By Marvin Elliott, Johnson University Florida Executive Vice President (2020–present)

In all three of my teaching disciplines—speech, Biblical studies, and leadership studies—the word “apology” has a meaning that does not involve saying, “I’m sorry.” An apology is a formal defense or justification of a particular belief or practice. In so many ways, my life and career have been an apology for Stone-Campbell movement Christian higher education. My first two degrees were earned at independent Christian church institutions; I have taught and led at two Christian church institutions; I have consulted with others; and I have observed many of them from a distance.

I currently serve as executive vice president at Johnson University Florida. I am the third (and final) of three administrators who have served and led Johnson’s Florida campus over the decade of Johnson’s operation in Kissimmee.

I came to Christian church higher ed leadership 10 years ago after 25 years of church ministry and 10 years of teaching and leading in a state college. But the 35 years it took me to arrive in Christian higher ed were excellent preparation for what I consider my life’s calling—to serve and lead in higher education institutions that seek (as Johnson phrases it) “to educate students for Christian ministry and other strategic vocations framed by the Great Commission in order to extend the kingdom of God among all nations.”

That mission—at Johnson and at other like-minded institutions—is so very important to the future of the church. It pains me to see another institution of the Christian church close its doors. It pains me even more to admit that it is the one I lead.

So how do I feel about what’s happening? What are my observations?

I believe Johnson has done some things exceedingly well in Florida. We have graduated more than 300 students in the “Johnson years” in Kissimmee, adding to the thousands who graduated from our predecessor institution. While over a hundred of those have graduated from our ministry programs, I am just as proud of those who are now involved in the marketplace as Christians working in business, counseling, education, and other strategic vocations.

I am proud of the diversity of our Florida campus. Over the last decade, the students at Johnson University Florida have come to look much more like the students of the state in which we are located. This fall, approximately seven in ten JUFL students are students of color. Just two years ago, the campus achieved the 25% Latino benchmark necessary to become a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). The young people of growing Christian churches across Florida are a diverse group, and I am proud that JUFL students reflect that diversity.

Unfortunately, we did not experience a breakthrough in student recruitment. We have accomplished many of the items on my “to do” list for the Florida campus. We have not, however, achieved what we needed to in recruitment. Enrollment had been up and down for a number of years, and then the pandemic hit. We had two extremely small freshman classes in 2020 and 2021, and 2022 was only slightly improved. The progress we needed to make on increasing enrollment did not materialize.

Serving at Johnson University Florida has been a personal blessing. I have been honored to follow in the footsteps of David Eubanks and Michael Chambers as the on-site leader of the Florida campus. I have known Dr. Eubanks since I was a teenager, and I am grateful for the encouragement I have received from both of these capable leaders. Needless to say, I have appreciated the opportunity to lead alongside my friend and Johnson’s president, Tommy Smith.

With no personal history in Florida, getting to know the churches and ministers of this state has been a profound blessing. As of this writing, I have made 188 visits to 102 different churches since arriving in Kissimmee in May 2020.

Along with so many of our students, staff, and stakeholders, I am grieving. My wife and I have devoted a full measure of effort to this educational ministry, and we regret to see it close. The importance of Christian higher education, however, is not diminished.

Faith, prayer, and work continue—maybe not for much longer at 1011 Bill Beck Boulevard, but certainly at 7900 Johnson Drive. It is important work that deserves our enthusiastic and faithful support.