Embracing Tabor College in the vision for our future

Tabor president shares vision, observations and prayers for the future

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Tabor College president David Janzen and Frank Johnson, executive vice president of academic affairs and compliance, lead the procession of 2022 undergraduates from the Lohrenz Administration Building to the Shari Flaming Center for the Fine Arts where the 112th commencement ceremonies were held. Photo: Michael Klaassen

“What can we do for our young people?” H.W. Lohrenz asked his new bride. His question was the beginning of a movement that resulted in the founding of Tabor College in 1908 with Lohrenz as its first president.

I might be so bold as to say that Tabor College is one of the greatest accomplishments of U.S. Mennonite Brethren. For 115 years, Tabor has been a place where young people come together to learn and discern. They learn to become authentic Christians, and they learn knowledge and skills that prepare them for successful careers, giving context for their Christian witness and kingdom work.

They discern who they are as children of God and what is God’s call on their lives. They discern whom they allow to influence them. Sometimes they discern with whom they will spend their lives.

Tabor’s size and location provide a community that fosters genuine relationships. With over 13,000 alumni, Tabor graduates have impacted the world as pastors, teachers, doctors, social workers, business leaders, farmers, scientists, missionaries and more.

Lohrenz’s question continues today as we acknowledge that our future is with our youth. What can we do for our young people? We might take this question a step further and ask, what can this generation of young people do for God’s kingdom?

A vision for partnership in preparing our youth

I have a dream where our churches are providing excellent children’s and youth programming that includes Bible study and authentic role models, youth are actively encouraged to consider full and part-time careers in ministry and Tabor College is embraced as one of the best places for our youth to be prepared for lives of ministry and consequence regardless of their career goals.

This is happening. But can we do better? For example, Faith Front has been an effective ministry in helping young people identify God’s call in their lives. Can we corporately give young people opportunities to serve and lead, then affirm them when we see this call developing?

The first year of college is often one of the most important years in a person’s life. Even when a young person is raised in a wonderful Christian home and church, in their first year away they typically are discerning for themselves what they believe and who they want to be. Do they embrace as their own the faith they’ve been taught? Do they embrace opportunities to lead in worship, Bible teaching and service?

Prior to coming to Tabor College as president in 2021, I was a professor of computer science and software engineering at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. I met many students who said they had attended church and youth group in high school, but when they got to college they were convinced by their professor or friends to leave their faith behind. I also met many students who intentionally sought out local churches and parachurch ministries and they grew in their faith.

Certainly, Christian students can have a great experience and a missional impact at secular universities. However, I am convinced that an authentic Christian college is the best place for most young people’s first year away from home, surrounded by new mentors who point them to Christ. Even if they later transfer away, that first year or two of college often determines a life trajectory.

A word about Christian colleges

How does one define a college as being Christian? For some it is merely Christian roots, despite later mission drift. For others it means they offer a Christian element if students want to make use of it. Some colleges require that all students be Christians to attend.

At Tabor, we require that all employees have an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ, and we expect them to be active in church. As president I interview all final candidates for all full-time positions to verify their Christian faith and acceptable alignment with the MB Confession of Faith. I am blessed by a legacy of presidents who have done the same.

We also incorporate intentional Christian programming in all aspects of the college experience, from required chapel attendance to integrating faith in learning and student-led campus ministries.

While a majority of Tabor students profess faith in Jesus when they first set foot on campus, a minority do not. The last couple of years we have experienced a healthy balance where it “feels” like a Christian campus. At every turn a student will encounter a student, faculty, coach, staff or community member who loves Jesus. At the same time, everyone knows someone who has not yet given their heart to the Lord.

During the fall 2022 Academic Convo, guest speaker Pastor Noe Garcia led an altar call that saw 40 Tabor students come forward to make decisions to follow Christ. As I wrote this, I saw out my window across the Tabor campus one of our new international students who made a decision to follow Jesus after chapel just the day before. His RA (resident assistance), who was instrumental in leading him to Christ, is a student from a Mennonite Brethren church. Many students choose to follow Jesus while attending Tabor College, and many students grow significantly in their faith during their time here.

Tabor, however, has changed over the years. Our mission remains the same, but our demographics are very different from the first half or so of our history. Today only about 11 percent of our students come from MB churches. Our students come from 38 states and 19 countries. Nearly half of our students are people of color.

In 2020, Tabor introduced the Tabor 20 Scholarship, one of our largest scholarships at $29,500 per year, to entice students from MB churches to attend Tabor. This is an unfunded scholarship, so it is a significant commitment on Tabor’s part to value our own denomination, partner with USMB and be part of the solution to raise up future leaders for our churches. In Fall 2023 we have 53 students in the Tabor 20 program.

I suggest and pray the following:

  1. Our churches would embrace Tabor College as its ministry and share the vision of Tabor, encouraging our youth to attend.
  2. Our churches and people would value an education in a decidedly Christian environment enough to help fund the Tabor 20 scholarship that enables these students to attend at prices competitive with or below most public universities.

A personal journey

From 2006 to 2021 my family attended a Calvary Chapel church in Morro Bay, California. We chose this church because of how they integrate intentional Bible study into children’s and youth programs. As a 6th grader, our son Alex attended a weekly small group Bible study with other boys, led by a couple of dynamic college-age men who were also in the church’s small Bible college. These youth leaders and pastors inspired a love of God’s Word and held high the role of church leadership.

Alex attended Tabor College, studying Bible and mathematics, then received his MDiv from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. When he was hired by Community Bible Church in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, as an associate pastor, district leaders questioned his training because he attended FPBS. He has since been licensed and earned their trust, but this was a shock and revealed to us a climate that must be corrected. Alex now serves as a bi-vocational senior pastor of the church and half-time math teacher at Mountain Lake Christian School.

Alex is not alone, but he is a bit of an exception as a young man who recently attended Tabor and is now serving in pastoral leadership in an MB church. Although several of his classmates at Tabor explored careers in ministry, many are not serving in MB churches. They were recruited by other churches/denominations, found vibrant churches elsewhere or attended other seminaries.

I suggest some possible solutions to reverse this trend:

  1. Churches should invest time and talent in their children’s and youth programs, equipping their best leaders to serve there, incorporating solid Bible teaching and intentionally calling out future church leaders with encouragement and opportunities.
  1. Churches and district ministers should actively recruit at Tabor College. Come meet our students. Share opportunities with them. Help them get connected with internships and jobs in our churches and our church communities.
  1. USMB must regain trust in FPBS or find another path for graduate ministry education. Tabor College is willing to be part of the solution. We are currently exploring a new graduate program in ministry or biblical studies, but the current Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) states that FPBS is the provider of graduate ministry education for USMB. Tabor does not want to interfere with that without USMB directing it.

We recognize and appreciate that Fresno Pacific University is the other USMB institution of higher education. Owned by the Pacific District, FPU has a different location, culture and history than Tabor. We have high hopes and pray regularly for President André Stephens as he leads FPU.

A vision for immigrant integration

USMB is a denomination of immigrants. Like 150 years ago, we now see immigrant churches joining the denomination. Henri Ngolo is tasked by USMB with finding ways to integrate these immigrant churches into USMB. I have a dream of Tabor College being a core component of the vision to integrate immigrant churches.

This year at Tabor I see students from all across the USMB districts interacting in meaningful ways. Our worship team has students from Central, Pacific and Southern districts leading in musical worship together. We have Bible studies co-led by students from the LAMB and Central districts. These students are building close, life-long friendships through shared experiences at Tabor College in our residential college setting. Their faith is being rooted in the Anabaptist and Evangelical traditions of the Mennonite Brethren and we pray that they will return to serve in MB churches around the country.

Imagine if students from new immigrant churches come to Tabor and have similar experiences. Imagine if Ethiopian, Congolese and Hispanic students from MB churches come to Tabor and meet each other. They take classes together and play on athletic teams together and sing in the choir together and eat in the dining hall together.

They might build bonds that draw our conference closer together. They might look forward to meeting again at district and national conventions. They might collaborate on how to plant more churches and create innovative multi-ethnic ministry programs.

I suggest and pray the following:

  1. That churches and leaders fund scholarships to make Tabor College attractive and affordable for students from immigrant communities.
  1. That immigrant church leaders encourage their youth to attend Tabor College with a vision of becoming leaders in our churches and conferences.

A vision for entrepreneurship to expand Christ’s kingdom

Entrepreneurship is a vehicle for taking the gospel to our communities and the world. When Christians start a company, they create a context for expanding Christ’s kingdom. As they hire employees, serve customers and work with vendors and local communities, Christian entrepreneurs can shine the light of Jesus in dark places. Entrepreneurship is becoming the new model for international missions. Full-time missionaries are becoming less permissible in many countries, so missionaries often must go as teachers or entrepreneurs.

In 2022 the Central Kansas Entrepreneurship Center at Tabor College started with the vision that all students, regardless of major, should learn to think entrepreneurially, and that entrepreneurship can be an effective tool in Christian ministry. In our first year at least five startups were founded on campus, and we helped several local companies launch or expand their small businesses.

Entrepreneurship builds on innovative academic programs in many majors, is enhanced by new programs such as Tabor’s new Data Science and Analytics major, and combines a wide range of skill sets such as graphic design, business, marketing, accounting, English and communications.

I suggest and pray the following:

  1. USMB and Multiply consider collaborating with the Central Kansas Entrepreneurship Center at Tabor College as a sending agency for preparing missionaries.
  1. Churches and families encourage our youth to consider futures in missions, both locally and globally, that are rooted in the liberal arts and professional skills combined with entrepreneurship.

Unsere Schule

I’ve heard elders in MB communities refer to Tabor as “unsere schule,” our school. This comes from early days when German was common and Mennonite Brethren were proud to have their own school to train their young people, preparing them for lives of work in the church and the world.

In the 2021 Presidential Prospectus, the Tabor College Board of Directors, the majority of whom are selected by four USMB Districts, set a vision for the next president of Tabor College. Core in that vision is a focus on academic excellence, financial stability and a vibrant Christian culture on campus. We are making great progress on all three. We are adding new programs, have raised academic standards, are balancing budgets through discipline and generous donors and are experiencing revival and spiritual vitality.

Tabor wants to be “our school” not “a school.” If you have concerns or ideas for how Tabor can be the college of choice for our young people who will in turn serve and accomplish God’s purposes, please reach out to our board members or me directly at presidentjanzen@tabor.edu.

May we embrace our school, Tabor College, as core to our vision and hope for Christ’s work in the world.

Note: This article, initially submitted to the Christian Leader, was part of the reading packet provided to those who attended the January 2024 vision summit on leadership development. 

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