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Strength Through Diversity

Vanguard University is growing by looking much different than it did at the beginning of the century.

COSTA MESA, California — Raised in a non-Christian home, the first exposure 18-year-old Michael J. Beals had to biblical faith involved attending a church service at Vallejo First Assembly with full-blown Pentecostal distinctives: prophetic utterances, speaking in tongues, and tongues interpretation.

“The presence of the Lord was so real, so authentic,” recalls Beals. Later that same year of 1977, Beals enrolled at Vanguard University, the Assemblies of God school in Costa Mesa, California, where he soon sensed a call to full-time ministry. At the time, the institution then known as Southern California College, had 500 students.

“I knew the Lord wanted me here,” says the cerebral Beals. His father, an electrical contractor, didn’t share the sentiment. His parents wouldn’t pay for his tuition at a Christian school, so Beals found a 40-hour-a- week job and borrowed to pay for his education. He met his wife, Faith, at the school and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in youth ministry and psychology in 1981. A master’s degree in church leadership followed in 1989, the same year he became a full-time senior pastor.

In all, he spent 23 years pastoring Mission Hills Community Church in Rancho Santa Margarita, while obtaining a second master’s and his doctorate in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. Along the way, he spent years as a professor at both Vanguard and Fuller.

After serving for a year as Vanguard’s dean of spiritual formation, in August 2013 Beals became president of his alma mater, initially shepherding Vanguard through financial straits that are now less choppy. Beals credits predecessor Carol A. Taylor making difficult, but necessary, structural and financial decisions.

Faculty and staff at Vanguard today routinely credit the personable Beals with paying down debt, rebuilding the infrastructure, and growing the school’s endowment. The university has made significant strides in improving financial sustainability by diversifying and strengthening streams of revenue, including income from growing enrollment, philanthropy, and investments. This has resulted in net assets increasing from $3 million in 2010 to $41 million today. Endowment now tops $10 million, versus just over $3 million when Beals arrived as president.

During the past decade, Vanguard has made significant strides in paying down debt. Although debt remains, Beals explains that it is more manageable since the school refinanced loans in 2014. The physically imposing Beals, who stands 6 feet, 5 inches tall, realizes that facilities need to be continually improved, lest donors close their checkbooks.

“Debt itself is not intrinsically problematic,” says Beals, an energetic and youthful-looking 63. “We exercised fiscal discipline to get to a place where we could expand operations and fundraise more. We’ve repaired the breach.”

Subsequently, contributors have regained confidence, in part because there is an endowment component attached to every capital campaign.

The centerpiece of new development is a $24 million student center, which includes a state-of-the-art fitness center, opened last year. As with any building project on campus 80% of the funds had been raised or pledged before construction started.

In 2019, the school adopted its first 30-year campus master plan, which includes seven new buildings on the drawing board. A couple of World War II-era barracks remain on the picturesque campus from the air base days.

“We’re still pretty conservative financially, but the risk appetite of the board has increased as the management team has demonstrated vision and stewardship,” Beals says.

The student body has noticeably transformed during the time Beals has led the school, to the point where it now is 49% of incoming first-year students this fall are Hispanic, compared to 34% the year Beals started as president. Beals says the composition is more reflective of the overall Southern California population. Federal grants have helped the school expand educational opportunities for Hispanics while providing benefits for all students.

Vanguard is the oldest surviving AG school, launched in 1920 with the singular purpose of training women and men for ministry and missions. It has been at the current 40-acre campus location since 1950, when it became the first four-year school in Orange County. Back then, lima bean fields surrounded the campus, which took over the decommissioned Santa Ana Army Air Base. Now Vanguard is part of the sixth largest county in the nation. With nearly 3.2 million residents, Orange County is more populous than 17 U.S. states.

The landscape of palm and mesquite trees, brick walkways, and Santa Barbara mission architecture, combined with magnificent Southern California weather, allows students to access outdoor study spaces most of the time.

All students are required to take five courses of Bible and theology, but the most popular majors are business, psychology, kinesiology, communications, and biological sciences. Beals believes Vanguard doesn’t have to choose whether to focus on spiritual or liberal arts instruction.

“We are unwaveringly committed to ministry training, but we also recognize developing the worldview and the skill set for living life and articulating faith in ways of a vocational calling students have,” Beals says. “We prepare missionaries and ministers. On the other hand, everybody is a minister.”

The school bucked the pandemic enrollment panic, and achieved a record traditional undergraduate enrollment of 1,768 last year.

“My vision is for Vanguard to be the leading source of Christian higher education in California,” Beals says. “One of the reasons students are coming to us is that there are a dwindling number of schools staying true to promoting conduct codes that really reflect biblical values.”

Since its first year 101 years ago — when women attained the right to vote — females traditionally have outnumbered men on campus, to the point where two-thirds of undergraduates and four-fifths of graduate students are women. These days, the various women seek ministerial training at Vanguard often hail from denominations that won’t train them.

“Gender equality is one of the distinctives of Pentecostals,” Beals says. “Men and women are complementary in the way they reflect the image of God.”

About 75% of the student body come from within a 100-mile radius. Around 40% are the first in their family ever to attend college. The majority of undergraduate program growth has been in traditional on-campus programs, but distance learning also is playing an important role.

“More students are migrating online because of the convenience of it,” says Renea Brathwaite, dean of the Vanguard School of Professional Studies. Braithwaite, a Barbados native, says Vanguard has developed partnerships with a variety of schools and organizations.

“Our identity is in Christ, not in our ethnicity,” says Braithwaite, 48. “But we need to ask how we can do better in our curriculum offerings in light of our rapidly changing demographic. Justice, equality, and peacemaking are reasons for what we do. We’re learning from our diverse population how to be agents of God’s peace in the midst of a world that is polarized.”

Vanguard is drawing unprecedented numbers of non-AG students. Braithwaite says just over 20% of students have AG ties, with more than a third identifying as nondenominational.

“We can’t assume that students know what youth camp is, or even that some may they have a church experience,” Braithwaite says. ”We need to take a robust approach to all the ways we may have been blind to a person who is not like us.”

“As a Pentecostal university, we tell students we’re not asking them to change when they come here,” Beals explains. “But we also say don’t ask us to change to keep you here.”

Theology Department Chair John Mark Robeck, is grateful that the student mix includes students from various Christian faith backgrounds.

“It creates wonderful opportunities for healthy conversations,” says Robeck, who attended the school a quarter century ago when enrollees were 90% white and 70% AG. “We want to emphasize Spirit empowerment.”

“For a lot of students, it may be the first time they talk about theology with people of a different tradition,” says April D. Westbrook, professor of Old Testament, who notes that Catholic students come from the perspective of a different canon. “But we are up front that we’re Pentecostals.”

Half the theological faculty are women, including Westbrook, who also teaches a women in ministry course.

“Some students come from a denominational background where they have never seen a woman in a leadership role,” says Westbrook, an ordained AG minister. “Women often feel called to ministry in a tradition that doesn’t allow it.”

Westbrook, 56, says many women are ambiguous about full-time ministry plans, even if they feel called, because they haven’t had role models.

“I want our students to know their calling, whatever it is: vocational ministry or salt and light in the workplace,” Westbrook says.

More Vanguard graduates are entering careers as denominational or nongovernmental nonprofit missionaries, according to Robeck, 47.

“I’m excited about the increase in diversity here as we respond to global needs,” says Robeck, whose AG roots extended back more than a century. His father is scholar Mel Robeck Jr., a Fuller Seminary faculty member since 1974.

Racial diversity isn’t such a divisive issue on campus, where 61% of the student body are ethnic minorities. The percentage of ethnic minority faculty has doubled during Beals’ tenure, to 26%, but he is hopeful about hiring more as openings arise.

“It is important that students see themselves represented across every level of the university: faculty, staff, and administration,” Beals says.

At chapel services, the worship teams represent a plethora of skin shades. Some of the choruses are sung in Spanish.

Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Chip Espinoza is among the creative minds Beals has brought to the school. Espinoza, a noted author whose books include Managing the Millennials and Millennials@Work, says many ministry-minded young adults in America have taken their talents to nonsectarian jobs due to limited opportunities caused by “demographic metabolism” — the elderly refusing to retire from the pulpit.

“Young people are just as passionate about ministry, but they feel baby boomers don’t trust them enough,” says Espinoza, 59. “We have to emphasize a good vocational theology — we’re all ministers.”

Thus, the core curriculum should view schoolteachers, nurses, psychologists, and other nonsectarian professions as marketplace ministers, he says.

“I don’t know that the model of vocational ministry is sustainable in the world of tomorrow,” says Espinoza, who is frequently on the road as a keynote speaker to a variety of professional groups. “COVID-19 has accelerated the need to populate our churches with lay ministers.”

John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.