The tension isn’t new. Bethel University has long been labeled as both too liberal and too conservative.
By Maddie DeBilzan and Sam Johnson
A small group of Bethel University parents, alumni and former faculty members stood in a dimly lit hallway outside of Benson Great Hall and greeted their friends as they stomped off their boots and talked about the amount of snow piled up on the early spring ground.
Shortly after 6:30 p.m., Steve Larson, an alum and former Bethel hockey coach, opened with a short prayer. Then they all stood up.
“Let’s meet back here in half an hour,” Larson said.
They walked through the halls, praying silently at first before gathering into a circle and praying out loud. They spent 15 minutes in the theology department.
“Free us all. And not in a judgemental way,” Bethel alum and pastor Dan Munson prayed aloud.
“If any profs need to be convicted about something, place that on their hearts,” Dee Dee Larson, Steve’s wife, said. “I pray that people committed to God’s truth would be elevated, and if not, that their role at Bethel be diminished.”
The prayer group started meeting monthly on Sundays in the fall of 2018 after the Larsons found out 17 faculty members at Bethel signed the Boston Declaration, a 2017 document that condemns Christianity’s involvement with recent trends of sexism, racism, homophobia and economic exploitation.
So they connected with a group of likeminded people they had connected with, mostly over social media, and decided to pray for the university.
On this particular Sunday evening in March, the group of seven took a route from the Benson Great Hall lobby and began at Bethel University President Jay Barnes’ office, praying for his successor and the leadership of the institution.
The prayer group says it meets once a month to pray for Bethel University, an institution it believes is drifting from biblical truth. They specifically voiced concerns over hot-topic issues they claim Bethel professors haven’t taken “biblical” stances on, such as the signing of the Boston Declaration, psychology professor Andy Johnson’s testimony against conversion therapy, and the abortion panel put on by the College Democrats.
But Chief Marketing and Enrollment officer Michael Vedders, theology professor Juan Hernández and President Barnes believe Bethel’s ability to encourage students to think critically about hard issues related to their faith is what makes their education so valuable.
“Folks like the people who meet at the prayer meeting … believe our approach to handling scripture and the way we ask students to engage hard issues is harmful rather than helpful,” Barnes said.
Administration and faculty refer to the prayer group as “Take Back Bethel.”
Praying for truth
The group walked up to the third floor of the Academic Center and stopped in front of the Biblical and Theological Studies department. Munson, who came to Bethel in 1981, leaned over the railing overlooking students in the second-floor lounge and prayed the faculty would teach with truth and grace – something he and the others think has slipped away from Bethel recently.
“I think there has been a pendulum shift from when I went there in ‘81,” Larson said. “Back then, Bethel was more truth-oriented.”
The group’s members say they aren’t trying to stir the pot, and they don’t directly associate themselves with politics. A group that meets quietly on Sunday nights, they stay under the radar, praying for what they believe should be a balance between truth and love at Bethel.
“The anticipation is that… at Bethel, the covenant will at least say, ‘This is where Bethel stands,’” Munson said. “And Jay Barnes’ responses have been good. But professors… haven’t said, ‘This is where Bethel stands in terms of what marriage is.’”
The rest of the group nodded in agreement.
“Otherwise,” Munson said, “Why not just send your kids to the U of M?”
Steve Larson believes there are two sides to Bethel. One side is the happy-go-lucky Welcome Week Bethel that aligns with the university’s mission to be a “rock-solid evangelical Christian University.”
But the other side of Bethel, Larson said, is when students are “experiencing lots of things that aren’t at all consistent with the very public image of Bethel.”
“There are so many social issues today, whether it’s same-sex attraction or gender or race or you name it,” Larson continued. “And I think what can happen with that is people can develop an agenda or perspective that determines how they interpret scripture. Rather than letting scripture inform your world view.”
Larson then talked about a speaker he once heard, who mentored a girl who wanted to undergo a sex change operation.
“[The speaker’s] point was this: In today’s culture, people will look at themselves biologically and think, ‘Well it’s my biology that’s wrong, not my mind.’ And they forget that maybe their biology is correct, and it’s their mind that needs to be transformed,” Larson continued. “And it’s hard, because then if you go counter to it, you’re perceived of not being loving or full of grace.”
The rest of the prayer group nodded emphatically, as DeeDee Larson read 2 Timothy 4:3-4 from her phone to support her husband’s points.
“Rather than standing true to God’s word, [Bethel] begins to acquiesce to what I believe is the pull of the culture,” Larson said.
Professors preach critical thinking, not doctrine
Bethel theology professor Juan Hernández says he teaches his theology students biblical literacy rather than doctrine, and he never advocates for issues contrary to Bethel’s affirmation of faith.
“If faculty were advocating for things contrary to our affirmation, that’s a problem,” Hernández said. “I don’t think you’re going to find anyone advocating. No one is doing that. Talking about it, debating it … is not the same thing as advocating.”
In response to the prayer group’s plea for truth, Hernández said, “I would need someone to come and explain to me: What do you mean we don’t have truth? How do you gage that?”
Bethel’s BTS faculty, as well as Bethel’s administration, argue a Bethel education – as opposed to, say, an education at the University of Minnesota – makes students think critically about their faith, often making family members, alumni and donors uncomfortable.
“Faith that is only high school faith, when it hits real-world issues… it doesn’t have satisfying answers,” Barnes said.
Barnes, who climbed the higher education ladder through student life and is president of the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities Consortium, said the best growth happens in the stretch zone: the area just between comfort-mode and panic-mode, when students are most motivated to find answers to hard questions.
“Anyone will tell you that [my students] tackle hard questions, historical problems, ambiguity,” Hernández said. “But it’s clear there’s a value to all that stuff. I don’t tell them to buy it. I just tell them they have to understand it. It’ll be like a gut punch – they’re gonna learn things they don’t like, but then I’ll give them things that’ll kind of soothe the pain.”
Bethel’s harshest critics
Bethel alum and television pastor Tom Brock, who is founder of the “Pastors Study,” which offers a crisis line to help people deal with questions about abortion, same-sex attraction, and unplanned pregnancies, feels Bethel has lost some appeal in recent years. His sermons are televised nationwide on the Christian Television Network, and according to his website, he used to belong to an Evangelical Lutheran reformation group before he left the denomination “over their position on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and universalism.”
On his website, Brock writes about his own struggle with homosexuality: “By the grace of God I have always been celibate but the struggle for me has been intense. Sadly, the battle was also with my own denomination.” He later mentioned the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America “adopted a more liberal view and began ordaining practicing homosexuals.”
Brock, who went to Bethel before he was ordained as a Lutheran pastor in 1979, says he used to recommend the university to many friends, but not anymore.
“I am very sad about what’s happened with Bethel,” Brock said.
Brock said he was troubled when Adam Dommeyer, an enrollment counselor at Bethel, was scrutinized after opposing gay marriage at a chapel message in the fall of 2017, by the fall abortion panel put on by College Democrats, and when Bethel psychology professor Andy Johnson recently made news by testifying against conversion therapy this March.
Brock is not reconsidering his support for Bethel.
Alum and donor Dean Peterson said if Bethel does not turn back to its Baptist roots, he will stop giving money to the school.
“I am struggling giving,” he said. “But I’ll be patient.”
After President Barnes mentioned the “Take Back Bethel” group in his address to faculty at an August retreat, The Clarion met with Peterson, as a possible spokesperson for the group, to discuss his belief that Bethel is becoming a liberal-leaning university. He used The Clarion’s prior stories about the Boston Declaration and Prism, an LGBTQ+ group on campus, as examples. Peterson says his concerns are consistent with those of the prayer group. But Barnes said there will always be donors, alumni and students who believe Bethel leans too far to the right or left.
“There have been concerns about teaching about human origins and evolution that go way back,” Barnes said. “There was a 25-year blurb about that. Every once in a while something like that rises up as an issue.”
Like Barnes, faculty senate president and history professor Chris Gehrz is not surprised to see this tension. Gehrz, in his 16th year of teaching at Bethel, said Bethel has never neatly fit into liberal or conservative boxes, and that has been both a challenge and an asset.
And even though he said no one has ever talked to him about present concerns with the university, he understands that a group of alumni might feel unhappy about the current state of Bethel.
“It doesn’t shock me that there is a group of unhappy alumni,” Gehrz said. “The reason they [the alumni] are upset is that they care.”
However, some students and faculty feel the prayer group is crossing the line.
Alaina Turnquist, leader of the College Democrats club on campus, said just because a specific group prays for change to happen does not make it right.
“Just because you’re praying to God for something doesn’t legitimize what you’re asking for,” Turnquist said.
After hosting the abortion panel last fall, Turnquist received emails from Peterson, who was unhappy about the way the panel was presented.
“Alaina,” he wrote, “Please read through this entire news clip and listen to the video. Then I would like you to explain to me how as a believer in Jesus Christ you can support the views of Democrats.”
Peterson then attached a Fox News story to the email about an abortion survivor.
Turnquist replied, “I would like to ask you to refrain from sending me such materials, as I feel that you are disinterested in having a nuanced and thoughtful discussion surrounding abortion.”
College Republicans club leader John Chouinard thinks there should be a separation between any political stance of a group and faith at the university. He said College Republicans had no idea the prayer group existed, but that “Bethel has a lot of unique ideas.”
“Just keep politics out of religion,” he said.
Barnes doesn’t see a huge political or theological chasm between students and donors when he thinks of Bethel.
“I actually don’t think there’s as big a gap between most students and most donors as people think,” Barnes said.
Since donors contribute financially in many ways, it can be difficult trying to appease every Bethel community member. But Barnes said he has made decisions for the university’s good, not the happiness of one specific group.
“I do think we’ve tried to make decisions based on mission and principle, not on the basis of donor wishes,” he said. “If you start going down the track of trying to please a donor, then that’s a trail that never ends.”
For example, in the fall of 1995, there was a dilemma within administration and alumni surrounding whether to accept National Science Foundation grants and other government grants. If the university took those grants, it would forfeit $250,000 from the Anderson Foundation, a family of Bethel donors who owns Anderson Windows, which believed taking government money was wrong. Bethel decided to accept the government grants.
“We felt that for educational reasons, and for opportunities for faculty and staff to do the kind of research grants have, we had to say ‘No thank you’ to the Anderson Foundation for a non-guaranteed opportunity to pursue government grants,” Barnes said.
When Barnes first came to Bethel in 1995, there was a debate about whether Bethel should allow students to dance on campus.
“The policy at the time … was the dumbest possible policy,” he said, because students were allowed to dance off campus, but not on campus. So despite a handful of donors and alumni who were upset about the decision, Bethel decided to allow on-campus dancing.
Barnes also said the concerns that donors like Peterson have are more difficult to address than the dancing dilemma.
“One of the hot points is the faculty who signed the Boston Declaration,” Barnes continued. “It echoes for Dean, Tom Brock, the Larsons. So we’re faced with, ‘If these faculty members don’t teach the way we think they should teach, you either need to make them do that, or fire them, or we won’t pay you.’ That’s an oversimplification, but that’s the way it tends to feel.”
Marketing Bethel to a diverse group
Chief Enrollment and Marketing Officer Michael Vedders said there are typically three types of people who approach him at the Bethel University booth at the Minnesota State Fair every year.
The first group “thinks of us as a Bible college with all these rules… they have no idea the quality of the academics.” That group thinks Bethel is too conservative.
The second group thinks Bethel is losing its faith.
“They question whether we truly believe Christ is at the center of all we do.”
That group thinks Bethel’s too liberal.
And the third group loves what Bethel is doing.
Vedders said in the past, it was difficult to market Bethel, because of the gap between the first two groups he mentioned.
“A lot of what we used to do was try to respond,” Vedders said. “That’s a really difficult game. I’m trying to change that, and rather than responding to those people, to lead from where we’re at. Yes, we have people who think we’re too conservative or too liberal, and that has never changed.”
Now, Vedders’ strategy is to revamp how the marketing department finds and writes stories about Bethel students, staff, faculty and alumni. They focus on storytelling rather than crafty responses to angry donors.
“Students, faculty and alumni are the biggest part of our brand,” he said.
Despite criticism from people who believe Bethel is too liberal, too conservative, or too compliant, Barnes believes there is hope, and these frustrations will always exist.
“I think it’s hard for people to agree that our educational model works,” he said. “And yet the research we do consistently shows that our graduates are significantly more engaged in faith communities than our peer group.”
According to a recent national survey of student engagement, 90 percent of Bethel seniors believe they are challenged to think about issues from a Christian perspective – three percentage points higher than the overall results from Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities Consortium (CCCU). And 82 percent of Bethel seniors said the campus environment encourages them to develop values which reflects their faith in Christ, compared to the CCCU’s 78 percent.
“Do I want everybody who graduates from Bethel to have [their faith] all locked up? Sure,” Barnes said. “But I don’t want it all locked up in a high school faith. I want it locked up in a faith that’s still growing.”
Despite the theological and political divide between administration, donors and alumni, three things are for sure: Bethel graduates have shown some of the highest satisfaction rates with faith integration in the classroom. Bethel faculty and administration have always viewed tension as a way for students to grow. And Bethel will always be well-prayed for, so long as that tension still exists.