Conversation: Lew Shelton
Keeping the Mission in Focus
Lew Shelton serves as president of Bethany University in
Scotts Valley, Calif. Bethany is the oldest of the 19 endorsed Assemblies of
God colleges and universities, beginning in San Francisco in 1919 as Glad
Tidings Bible Institute. Shelton, a Bethany alumnus, served in Assemblies of
God ministry posts for some 40 years before returning to Bethany in 2008 to
lead the university. He recently spoke with Bob Cook, the executive vice
president of the Alliance for Assemblies of God Higher Education, and Ken Horn,
editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
evangel: How did it feel when you returned to Bethany as
president of your alma mater?
SHELTON: It was a “knees and toes” experience, the kind of
feeling that will put you on your knees and keep you on your toes. My years at
Bethany were precious times. Friendships I developed then remain dear to me to
this day. I didn’t feel worthy to have the responsibilities that the office of
president invests upon you. I’m not an academician; I’m a pastor and leader.
But God’s been very, very gracious. I’m still on my knees and still on my toes,
but that’s exactly where I need to be.
evangel: Bethany recently reached a major milestone with
regard to accreditation.
SHELTON: Bethany had experienced a difficult history over
the last 20 years, and was in danger of losing accreditation. A college without
accreditation is absolutely useless. It’s a rowboat without oars; you’re not
Northern California-Nevada District Superintendent Jim
Braddy serves as the chairman of the board at Bethany, and he led a strategic
planning strategy to pull in faculty and staff to articulate a future for the
school. We came on board a couple of months after that process was started and
found a camaraderie already developing here. In the process of our work
together, the review team from WASC, the Western Association of Schools and
Colleges, came for review in October. We were awarded five years’ full
accreditation with WASC.
People have said to me, “Lew, to go from zero to five is
impossible.” Well, that only lets you know who’s really in charge here. It’s
our Lord, and He absolutely loves to do the impossible. When things are at
their worst, that’s when He becomes His best.
evangel: Bethany has always made a priority of training
future pastors and missionaries. Could you talk about that focus?
SHELTON: When I was here in the ’60s, we were Bethany Bible
College. Since then, wonderful schools of discipline have been added. As a
university serving many students’ needs, we have no intention of taking the
chainsaw and cutting off all those limbs of the tree. We are very grateful for
what God has given to us in wonderful departments with great faculty members
who are giving excellent education to young men and women who are following a
variety of God-chosen careers.
We want to continue to augment and enhance those offerings,
but they cannot be the driving force, the central piece to this institution. We
need to have our own uniqueness, if you will. And our uniqueness is tied to
that primary ministry focus throughout the university’s history. We’re not
emphasizing ministry to create uniqueness; we’re doing this because we are
unique and we need to return to that.
evangel: How do you bring both of those worlds together
— the variety of academic disciplines you offer and the foundational
atmosphere of spiritual growth that you nurture?
SHELTON: That’s the on-going tension, if I can use that
word, within what we do. They are not mutually exclusive, and that’s the first
thing I want to state. I think that too often in our own history as a
Fellowship, education and spirituality were almost seen as contrary interests.
I don’t believe that’s true. I think all you have to do is look at the apostle
Paul who was one of the most brilliant men of his day yet probably the most
spiritually influential person in the entire New Testament outside of Christ
himself. So they’re not mutually exclusive.
First of all, Bethany is a place of higher education. In
other words, when students come here, they come to get an education. This is
not a youth camp. They didn’t come here to attend a revival. We have to
understand that they are paying a lot of money to get an education that’s going
to prepare them to do what they believe God has called them to do with their
lives. We want to keep that as a priority because we don’t want to misuse who
we are as an institution. We’re not a replacement for the church. We’re not a
revivalist center. We are a school of higher education. So that needs to remain
But that does not mean that we are not a place where people
have encounters with God. The majority of alumni that I interviewed since my
coming to Bethany have reminded me that it was here in a lonely hour when
everyone else was in bed that they were in a chapel crying out to God about
their own lives, and He met them there — or in a chapel service, or in a
Bible study. It was some kind of encounter that they had with the Almighty here
on this campus that not only changed their lives, but also set in motion
everything that they were going to become.
We want to create an environment, and are striving to create
an environment for every student, where there is an infusion of our
Christianity and our spirituality in every class. In other words, classes begin
with prayer, we teach subjects from a biblical perspective, and there is
constant conversation about what Christ would have us do. How does this affect
the kingdom of God at large? How do we transform the things that we believe
scripturally into mandates for our lives? So there’s an infusion of
Christianity and spirituality in the academic offerings that we have.
We’re seeing lives changed. This last year, for example, we
had five young people who shared with us that they had given their hearts to
Jesus Christ. We had nine that we baptized in water. We had another near dozen
who were baptized in the Holy Spirit. These were students just in the process
of chapel who were coming to us from different church backgrounds, who possibly
did not totally embrace all that we represented, but who found the realities of
Christ here while they were seeking an education. Now for me, that’s what we’re
here to do.
evangel: Where can readers find more information about
SHELTON: We welcome people to visit Bethany.edu or to call
us at 831-438-3800.
I would just love to have people contact us. One of the
greatest blessings is to have people say, “We’re praying for you.” That’s one
of the great things that we’ve experienced, the care, concern, partnership and
affirmation by the people of God. They have made this job worth more than I can
put into words.
ONLINE: Visit pe.ag.org for a podcast of this interview.
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