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The Students God “Led” to Attend Midwestern Baptist College

bruce and polly gerencser 1976
Freshman class, Midwestern Baptist College, Pontiac, Michigan 1976

Polly and I were reminiscing the other night about some of the people we attended college with from 1976-1979 at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. Midwestern was started in 1954 by Tom Malone, pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church. Both the college and the church were diehard Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) institutions. In its heyday in the 70s, Midwestern had 400 or so students. Today, the college has a handful of students, and rumor has it that Midwestern might be closing its doors. At one time, Emmanuel was one of the largest churches in the United States. Beginning in the 1980s, the church and the college faced precipitous attendance declines, so much so that the church went out of business and sold its campus. While the college remains on life support, its campus was sold to developers, and the dormitory Polly and I called home for two years was converted into efficiency apartments. Currently, Midwestern holds classes at Shalom Baptist Church in Orion, Michigan. Its website has not been updated since early 2020.

While Midwestern required students to have a high school diploma to enroll, what mattered most was two things:

  • A recommendation from the student’s pastor (often a graduate of Midwestern himself)
  • A testimony of personal salvation

I was a high school dropout. Some day, I will share why I dropped out of high school after the eleventh grade. Midwestern accepted me as a “provisional student.” I had to prove my freshman year that I could do college-level work. My provisional status was never mentioned again. I had a grudging recommendation (another story for another day) from Jack Bennett, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bryan, Ohio — the church I attended before enrolling at Midwestern. What mattered the most was my personal salvation testimony. Further, I testified to the fact that God had called me to preach at age fifteen as a member of Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio (an IFB congregation affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship).

Outside of the high school diploma requirement, there were no other academic prerequisites. None. No entrance exams, no English proficiency requirements. All a student needed was a good word from his or her pastor and a correctly constructed testimony of faith in Jesus Christ.

The paucity of academic requirements resulted in Midwestern enrolling students that were unable to do college work. What made matters worse was the fact that Midwestern was an unaccredited institution. This meant that students either had to have enough money to pay their tuition and room and board (such students were called “Momma Called, Daddy Sent”) or they had to secure employment to earn enough money to pay their college bills. I did the latter, working full-time jobs during my three years at Midwestern. Polly worked a combination of part-time jobs. We lived — literally — from hand to mouth. While Midwestern had a rudimentary cafeteria, it served one meal a day, lunch. The dorm had what was commonly called the “snack room.” It was here that students “cooked” their meals, not on a stove, but in a microwave. Students were not permitted to have cooking appliances of any kind in their rooms. Cafeteria aside, dorm students had three options: fine dining in the snack room, eating junk food/out of a can in their rooms, or going out to eat at a fast-food restaurant. Most students, if they had the money, chose the latter.

Midwestern enrolled students from IFB churches all across the country. Many of the students came from churches pastored by men who were graduates of Midwestern. Churches within the IFB church movement often congregate along tribal lines — namely what colleges pastors attended. Thus, Bob Jones-trained pastors sent their students to Bob Jones University, Hyles-trained pastors sent their students to Hyles-Anderson College, and Midwestern-trained pastors sent their students to Midwestern Baptist College. (Please see Let’s Go Camping: Understanding Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Camps.) Pastors who sent lots of students to their alma mater were often rewarded with honorary doctorates. (Please see IFB Doctorates: Doctor, Doctor, Doctor, Everyone’s a Doctor.) Pastor loyalties changed if they had some sort of falling out with the college that trained them. Polly’s uncle, James Dennis, pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark, Ohio, was sending students to Midwestern, Hyles-Anderson, Massillon Baptist College, and Tennessee Temple when Polly and I married in 1978. Jim had an honorary doctorate from Midwestern — a candy stick award for supporting the college. He later had a falling out with Tom Malone and stopped sending students to Midwestern. Today, prospective college students from the Baptist Temple typically go to Bob Jones University, Pensacola Christian College, or The Crown College.

As Polly and I reminisced about our fellow college students, we couldn’t help but notice how many students we knew that were not socially or academically qualified to take college classes. Often, such students came from churches where their pastors were pushing people to attend Midwestern. It was not uncommon to hear IFB preachers say that young adults should have a Bible college education. Secular colleges were denigrated, labeled as Satanic institutions of higher learning. IFB pastors believe that men must be “called” by God to be pastors, evangelists, youth directors, or missionaries. If a man said he was called to preach, as I did at age fifteen, his pastor would tell him he needed to attend Bible college. If the pastor was a Midwestern man, he would “suggest” that the young person attend Midwestern. In the IFB church movement, “suggestions” have the force of law.

Sometimes, older single men or married men would feel called to preach and head off to Midwestern to study for the ministry. They would often leave behind well-paying jobs, hoping to find employment after enrolling at Midwestern. Some married students left their families behind, living in the dorm with men who were 20-30 years younger than them. Remember, if God calls, he provides. If God orders, he pays. Or so the thinking went, anyway. As you shall see in a moment, God was a deadbeat dad who didn’t pay his bills.

Several married men lived in the dorm while I was a student at Midwestern. They left their families at home as they chased their dream of becoming a pastor. These men, later labeled failures by Malone and other chapel preachers, washed out after a few months. Loneliness, along with an inability to do college work doomed them from the start. The Holy Spirit was no match for a man’s longing for the embrace of his wife and children. Knowing the Bible was no substitute for actually being able to do college-level work (and Midwestern was NOT a scholastically rigorous institution).

One older student lived with a woman before coming to Midwestern. He had gotten saved and his pastor told him he needed to go to Bible college. Imagine eating ice cream every day at Dairy Queen and then going off to a place where there’s no Dairy Queen. Get my drift? This man had an active sex life, and that allegedly stopped when he started living in the Midwestern dorm. The college had a no-contact rule between couples. (Please see Thou Shalt Not Touch: The Six-Inch Rule.) I suspect it was difficult for sexually active students to play by the rules. Polly and I were virgins on our wedding day. I know how hard it was for us to stay “pure,” so I can only imagine how hard it was for students who had tasted the sinful fruit of fornication. Some of these “immoral” students quit or were expelled. Others learned how to hide their sin.

One student was developmentally disabled. He was a great kid, but I suspect his IQ was in the 70s. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child. He could barely read or write. He left Midwestern after his first semester. He, too, was labeled a quitter.

Many single and married students worked full-time jobs to pay their way through college. Imagine working forty hours a week, attending church three times a week, going on visitation on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and working a bus route on Sundays. Pray tell, when were students supposed to do their school work? I knew dorm students who were working 60-70 hours a week at one of the local truck/auto plants. Often, overtime was mandatory. Many of these students either washed out or left college and rented an apartment. The money was too good, so they chose their jobs over God’s calling. I know more than a few students who followed this path, spending the next thirty years working for the man before retiring with a good union pension.

Quitters were savaged by Midwestern’s president, Tom Malone, his son Tommy, Jr, school administrators, and pastors who preached during daily chapel services. Quitters were weak, and God didn’t use quitters. Midwestern advertised itself as a “character-building factory.” Most students who enrolled as freshmen never graduated. Is it any wonder why? Sure, I learned “character,” but once Polly became pregnant and I was laid off from my job, all the character in the world wasn’t going to keep a roof over our head or our utilities on. No help was coming from our parents or churches.

I don’t fault these men (and a few women) who failed to navigate the “character” gauntlet. The system was set up to ensure their failure. Of course, those who made it to graduation think otherwise. Unasked is where was God for these students who sincerely wanted to preach and teach others? When they truly needed help, neither God, nor their churches and pastors, was anywhere to be found.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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11 Comments

  1. Avatar
    William

    Bob Gray Sr has an online Bible college… $150 to take a creation 101 course… One of the cheapest and just a course not even a degree. Imagine spending $150 to learn a bunch of junk from answers in Genesis

  2. Avatar
    Sage

    When I was a teenage preachers kid, people would always ask if I was going to be a preacher like my father. I would politely say no, I have other plans. But the the real answer, which I always wanted to say, was “ no, I’ve seen how fake all of you are, and how you treat each other and how you treat your preacher. Who needs that insanity as their job??”

    • Avatar
      Dave

      I spent my freshman year at a Christian college that at least was accredited. I worked hard and was third in my class of a few hundred that year. A surprisingly large percentage of students were unable to cut it academically and were forced to drop out before the end of their freshman year. You couldn’t blame alcohol or sex for distracting them from their studies as was common in secular schools. I can’t help but think that growing up in strict Christian homes is not the key to academic excellence

    • Avatar
      Brian Vanderlip

      Hello, preacher’s kid, Sage… as a PK myself I want to answer your perhaps rhetorical question to emphasize and affirm it: Who needs that insanity as their job? Well, anyone very seriously interested in a structured method of self-suicide and who feels justified in routinely insulting, judging, condemning with Jesus’ love. These people do not do well simply harming themselve and need to support their self-hatred by preaching it. My preacher dad was a lovely man, a helpful person but once you cracked the egg of his IFB beliefs, it was rotten eggs all around…
      I had the same question regarding preaching as a profession thrown my way often and most often it was a typical statement more than a question: “I guess when you grow up you’ll be a wonderful preacher and servat of God just like your daddy!”
      My little eyes would widen and I was rendered speechless. It was a beautiful thing to see our Saviour at work destroying freedom with every hymn, with every sermon. Women and children have their roles, God-ordained. They need to be taught, as I was, to shut the fuck up and fall into lock-step.

  3. Avatar
    Troy Heck

    Very interesting. I avoided living in a dorm fortunately. Do you think quitters were disparaged because they hurt the bottom line financially?
    I suppose it is easy to criticize the quitters from the top of the pyramid scheme without walking in their moccasins.
    I was reading that Malone and his son died within a month of each other (in 2007), do you know if the son’s death was related to the father’s? It seems the remaining leaders at midwestern wasted no time hightailing it to the suburbs after the Malones died as well.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      I think it was a matter of “Biblical principle.” As a pastoral student, I was encouraged to pick a community, start a church, and stay there for the rest of my life. I played basketball with Tom Malone. He was a “no blood, no foul” kind of player. He despised whiners and weakness. I witnessed him savage several students because they complained about being fouled. At the time, I played by the same rules. 😂😂

  4. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce—My questions are not an attempt to judge you or your credentials. Rather, they’re an attempt to understand something.

    Here goes: You describe the lack of academic standards at Midwestern. I wonder: Were the Biblical studies based only on translations? If so, was King James the only translation used?

    Also, were any secular subjects studied?

    I ask because when I was involved with an Evangelical church and organization, I met a few students and alumni from Wheaton. Everyone had to take classes in Bible and theology, but those who wanted to major in those areas had to learn Classical Greek and Hebrew. The same was true in a number of seminaries.

    And, although I’ve dissociated myself from the Catholic Church, in which I was raised, I acknowledge that some of their schools, particularly those associated with the Jesuits, are quite good academically.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      “Were the Biblical studies based only on translations?”

      Typically, yes. At times, certain Greek and Hebrew words were talked about.

      “If so, was King James the only translation used?”

      Midwestern was King James-only. Using other translations were strictly forbidden.

      “Also, were any secular subjects studied?”

      Yes, but always from an Evangelical perspective. Polly and I took World History (worst class ever), English, music theory, Biology (no lab, from a creationist perspective), Western Civilization, Speech, Counseling (Biblical, anti-psychology).

      “I ask because when I was involved with an Evangelical church and organization, I met a few students and alumni from Wheaton. Everyone had to take classes in Bible and theology, but those who wanted to major in those areas had to learn Classical Greek and Hebrew.”

      Midwestern required pastoral students to take Greek (beginning and intermediate). However, the classes were taught while I was there by a man who had no post-graduate training in the original languages.

      My “education” came over the course of the 25 years I spent in the ministry. I spent hours and hours each week in the study. While I was not fluent in Hebrew or Greek, I had books and software that helped with this deficiency.

      My goal was to know the English Bible well. I determined that I would be a passionate, convincing speaker. I preached expositionally. By all accounts, my sermons were well crafted and well received.

      I hated the “ignorance is bliss” thinking found in broad swaths of Evangelism. Of course, this thirst for knowledge is what ultimately led to my deconversion.

      I knew a number of “educated” preachers. Some of them were long on knowledge, but short on public speaking skills. When it came to theological discussions with educated pastors, I generally held my own. I pastored one man who had a Ph.d. from Westminster Theological Seminary. We had rousing discussions. It was nice to talk to someone who had more than a rudimentary understanding of theology.

      Original language training is deemphasized in many Evangelical colleges today. The focus is more on practical training.

  5. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce—Thanks. I am curious because when I was an Evangelical, I knew there were a number of colleges affiliated with Evangelical or other Christian churches, I was and am familiar with only a few.

    As a Catholic school alumna and former yeshiva teacher, I know that religious schools have all sorts of rules that aren’t in their secular counterparts. That is one reason why your reminiscences of Midwestern are so interesting.

  6. Avatar
    Brocken

    There is one reason that wasn’t included in why some people do not finish their education at Fundamentalist Baptist Colleges. That reason is people dying before they graduate. I remember as a visitor at one Baptist church learning from an announcement that a student from the now defunct Northland Baptist Bible college in Wisconsin by the name of Tim Trometer had died in a motor vehicle accident. That took place in 2005. The other incident involved a student of Maranatha Baptist in Wisconsin. He was thinking of becoming a missionary pilot. That was not a wise choice. He died when his plane ran out of fuel over Lake Michigan and it crashed into the lake. The search team did locate the plane but they never located his body.

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Bruce Gerencser