It’s Sunday in Texas, but the influence of Abilene Christian University on churches around the world can be seen every day of the week, year-round. That’s the result of several generations of intentional work by a university that values its historical roots in Churches of Christ and aspires to be a valuable resource to them.
The past 20 or so years, a good bit of that influence was attributed to the late Dr. Charles Siburt (’68), in whose name the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry was established at ACU in September 2012. Chancellor Dr. Royce Money (’64) serves as executive director of the institute.
How did the institute come to be named for Dr. Charles Siburt?
In the summer of 2012, Dr. Phil Schubert (’91), our president, asked me to do an assessment of ACU’s church relations and make some recommendations to him. Coming out of a ministry background myself, I was more than glad to accept the task.
My recommendation to him was that we create an institute that would focus primarily on keeping a vital link between ACU and its constituency through local congregational leaders. Phil and I both agreed that an institute of this kind must bear the name of the man who did more for church relations than anyone at ACU – Dr. Charles Siburt.
Charlie’s nickname was “the church doctor.” He had an unusual gift of being able to see the whole of a troubled situation, speak the truth in love to those involved, and walk with them toward resolution. Charlie has helped hundreds of churches find just the right minister, and he has helped ministers to find a good place for the exercise of their gifts.
Although church relations have always been important at ACU, the Siburt Institute just began in Fall 2012. What prompted formalizing ACU’s church relations into an institute?
Charlie was diagnosed with cancer about four years ago and died in July 2012. During the final year of his life, he and I had several conversations about the future of church relations at ACU.
We both knew that his time was limited, and the outreach to churches and leaders would need to change. So we began to plan for that transition. He believed, as I do, that church outreach and influence in the future is going to look quite different in its delivery than it did 10 years ago, or even five. For ACU, we concluded that it meant leveraging the tremendous human resources we have at the university, refocusing on our relationship to our church constituency, and making the information and services we provide reachable on a global scale. The neat thing is that Charlie was able to be in on some of the planning sessions of that larger vision.
As chancellor and former president of ACU, you come to church relations with a unique perspective. How did your years as president prepare you for this role?
When I left ACU in 1967 with a Master of Divinity degree, my plans were to preach in a local congregation for the rest of my life. Soon after I began full-time preaching, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in religion at Baylor University, but I still ministered in congregations of Churches of Christ throughout that time and for several years afterward. Then in the mid-1970s, I began to have occasional opportunities to teach on the college level in part-time adjust capacities. I loved it! In 1981, I was invited to accept an invitation to join the Bible faculty at ACU.
Coming from a background of church ministry, I knew the tremendous impact ACU had on my life, and I knew the influence the Christian education environment provided for both Pam and me. We saw the multiplying effect being in a place like ACU can have on the lives of many students who come our way.
As president, I was keenly aware of the Stone-Campbell Restoration tradition out of which Churches of Christ came. I saw first-hand the mutual relationship between churches and the university – not by control but by influence. Since those early decades, our influence has spread around the world, and in true Restoration fashion, it now positively affects Christians from a variety of backgrounds. This realization I formed while serving as president has given me a head start in casting a vision for the Siburt Institute that truly has global implications for the Kingdom.
Why is an institute such as this important for ACU?
It is important because it declares in an overt and concrete way that part of our mission at ACU is to serve churches by providing for them a variety of resources, including graduates who are active in the ministry of Christian involvement and influence. As Dr. Don H. Morris (’24), one of our former presidents, used to say, “ACU is not the church, but we exist to serve the church.” Broadly defined today, I think he is exactly right.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities inherent today with coordinating communication between Christian universities and autonomous Churches of Christ?
Our particular way of organizing ourselves into a fellowship by way of independent, self-governing congregations certainly has its challenges. It makes communication more difficult, for instance, because there is no central government, conference or convention. And a certain degree of tolerance needs to be observed on all sides that allows for differences within the various congregations. (We struggle with that one from time to time.) But this free-church tradition of church polity in Churches of Christ also has its strengths. Control is at the local congregational level, not in a denominational headquarters. Leaders are chosen from among the congregation, not by an external entity. Each congregation is free to follow God’s Word as they believe it is revealed. There are challenges, but to me, the strengths and opportunities outnumber them.
What are some of the primary events and resources the institute provides?
By far, the most popular link on our website is the one we call MinistryLink: Preachers Looking for Churches and Churches Looking for Preachers. I just call it the “Looking” service for short. We also maintain a list of congregations and ministers who prefer not to be listed on the website but who are interested in our placement service. A committee of eight of us who are faculty from the College of Biblical Studies meets twice a month to consider each listing individually. Then one of us stays in periodic contact with the person or congregation until the placement is successfully resolved. We also provide a variety of retreats for church leaders, both on campus and at other sites. Education of Christian leaders of all types is high on our list, and we use several mediums to meet that need, such as video, face-to-face, online written material, short seminars, etc. ElderLink is a weekend workshop staffed by a team of ACU professionals who want to help leaders be more effective in local congregations. We do three or four of these a year at various sites around the nation. We had one May 31 – June 1 (Leadership Oasis: A Brief Retreat for Elders and their Wives), and another is planned for July 8-10 (Rest Stop: Renewal for Ministry Couples) – both on the ACU campus. We also are in the process of building a significant resource section of our website that will contain a variety of material suitable for adult Bible class curriculum. Most of the material is authored by ACU Bible faculty.
How are you reaching out to churches that might not already be involved with ACU and using its resources?
We are in email contact regularly with more than 5,000 church leaders and other members. On occasion we partner with other ministries of similar mission to broaden our scope of influence. For example, beginning next fall we will be partnering with CitySquare, an urban ministry in Dallas, to provide several brief workshops for ministers, pastors and elders in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Of course, word of mouth is a great way to spread the news about the many services of the Siburt Institute. Our contact list and our website views are growing every month.
Are there new projects or events on the horizon, or are you focused more on developing current programs?
We are constantly looking for ways to expand our services to church leaders. I have an informal group of ministers and elders I consult from time to time to find out what their needs are. For example, I am currently working on a video with a healthcare consultant concerning what every full-time minister should know about how the Affordable Healthcare Act will affect their personal health care coverage. We see ourselves as connectors to others who have information our readers need to know about.
You’re now three years removed from your previous and somewhat-more-public role with ACU. How has that transition been?
The short answer is that the transition has gone predictably and well. I have told Dr. Phil Schubert and the board that I will do whatever I can to help them advance the cause of ACU, because I believe more than ever in our mission. The things I don’t miss are those endless budget meetings, the difficult daily decisions that have to be made, and the 24/7 relentless nature of the job. The ACU presidency is the hardest thing I have ever done, but it also is the most rewarding. I loved being president of ACU! On the other hand, it was time for me to make the transition to chancellor, and Pam and I are adjusting to a new period of our lives.
Are you experiencing any withdrawal symptoms from a 19-year presidency?
I don’t know about that, but Pam has jokingly said that I have “flunked” retirement! There is certainly plenty to do as chancellor and as the founding executive director of the Siburt Institute. Occasionally, I miss being in the middle of things, but I am really enjoying my new role. The students and alumni have been really kind to us, and we have more time for those wonderful visits, some planned and some by chance. God has richly blessed us with a rare opportunity to be connected to Abilene Christian in some way for more than 50 years. Pam and I cannot imagine our life without ACU. That blessed feeling will be with us forever.
— Robin Saylor
June 23, 2013