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2008 Conversations

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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 going anywhere.

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 a focus.

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 Bethany?

SHELTON: We welcome people to visit 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 for a podcast of this interview.

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