is being styled as a transformative partnership, the Oregon school is becoming the Multnomah Campus of Jessup. In this post we chronicle the events which led to the partnership and reflect on collaboration as a thoroughly biblical principle.
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You’ll find our previous posts in this series on theological education here.
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Multnomah School of the Bible began in 1936 under the leadership of Pastor John G. Mitchell. Willard Aldrich, one of the founders, served as president from 1943-1978, leading the school to its current campus in 1952. His son Joe, known for his publications on evangelism and church renewal, succeeded him. Joe served until he resigned in 1997 due to the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease. The Graduate School of Ministry began in 1986 and was renamed Multnomah Biblical Seminary in 1993. In 2008 the undergrad and grad programs were brought under the Multnomah University brand. Over 900 students from 35 denominations were enrolled by 2010.
Multnomah offered majors in Bible and ministry, and required a Bible core for all other majors, including accounting, business, international relations, psychology, and TESOL. Master’s programs were available in several disciplines. The seminary offered several master’s degrees as well as the Doctor of Ministry. Classroom learning was augmented by online programs, internships with professional mentors, and semesters abroad. Multnomah attempted to maintain a low student-faculty ratio—not an economically efficient approach, especially during times like these.
Last spring the admissions requirement of faith in Christ for all programs except Bible and ministry-oriented degrees was dropped. Jessica Taylor was named interim president and became president in October. Declining enrollment (336 undergrads in fall 2022 according to one report) coupled with mounting debt led to the decision to come under the umbrella of Jessup.
Jessup was founded in 1939 as San Jose Bible College. In 1989 the name changed to San Jose Christian College, reflecting a broader curriculum and degree programs. In 2004 the campus was moved to Rocklin CA, a suburb of Sacramento. The next year it became William Jessup University in honor of its founding president, who served until 1960. William’s son Bryce Jessup served as president from 1984 until 2010. Under his leadership the school received regional accreditation and moved to the Rocklin campus. Current president John Jackson, formerly executive pastor of the large, multi-site, Bayside Church, assumed the office in 2011.
In a 2007 interview Bryce Jessup said “We want to be always true to our roots in the Restoration Movement but inclusive of the whole body of Christ.” Jessup currently serves around 2000 students from nearly 50 denomination. It offers 25 undergrad majors, 10 grad programs, and 5 degree completion programs. Nine programs are available fully online. A few programs are still offered in San Jose, the school’s original location.
Innovation has been the key to Jessup’s recent growth. In 2017 it began a partnership with Placer County to manage the ecology of Clover Valley, a 500-acre undeveloped area. In 2020 Jessup created Bethel Music College and Bethel School of Technology in partnership with the Redding CA pentecostal mega-church. 2023 saw the beginning of of a nursing program. In 2024 Jessup will begin athletic competition in NCAA Division II sports. Apparently the school’s financial situation is now stable after its 2019 debt refinancing through the California Municipal Finance Authority.
Although Jessup’s agreement with Multnomah is being imaged as a partnership, in reality Jessup is acquiring Multnomah to serve as its third campus, nearly 600 miles north of Rocklin. There will no doubt be reductions in Multnomah’s faculty and staff, but there is an express desire to preserve the missional legacy of Multnomah, to retain as many Multnomah faculty and staff as possible, and to provide a smooth transition for Multnomah students. Details of the agreement are currently unfolding. The process is projected to take eight months.
Are Jessup and Multnomah sufficiently compatible to make this new agreement successful? The schools have similar histories. Both began as local Bible Institutes with the goal of training ministry leaders. Both later became regional interdenominational colleges that developed into universities that granted undergraduate and graduate degrees in ministry studies as well as other disciplines. The schools share common values, expressed in their respective affirmations of evangelical faith based on biblical authority. Their mission statements are also in step with one another. Hopefully Jessup’s institutional momentum and wider academic programs will catch hold at the quieter Multnomah campus in Portland. As an old saying has it, “make new friends but keep the old—one is silver and the other gold.” From a distance one gains the impression that Multnomah has emphasized personal relationships in a family atmosphere while Jessup has grown due to innovative career-oriented programs. Hopefully these respective institutional strengths can both be maintained.
Scholars debate the meaning of Amos 3:3. This verse is the first of seven rhetorical questions which expect a negative answer, leading up to 3:7-8 where Amos affirms his agreement with God—he is only relaying a message to Israel that he has heard from his sovereign Lord. But the verse has a proverbial ring to it that makes it applicable to other situations. Have Jessup and Multnomah agreed on an educational direction that will enable them to walk together? We trust they have, but only time will tell.
Struggling Christian institutions should consider collaborations like this one, especially in light of Jesus’ prayer for the missional unity of his followers in John 17:20-24. Although the apostle Paul agreed to disagree with Barnabas in Acts 14, he often spoke glowingly of his ministry associates as co-workers (συνεργοί; synergoi) not only with one another but also with God (e.g. Rom 16:9, 21; 1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 1:24; 8:23; Phil 2:25; Col 4:11; Phile 24). Paul’s teaching emphasized the unity of Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus (Rom 11; 14-15; Eph 2-4; Col 3), but this was achieved only after considerable controversy (Acts 15, Gal). These difficult days call seminaries to work together strategically.
We trust the leaders of Multnomah and Jessup have found a path of institutional shalom that will equip future students to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God. How refreshing it will be for the Pacific Northwest and beyond if these missional brothers can live together in harmony! (Ps 133)