2021 Annual Conference Report
Before I get into the main part of my report, I want to acknowledge the obvious: The facility in which you will attend most of Annual Conference has come to exceed all expectations. It is a first-rate facility that has already provided benefit to our campus and mission. “Facility” is from the Latin “facil,” which means “to make easy or possible.” In so far as the Student Life Center makes our mission so, it is a great facility indeed. We thank God for His unspeakable grace, and for your support and generosity, though which He made this facility possible.
The first time I ever heard the gospel from a pulpit was at a Free Lutheran church plant in the basement of a grocery store in Arlington, SD. In the interest of full disclosure, it is highly likely that someone had proclaimed the gospel from a pulpit when I was present, but it was neither a frequent event, nor a core part of the congregations we attended when I was younger. Thus, in my remembrance, my mother was the sole source of spiritual nurture in my life prior to the age of 16. I was converted to Christ at the age of 18, and that through the patient ministry of a congregation that loved me enough to invest in a young man who gave no immediate positive feedback and offered little in the way of future promise.
I am eternally grateful to God for His work in and through the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations. Jesus Christ reached me through the ministry of a church body with whom I had no connection other than geography. I was not saved. I certainly was not Lutheran. I wasn’t even Scandinavian. I was a churchgoing, agnostic basketball idolater with a respectful shell and a prickly heart.
My lifelong adult commitment to the Association, and my current calling as President of Free Lutheran Bible College and Seminary, is not a matter of brand loyalty or heritage. I am part of our Association because I believe in its broad gospel mission, its foundational Lutheran theological confession, and its narrow focus on the life and ministry of the local congregation. I think it is not just helpful, but true, and in its best expression, the most Biblical manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth. If you will allow it, that is my conviction; at the very least, it is my opinion.
Thus, I write to those with whom I share deep theological agreement both broad and narrow. As such, I write with caution; there is no better way to make a Pharisee than to write boldly to those with whom one mostly agrees. Our Isaiah 40 theme “Prepare the way of the LORD” is but one of three cries from God to Israel through the prophet Isaiah. God speaks tenderly to His people with words of comfort. He then calls them to repentance with words so pointed and clear that John the Baptist quoted them while calling the Pharisees to repentance by the River Jordan. Then God spoke through Isaiah, affirming both the truth and endurance of His Word: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8).
This call, in all three parts, remains for us today. For nearly 60 years the Free Lutheran Bible College and Seminary has been establishing students in the eternal and inerrant Word of God for a life of faith in Jesus Christ and faithful service in His kingdom. The founders of the AFLC, influenced heavily by the Bible Institute movement of the middle part of last century, identified the training of young people and future pastors as essential to the health and thriving of the new Association. Students established in God’s Word would invest in congregations, which would in turn benefit the kingdom of God on earth. Congregations would send students to be established for such ministry, and the cycle would continue as long as God willed.
That mission and vision continue today on the campus of FLBCS. We exist today as we did then: A cooperative endeavor of free and living Lutheran congregations in free association with one another, not imposing any obligation or restriction, nor exerting any compulsion on one another. Not laying any burden up on individual congregations but bearing those burdens one for another, unto the advancement of the Kingdom of God (Fundamental Principles 7 and 11). Our cooperative endeavors must be crystal clear on this: We are not congregations, nor do we exist for our own preservation. Rather, we serve the congregations of the AFLC.
While FLBCS works together with other AFLC cooperative endeavors, we do so where mutual benefit exists and for reasons of mission and efficiency. Our call is not to start congregations, fix problems in congregations, advance youth or music ministry in congregations, or to publish materials for the congregation. We are not world missionaries in any direct sense, and we are most certainly not congregations themselves. Our part within this body is training students, and as we do so, many others benefit. We also try to conduct ourselves in such a way that other AFLC ministries are blessed, rather than used as a resource, and we compensate other ministries well when they provide services for the benefit of our students and program.
The mission of the Bible College and Seminary drives everything we do. Our theology is Lutheran by confession. Non-Lutherans are welcome to study on our campus, but our theology is graciously, though distinctively, Lutheran. Our approach is explicitly Biblical. I was 45 years old before I realized that “Biblical theology” and “exegetical theology” are not synonyms in most church bodies. About two-thirds of our classes at FLBCS are exegetical, meaning that we apply truths obtained through verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book study of the Word of God.
We teach our polity as part of our doctrine, teaching the congregation as the right form of the kingdom of God, according to the Word of God (Fundamental Principle 1). FLBCS is not a congregation, but we indirectly benefit congregations as we fulfill the mission of establishing students in the Word of God for life in Jesus Christ. Students then benefit congregations around the world as God works through them vocationally in any and every sphere of influence.
In this sense, FLBCS is unlike other AFLC cooperative endeavors. Our benefit to congregations is less direct and less immediate, thus: “Start here. Go anywhere. Grounded in God’s Word.” We have no idea where our students will go after FLBC, so we focus on establishing the root more than seeking desired fruit. If you chase the fruit, you will find it ever fleeting; nurture the root and the fruit will come in due season.
The impact of the AFLC and her Bible College and Seminary far exceeds synodical boundaries, as our founders anticipated (Fundamental Principle 12). While our Seminary seems likely to remain a predominantly denominational entity, the Bible College has an increasing impact in the lives of Christians of many persuasions. The primary reason people don’t attend FLBC is that they don’t know we exist, and this is a problem that we intend to remedy.
Three million souls surround our campus, and even a tiny percentage of them would fill our campus. Imagine the impact of 100+ souls graduating every year, having been established in God’s Word and equipped for congregational service. Do we really believe that what is good for the Kingdom of God is good for the AFLC? In a season of intense challenge, we embrace immense opportunity. Our society is hungry, whether they realize it or not, for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Everywhere we look we see pain and hear the cries of precious, eternal human souls. Do we really believe that the gospel is good, and not just in general, but also for us, and for our society and the countless souls around us?
The program at FLS prepares pastors for servant leadership in free and living Lutheran congregations. In those congregations, those shepherds will preach God’s Word, administer the sacraments, visit their flock, and equip the saints for their ministry in and through the congregation. They will lead by serving and serve by leading, delivering to souls the most precious of all stewardships: The forgiveness of sins.
The program at FLBC engages students, most of which are in the most formative years of life, with answers to foundational, primary, and essential questions. Students learn, both implicitly and explicitly, that God’s Word is the authority for us as we look at God’s world and God’s work. For a while, coming out of this season of challenge, people will pay more attention to these matters. This interest will wane, and today is our day of opportunity, not just for us individually, or as a Bible College and Seminary, but also for the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations as a whole.
One of our institutional objectives emphasizes the congregation as the primary place where the Great Commission ministry of Jesus Christ is carried out. And while we delight in this ministry taking place in any group of Christians, let’s not kid ourselves– we especially want to see it happen within the AFLC. In a survey of recent graduates, 90% say they are still part of a congregation, and two-thirds of those say they are part of a congregation within the AFLC. Given the origins of our student body, and geographical challenges for those who move away, those numbers are pretty good. We model, encourage, and teach congregational participation in the AFLC not out of brand loyalty or obligation, but because we believe that what we teach is both valuable and correct. We attempt to do so with charity toward others, avoiding the illusion of superiority that so easily sets in. We really believe that teaching what we teach will benefit souls, the AFLC, and the broader kingdom of God.
Enrollment in both programs is a current and ongoing challenge with room for growth and reason to be optimistic. This year has presented unforeseen challenges, replacing several of our planned initiatives with one major goal: Survival. By God’s grace, we have not just survived, but thrived and moved forward. However, we joined every other institution of higher education in facing enrollment challenges. We are facing these challenges with efforts coordinated by Mr. Josh Johnson, our newly full time Director of Recruiting and Communications, along with a team of dedicated individuals.
Recruiting for the two programs are vastly different enterprises. We don’t really recruit for FLS, though we return calls promptly and make sure that students in our sphere of influence know that we offer excellent, accessible training. Not everybody should come to seminary, and the internal call to prepare for a future external congregational call is completely different than asking someone to invest two years at Bible College. Further, “recruiting” a seminarian is a long process. We are already talking to some of our Bible College students about potential future seminary attendance, but conversations we had three years ago may still be two years from fruition. That’s just the way it works. For every student who (seemingly) enquires about seminary out of the blue, there are four more who were “in the works” for years ahead of that time. The past few years have hovered in the 2-4 students per year range, about what we have had over our history, but less than we had expected given several years in a row of strong enrollment. We have reason to expect increased enrollment in the fall of 2022, but ask that you continue to pray for men to be called to pastoral ministry.
Please know that we will never lower our expectations for pastoral training in order to increase the number of men studying. Nor does our call for excellent, committed, thorough training of future pastors diminish the role of those not trained in our regular seminary program. There will always be a place in the AFLC for non-ordained pastors, but “lay” does not mean “untrained.” Layman Georg Sverdrup had more pastoral training that I do. Continuing education opportunities exist (think SIT and beyond) both at the seminary and through other avenues, and I encourage everyone to take advantage of them. You will see more of this in the coming months and years.
Please remember that the Seminary is not responsible for ordination or certification of any kind. Our stated call from the AFLC is education, and we will continue to train future pastors to the best of our ability. We want our men to be servant leaders who lead by serving and serve by leading, equally adept at theological explanation and pastoral application. Our congregations need tender shepherds with good theology and love-soaked courage.
FLBC (as of this April writing) has 94 students, most of whom have displayed resolve and perseverance during the past year. We had reason to believe we would start the year with 110- 115 students, but by the time we began we had 99. We always lose a handful during the year, and our current number is an encouragement, given all of our external circumstances (we put together a pandemic-driven contingency plan last April that envisioned a worst-case scenario of 80 students). The atmosphere on campus is exceptional. Students are buying in to what we are trying to accomplish. They go to class, do their homework, and advocate for one another just like you would want mature Christians to do. It has been a great year.
Our ministry is designed for 130 FLBC students. Our “break even” point financially is about 115, and we have dedicated resources to help us through until we get there. But our ministry scales easily to 150 without any building and only limited staff additions. We technically hold 160 by health department standards, but our male/female ratio is never quite right, so we call 150 “full.” If we build two dorms, we can hold 300, the maximum allowed by our agreement with the city. I refuse to believe that there are not 150 people per year in the world who need what we have to offer. We just have to find them. For now, without future building, 80 students per year gets us full, and operating at prime efficiency. I agree with our founders that the best way to encourage health and strength in the AFLC is a full Bible College.
Financially, FLBCS is in good shape. Please don’t read that as “FLBCS doesn’t need your financial support.” We are in good financial shape BECAUSE you have given, and if you do not continue to do so, we will not be in good financial shape. You can find more on our financial position in the report of Larry Myhrer, VP of Operations, and in a brief “Opportunities to Give” brochure on our display table at Annual Conference. But allow me to summarize here.
FLS has always been well-supported, and never really financially independent. Real seminary education is expensive, and many of the expenses shared by the two programs are supported overwhelmingly by FLBC. That, along with increasingly large scholarship gifts and subsidized housing, makes seminary education at FLS not just possible, but one of the best values you can find. Additional enrollment helps our mission but does not affect the bottom line as much as one might think.
With FLBC enrollment is key. At 150 students we are at full capacity. At 130 we are firing on all cylinders. At 115 we break even. At 95… it’s a struggle, but we have been able to improve (not just maintain) by the grace of God, exceptional service of our workers, and dedicated gifts from people like you. Increased enrollment is even better than increased giving, for our mission is to establish students, not make money. If you send students, they become established in God’s Word, our Bible College thrives financially, and congregations and souls benefit from our shared success.
General giving to FLBC allows us to charge about 60% of what it actually costs to operate, and students benefit from ever-increasing gifts to scholarships, as well. If a student can save enough to pay for one semester (about $6000) in advance, they can graduate debt free in two years by working reasonable hours at a normal part time job while they attend FLBC. It is hard to find a less expensive place to go to college, and impossible to find a better value. Start here. Go anywhere. Grounded in God’s Word. And free of student loan debt.
The Student Life Center has been part of our budget for several years now, and our finances reflect maintenance, staffing, and debt service for the facility. We owe about $7M on a facility worth almost $10M and a campus that is probably worth three times that (we haven’t had a full appraisal in decades). The only debt we have is on this facility, and we have assets on our balance sheet that offset some of that debt. Further, we have a very low interest rate and both the means and the resolve to funnel every building-specific gift to the principal portion of our loan. Your continued giving toward the Student Life Center will make a big difference in our financial bottom line going forward. Every $100,000 given to the Student Life Center reduces our monthly debt service by about $500.
Our strong financial position depends on continued generous giving on your part. Four annual audits (of varying source and depth) verify that we are putting your gifts to work as you desire. We pledge to make the most out of every dollar you give to FLBCS. We invest God’s gifts wisely and prayerfully and are committed to accountability and transparency. If you have any questions or would like to know more about how to give to FLBCS, please contact Director of Donor Relations Sherry Mork. From one-time gifts, to long term pledges, to estate planning, if we can’t answer your question, we will point you to someone who can.
Minneapolis made national news way too much this year. Add that into a pandemic and soaring housing costs, and people weren’t exactly lining up in droves to move here from rural America. Those who wanted to come here this year REALLY wanted to come here this year. As one student told me, “I kind of think God is calling me here because of this time, not in spite of it.” I like that. I don’t want my kids growing up in fear of the mission field. I want to be safe, maybe more than what is reasonable or godly. But I don’t want to get to the place where people living in a certain ZIP code become objects of pity: “Oh well, stinks to be them. I’m getting out while I still can!”
This year showed us a lot about our society. I saw people living in fear of illness, trapped in homes without a way to get out and gain some sanity. I saw families of law enforcement feeling targeted and hated. I saw ethnic and religious minorities feeling… targeted and hated. I saw our confession maligned as the source of all these problems, rather than the solution that it is. And I saw people hiding behind our confession, using it as a shield to protect them from necessary criticism and/or correction. I saw people turning to the idol of politics to solve all of our problems. I saw people treating neighbors with beauty and respect, derision and indignation. I saw pastors and congregations handle all of this well and poorly, with some attempting to hold things together through congregational political compromise and others simply asking, “how do I nourish souls through this trying time?” It has been a hard year for all of us, and some more than others. There is going to be a lot of grief, trauma, and healing moving forward. Everyone needs a lot of grace right now, and maybe that’s a lesson we should cling to going forward.
Many challenges remain, including ongoing threats to religious liberty in our land. We are trying to train our students to suffer well, and for the right reasons. Being persecuted for trusting in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins is itself a bold confession. When we suffer, we should suffer for doing good, or for being people of Christ Jesus. There may come a day when our “blood of the martyrs” will become more literal, much as it is for our brethren in chains around the world. But for now, the persecution we face is the “diet” variety. Losing your job for your faith is no fun, and in the words of John Stonestreet (host of Breakpoint and friend of FLBCS), perhaps we need to develop a theology of getting fired, and to support those who do.
There may well be threats to FLBCS in the coming years, but please be assured that we will in no way cave to societal pressures to modify our ministry. We work hard to fulfill our mission every day, and better every year. We have no reason to exist outside of the mission to establish students in the Word of God for life in Jesus Christ. Or, to quote The Alliance Defending Freedom (a new friend of FLBCS), “Quit calling this place small. There is nothing small about your impact.”
Many have said, including me, “These are difficult days.” That may well be true, but this is OUR day. God has called us for this time and place. You were born for this. “We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls” (Hebrews 10:39). This is an exciting time to be a Christian, and God has positioned FLBCS to train souls for such a time as this.
Please pray for Free Lutheran Bible College and Seminary as we continue to establish students in the eternal and inerrant Word of God for a life of faith in Jesus Christ and faithful service in His kingdom. We can’t do this without you, and we are grateful to God for every prayer you offer, every dollar you invest, and every student that you send. What you are doing matters, and impacts God’s big kingdom every day, and that kingdom is big and powerful, both undefeated and undefeatable.
“The rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true; everything is going to be okay.”*
In Christ’s Love,
Rev. Dr. Wade Mobley President, Free Lutheran Bible College and Seminary
*benediction courtesy of Dr. Don van Voorhis, The Christian History Almanac podcast