Academia Anchored to Scripture
Although training pastors and missionaries remains a priority, Southwestern Assemblies of God University also prepares students for marketplace ministry.WAXAHACHIE, Texas — In the post since 2000, Kermit S. Bridges is now the longest-serving president in the 96-year history of Southwestern Assemblies of God University (SAGU). He also is the longest current tenured leader of any AG institution of higher education in the U.S.
Although at 64 Bridges has no intention of surpassing the longevity record held by Robert H. Spence (who led Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri, for 40 years before retiring in 2014), he would like to work through SAGU’s centennial in 2027.
The 70-acre campus on the sprawling flatlands just south of Dallas-Fort Worth is bordered by older modest homes. Waxahachie’s population has doubled to 43,000 during the time Bridges has been in office, as urban dwellers from the metroplex, as well as migrating Californians, seek to escape higher housing prices. Student enrollment mirrors the city’s demographics: 50% white, 25% Hispanic, 15% Black.
More than half of the buildings on campus have been constructed since Bridges arrived. Older structures — including the administration building that is on the National Register of Historic Places — have been refurbished inside and are well-appointed. Students have excellent choices of where to live, eat, and exercise. Niche, a college ranking company, has designated SAGU as the 14th safest campus in America.
Bridges spent most of his childhood and youth in Waxahachie, as his father, James K. Bridges, pastored University Assembly. When James later served as North Texas District superintendent, SAGU endured financial straits. Kermit’s mother, Joyce, rallied church prayer groups to come to campus. Kermit led an integral capital campaign at the school in the 1990s that helped SAGU turn the corner. James Bridges began a 15-year run as general treasurer for the U.S. AG in 1993 (he died in 2010). Both of Kermit’s parents plus all four grandparents were ordained AG ministers.
Remaining true to biblical and denominational roots is important for Bridges, who earlier spent 12 years in pastoral ministry. He points out that 94% of full-time faculty are AG.
“Our faculty are personally Spirit-filled, active members of an AG church, and supportive of our Fellowship’s positions on key issues addressed in position papers,” says Bridges, who has been an ordained AG minister since 1986, four years after graduating from the school. “At SAGU, you will not find faculty who are confused about the authority of Scripture and absolute truth; the sanctity of life; human sexuality and gender identity; theistic evolution; social drinking; and unscriptural social justice issues.”
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Still, SAGU doesn’t churn out only full-time pastors and missionaries. In fact, 55% of students aren’t ministry majors. A variety of the 45 programs introduced this century are not directly ministry related, such as criminal justice, sports management, digital media arts, and social work.
Around 200 students are education majors. There are nearly 300 business majors plus almost 40 graduate students earning management, marketing, and accounting degrees. Shelly Zadivar is business department chair and MBA graduate coordinator.
“We not only teach business, we teach marketplace ministry, which helps students understand wherever they are placed, they are representatives of Jesus to all they encounter,” says Zaldivar, 51. “Many people won’t set foot in church anymore, but our graduates, working professionally 40 hours a week, can share their faith over time.”
Kimberly J. Trewern, SAGU’s vice president for institutional effectiveness, notes that the school last year received the highest possible review from regional accrediting agency Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The SACSCOC reaffirmed SAGU’s decennial accreditation — with no recommendations.
“SAGU has faculty and staff who are not only competent experts in their field, they are deeply devoted to the mission of God,” says Trewern, 55. Trewern, who also is SAGU’s College of Communication Arts dean, says professors strive to not only prepare students academically, but for a marketplace career.
That resonates with vivacious Abby Cruz, a 20-year-old senior pursuing a psychology degree. She hopes to work bivocationally, as a speech pathologist as well as helping her parents, Tony and Maurisia Cruz, who pastor Templo Nazareth, an AG congregation in Seminole, Texas.
“SAGU’s focus is workplace ministry, so other people get to see the gospel,” Cruz says.
Even so, all students must take 18 hours of Bible and theology instruction, regardless of their major. The modern chapel in the Sheaffer Center, where students gather three mornings a week, seats 1,800. Students also have weekly devotionals in the six dormitories.
Bridges is convinced that residential instruction isn’t going anywhere soon.
“Many thought COVID remote learning was starting a trend that would see more residential learners opting for online, but that has not been our experience,” Bridges says. “The residential experience offers tremendous advantages to most traditional college-age students.”
Bridges acknowledges the pandemic blunted on-site learning and notes that fewer students may seek higher education in the near future because the number of teenagers is dwindling. Currently, SAGU has 1,800 students, including 1,099 on campus and at ministry partner sites, 337 online, and 303 in graduate programs.
“Like many small- to mid-sized Christian institutions, our business model is too dependent on enrollment revenue,” Bridges says. “Going forward, institutions will have to improve annual giving as well as seek out men and women with a heart for Christian higher education who will make significant legacy gifts for endowment growth, excellent facilities, and quality academic programs.”
Last year, SAGU announced a centennial initiative called the 2027 Project. The five-year plan will help raise funds for the operational budget. So far, $1 million has been donated. But it also will be spiritually focused, with one of the goals being to attract 100 prayer groups to campus during the span.
Rick Bowles, vice president for advancement, says stories published in university publications about the heritage and impact of the school have prompted donations from those who have no connection to SAGU. Bowles, 62, says God is providing unexpected resources for the school because faculty, staff, students, and alumni are showing a spirit of generosity in making recurring financial gifts. Bowles points to a prophetic word spoken on campus last spring about God’s plans for the school: “No government will stop it, no man will stop what I have established, it will continue because I the Lord established it. … I will supply the need for I have resources that you don’t know about.”
In the meantime, Bridges points out that a firm $4 million commitment is in place to erect a new education/business building. A new residential hall likewise is on the drawing board. He also notes that a dormitory and library are desperately needed at American Indian College, the Phoenix school that SAGU oversees.
Bridges is grateful for the impact that AIC makes to the kingdom of God, but is quick to point out the operation of the campus is a missionary endeavor that requires the entire Fellowship to step up and invest in the training of Native American young people.
Lately, Bridges has been dealing with the health crises of his wife of 38 years, Jan, who suffered cardiac arrest twice in January. Full recovery is expected. The couple’s two sons, James and Forrest, both graduated from SAGU.