ELLENDALE, North Dakota — South African natives Paul and Carol Anne Alexander led institutions of higher learning on three continents before walking onto the subfreezing campus of Trinity Bible College in January 2012.
For seven years, the couple, who both hold doctorates, led Mattersey Hall College and Graduate School in England, the largest Pentecostal institution in Europe. Carol anticipated their next ministry assignment would be in the United States, perhaps with quick access to the warm beaches of Florida, California, or Hawaii.
Then Paul came to speak at spiritual emphasis gatherings on the campus of the Assemblies of God Bible college.
Trinity is located in Ellendale, a town of 1,280 residents on the southeastern North Dakota prairie. The nearest Walmart and McDonald’s are 40 minutes away — in another state. The publication 24/7 Wall Street this year dubbed Ellendale the poorest town in North Dakota.
“I knew God wouldn’t send us here,” recalls Carol, who has lived in the metropolises of London and Johannesburg. “Ellendale is in the middle of nowhere.”
Yet when the board, already mulling shuttering the school, asked Paul to be Trinity’s new president, he sensed God leading him to accept.
“Against all our natural inclinations, we came with a deep conviction,” Paul says. “Over 80 percent of Bible revelation took place in the dry and barren wilderness.”
When he agreed, Alexander didn’t fully realize the direness of the situation: student enrollment down to 170 from an all-time high of 400; deteriorating campus buildings condemned or closed; hundreds of thousands of dollars in invoices left unpaid; a school placed on academic probation; loss of regional accreditation.
Today, Trinity has new life: enrollment up five consecutive years to a total of 268; a graduate school operating; recently hired fervent faculty and staff; curriculum guided by a missions emphasis; and five buildings renovated or constructed — all without incurring any further debt.
FINDING A NICHE
Alexander traces the turnaround to instituting a half-hour coffee (and tea for internationals) break every morning for employees. Everyone from department chairs to custodians gathers in the Commons, an expansive area with comfy couches and voluminous chairs in the three-story Davidson Hall, a 107-year-old central administration building mothballed for a decade by the time Alexander arrived. Vibrant discussions take place, with an atmosphere akin to a postgraduate seminar every morning. Several of the teachers are young TBC grads themselves, and many are furthering their education.
“This room healed our institution,” Alexander proclaims. “Drinking coffee together is important to our mission together.”
After leading institutions in Africa, Europe, and Australia, Alexander reckoned that Trinity had so little natural appeal it needed to find a niche.
“Students will stay because of the care of a professor and an aesthetically pleasing environment,” Alexander says. The school has an enviable student to teacher ratio of 11:1. Student after student on campus refers to the family atmosphere of the school. Young people who stay on site over Thanksgiving eat at some professor’s home for the holiday.
The Alexanders do a fair bit of entertaining students in their beautiful remodeled 100-year-old Victorian home adjacent to campus. Students have few social or recreational outlets in Ellendale, where several Main Street storefronts have for sale signs in the window.
Trinity opened Oct. 18, 1948, in Devils Lake, and after a couple of other stops, relocated for the final time in 1972 to Ellendale. The college paid $1 for a former branch campus of the University of North Dakota.
Under Alexander’s helm, the school is back on stable financial footing. New or renovated facilities include an arts building that includes a prayer chapel, a modern fitness center, updated classrooms, and a just-opened student union with a coffee bar. This school year, for the first time, all classrooms are connected by enclosed walkways so students don’t have to face bitter cold winter air (the average January high is 21 degrees).
Longtime donors such as business-minded brothers Jon and Si Liechty have kept the college afloat for years. But others have climbed aboard upon seeing Alexander’s vision for the school, including many U.S. Mission American Placement Service RV Volunteers donating their building skills. As many as 20 recreational vehicles have parked on campus simultaneously during construction and renovation.
“We’re working toward resilience, not just viability,” Alexander says.
Ian Francis O’Brien, Trinity’s executive vice president, says the school is more reliant on contributions than the average AG college.
“We’ve had significant, miraculous gifts propel us forward,” says the 50-year-old O’Brien, who grew up in South Africa. “This president’s vision has enthused students and alumni alike. We have a long way to go, but in a time when many Bible colleges have closed, our turnaround has been amazing.”
While affordability is important for students to keep attending, Alexander believes perceived value for the price is even more essential.
That’s why students tempted by free athletic rides elsewhere sometimes choose to enroll at Trinity — which awards no scholarships for its basketball, cross country, football, or volleyball programs. Although Trinity draws students from 36 states, 70 percent hail from the upper Midwest, and most of those lived in small towns.
But it’s the missions emphasis these days that rouses parents, students, alumni, and benefactors. Every Trinity student goes on a mission trip — every year.
Go Trips are global ventures voluntarily led by faculty or staff. The campus shuts down for 10 days in the spring as students scatter from Australia to Egypt. Students must finance trips themselves. The mission focus of the school is much different than when Garrett A. Freier, director of student ministries, graduated in 2004.
“Back then, the goal was to teach people how to pastor,” says Freier, 37. “Now it’s how do you serve the Lord as a businessperson or whatever your profession.”
Madison Pennington, whose father, Greg, is pastor of Lisbon Assembly of God in Ohio, is a senior who hopes to become a teacher on the mission field. She believes the ministerial, academic, and involvement scholarships she received at Trinity made her tuition lower than what it would have been at a state school in Ohio. While Pennington will graduate with a biblical studies degree, she believes the mission trips have been just as vital to her academic experience.
“Go Trips give people confidence in Jesus,” says Pennington, 23. “They can transform lives.”
Carol Alexander leads the school’s innovative graduate school, implemented in 2014 and growing every year. The grad school’s foundation stems in part from courses introduced by the Alexanders at Mattersey Hall in England. Now there are 68 Trinity graduate students. A master’s in global theology exposes students to divergent political and religious views in the United Kingdom, South Africa, India, and Jordan.
The majority of those registered in the global theology program already are pastors and ministry leaders. That includes Kay Burnett, director of Assemblies of God National Women’s Ministries.
“We travel to four locations to study the impact of historical events, people, and places that have helped shape theology across the world,” Burnett says. “The Alexanders have a big vision for the school. God has answered financial prayers.”
Especially in the graduate school, learning happens beyond the classroom.
“If you spend half an hour nursing a baby in Africa born with HIV/AIDS in a home without sanitation, it has more of an impact than reading about it in a book,” says Carol, whose own memoir, Wild Hope, is on sale in the campus bookstore. “If a mission trip doesn’t touch a student’s heart, that student isn’t going to change the world for Jesus.”
In addition, Trinity Graduate School offers a master’s in missional leadership, which meets on campus quarterly for four days, as well as a unique master’s in rural ministry, quarterly gatherings in various bucolic settings.
Winston G. Titus, superintendent of the AG North Dakota District, became one of the first to earn a graduate degree at the school. Titus served as vice president of administration at Trinity from 2011 to 2015.
“It was the first time I saw that significant of a challenge, where there was no humanly possible way to turn it around,” says Titus, 62. “But Paul and Carol have great vision, and money follows vision. They are two of the most charming, kind, gracious, Christlike people I’ve ever met.”
MORE TO ACCOMPLISH
Although headhunters come calling from time to time, Alexander, at 63, has committed to stay at the helm for a major five-year plan the school implemented a short time ago. If he stays that long, Alexander will have served longer than any president at the Ellendale location except for the first, Roy Wead (1968-82).
“I naively thought the turnaround would take three years,” Alexander says. “But it needs at least 10 years to last. We will see out our working lives at Trinity, and we’re completely comfortable with that.”
Among the projects on the horizon: renovating the cafeteria, refurbishing dormitories, expanding master’s courses, adding a doctoral program. One of his immediate goals is for TBC to regain regional accreditation by 2020. National accreditation with the Association of Biblical Higher Education has been restored.
Alexander is confident on-site enrollment will continue to grow, despite the growing trend of online education across the nation. He believes the student body could number 500 by 2023.
“We can’t train the next generation of ministry leaders by alternative methods,” Alexander declares. “We need laboratories and the ancient biblical principle of community. Something happens when people come together to learn.”
Titus has no qualms about Alexander achieving further goals.
“The students who are graduating are exceptional, and the president is all about getting innovative people involved in ministry,” Titus says. “He sees missions as bigger than filling the pulpits of South Dakota and North Dakota. His relentless goal is to reach the world.”
After six-plus years, Carol, 62, has come to appreciate the place. The campus has a steady stream of visitors, plus she travels extensively for work.
“This quiet space is almost monastic,” she says. “That will sustain the souls of students years into the future. I certainly don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything living here.”