Skip to main content

Features

Moody blues

Financial errors, insider dealings, and theological concerns force a change at an evangelical powerhouse

Moody blues

(Alex Garcia/Genesis)

The story sounds like something out of a movie.

In 2017, a talk show host on the Moody Radio Network blows the whistle on the leadership of one of American evangelicalism’s flagship institutions, the Moody Bible Institute (MBI). On Jan. 9, 2018, she escalates the pressure with a hard-hitting headline on her blog: “A Luxury Suite, Questionable Loan to Officer, & Gambling: The Disturbing Truth About Leadership at MBI.” Moody within hours fires her and sends a man to her house to seize her laptop—but she is on her way to Mexico, with the computer.

The next day, though, Moody’s board of trustees meets and decides it’s time for “a new season of leadership.” President Paul Nyquist and COO Steve Mogck resign. Provost Junias Venugopal retires. And whistleblower Julie Roys reports the board’s action. She tells WORLD she’s “grieved over what’s happened” to MBI, glad about the resignations and retirement, but convinced that “unless there are changes at the board level, the Institute will be in the exact same place 5-10 years from now.”

So, even though the saga is not over, the Moody board’s action is still a man-bites-dog story within the usually slow-moving world of higher education. As the news spread, Christian leaders asked questions: What are MBI’s problems? What forced the hand of the board, and where does Moody go from here? Is the drama likely to be repeated at other institutions as financial and theological pressures grow? WORLD had been investigating MBI during the weeks before the board decision, and we have some findings to report.

COLLEGES LIVE OR DIE ON STUDENT ENROLLMENT. From 2012 to 2017, the number of students applying to MBI fell from 1,316 to 947—a 28 percent drop. MBI for more than a century has emphasized theological education for students who desire to enter full-time vocational ministry: “Those are the students we still give priority to,” said James Spencer, vice president and dean of Moody’s undergraduate school. Today, though, many young Christians look to secular careers and speak of ministering informally within their professions.

Professors are a college’s front line. Facing the enrollment downturn, President Nyquist last December announced a layoff of “about 10 percent of Moody Global Ministries personnel.” But the faculty was disproportionately hard-hit: 34 of MBI’s 112 full-time faculty members, almost one-third, learned their contracts would not be renewed. (MBI does not give professors tenure.) “Education is certainly about the faculty,” Spencer acknowledged, so Nyquist’s attempt to minimize the extent of the body count by saying “10 percent” did not go over well.

(Alex Garcia/Genesis)

Professors in music, sports ministry, and Bible/theology were hit hard. That decision did not satisfy alumni such as Todd and Andria Alexander, both graduates of the music program 13 and 11 years ago. Their letters to every Moody trustee stated, “We were devastated to hear about the evisceration of the Sacred Music Department by the present administration.” Three of the trustees responded to their letters but did not placate the Alexanders and other alums who believed “the present administration is making cuts in the wrong places.”

Moody’s decision to slash faculty but leave untouched the number of executives at the vice presidential level or above—19—also did not sit well. WORLD examined 15 leading Christian colleges and saw Moody listed almost twice as many executives as Cedarville, the Christian college in that group with the second largest number—10. Moody differs from other educational enterprises by having big publishing and broadcast divisions, but subtracting the three executives in charge of those leaves Moody still looking top-heavy.

Diminishing the faculty was also unpopular in the context of a $24 million price tag for the Chapman Center, a global media center. A donation from author/marriage counselor Gary Chapman—Moody would not say how large it was—started the project, but the building is still $8.2 million underfunded. Brian Regnerus, Moody’s director of strategic communications, said the building “isn’t an education project, it’s a joint venture between publishing and broadcasting.” He says the construction hasn’t drawn any funds from MBI’s general operating budget, and Moody has not gone into debt to complete the building. True, but fundraising for a capital project made other fundraising harder. Moody contributions declined by $9 million from 2015 to 2016 and another $5 million from 2016 to 2017.

Handout

Nyquist (Handout)

As 34 professors lost their jobs, financial arrangements for the college president attracted notice. Moody gave Nyquist in 2009 a $500,000 loan to buy a $1.08 million Chicago condo—and according to Moody’s IRS report filed on Nov. 1, 2017, he had paid back none of the principal. Nyquist received more than $1 million in compensation during the three years from 2014 through 2016.

Another past decision also haunts the present: In 2006, MBI Spokane in Washington state officially became a branch campus for overflow students who couldn’t make it into the downtown Chicago campus. It might have seemed like a money-maker, since the Spokane students paid tuition, unlike students in Chicago who pay for their room and board but not their classes. Five years ago, though, Spokane enrollment numbers began notably decreasing, and the Spokane campus became a money pit rather than a revenue producer. Late last year, the Moody administration decided to shut down its Spokane satellite as of the end of this term, except for its missionary aviation program.

One charge of poor financial stewardship may not be valid. Joseph Stowell was Moody president from 1987 to 2005, and during that time he offered novelist and major donor Jerry Jenkins use of an apartment when Jenkins was in Chicago on Moody business. Visiting speakers and other guests also stayed there. Jenkins told WORLD of “a handful of occasions when, with permission, we were allowed to use the apartment when not specifically on Moody business.” After an anonymous complaint led to an investigation of such usage, Jenkins, who chaired the Moody board for several years, reimbursed Moody for that use. He says he “at least doubled” the amount charged other departments when guests stayed there and “stopped using the place at all, just to avoid leaving any wrong impressions.”

Alongside the financial -concerns sit theological ones, although those are harder to pin down. Roys charged administrators were allowing professors who deny the inerrancy of Scripture to teach and write curriculum. Richard Weber, one of the 34 professors whose contract was not renewed, has documented some theological drift, but he did not make his account available to WORLD. Moody VP and -theology professor Bryan O’Neal said any claims that MBI allows faculty members to abandon Biblical -inerrancy are “false. All of our faculty affirm inerrancy annually when they sign their annual contract. It’s explicit. … There is no drift. It is always possible that an individual within an institution does drift or lean, and then that has to be examined and corrected.” 

Complaints about political liberalism have also emerged. Students speak of a professor arguing that abortion should be legal and Planned Parenthood should continue to receive funding. A recent graduate wrote of attempts to shame white students or conservatives. 

In one class, associate professor Clive Craigen acknowledges having students throw wads of paper into a trash can at the front from wherever they were sitting. He then spoke about “white privilege,” with students in front privileged over those near the back of the classroom. Craigen told WORLD he wants -students to realize “that we all walk into situations with advantages and disadvantages, and some of them are overcomeable, some are not, some we don’t have any say in.”

Alex Garcia/Genesis

Work continues on the Chapman Center. (Alex Garcia/Genesis)

MBI TENSIONS GREW LAST YEAR as five faculty members on a Faculty Concerns Committee investigated and collated specific complaints against Provost Venugopal, who insisted the committee was out of line and Moody’s Human Resources department should have handled the complaints. Venugopal agreed to have a special faculty meeting to respond to some of the concerns, but he offered prepared comments at the meeting and then closed it without answering new questions.

An anonymous individual or group, under the name Broken Twig, began posting online concerns about ineffectual leadership, theological drift, and alleged wrongdoing. Some alumni wrote letters. Following the board’s decision WORLD made one more attempt to learn the identity of Broken Twig and received this response: “This is Julie’s moment not ours. Really it’s God’s, we did nothing more [than] we were asked of by Him. Like Gideon we were cowards until the Lord pressed us into service. We had a torch and a horn, we blew our horns to get the attention, flashed our torches—God fought this fight. That is enough.”

The Julie referred to is Julie Roys, whose weekend show, Up for Debate, played on 145 stations until Moody fired her on Jan. 8. Asked about her firing, spokesman Regnerus wrote, “Moody does not disclose, comment on, or discuss private matters pertaining to Institute personnel.” But others were certainly commenting: Firing a person who complained about an atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and retaliation at Moody made many believe she had a point.

Roys had long planned a January vacation in Cancún, Mexico, with her two grown sons and teenage daughter. (Work forced her husband, a teacher, to remain in balmy Chicago.) She was en route and without an internet connection when an email from Moody Senior Vice President Greg Thornton—he is now interim president—arrived in her inbox: “Moody leadership is terminating your employment, effective immediately. You will be paid for any hours worked and reported through today. Dan Craig will pick up your laptop, ID, fob, P-Card, and any other Moody property you have this afternoon between 2:30-3 pm at your home.”

‘There’s a hole in the ship. … I’d prefer you patch it, but if you’re not going to do it, I’ll warn the people to get their luggage off.’ —Roys

Craig did not pick up the laptop: It and Roys were in Mexico when she read that message. She had already saved her files on a flash drive and an external hard drive, and one of her sons is buying her a new computer: She will return Moody’s computer, undoubtedly wiped clean, when she comes back to Chicago. Roys says she has lots of material she has not yet disclosed, and she made it clear to the trustees that if they did not take action she would go public with it. In Mexico she characterized to WORLD her message as, “There’s a hole in the ship. … I’d prefer you patch it, but if you’re not going to do it, I’ll warn the people to get their luggage off.”

Greg Lehman/Genesis Photos

The MBI campus in Spokane, Wash. (Greg Lehman/Genesis Photos)

The trustees, in pushing changes at the top, are evidently interested in patching, but Roys says the patches are bigger than the board might want: “There has to be change in the board. They’re the ones who were in charge. They need to take responsibility.” Moody leaders will hear more public comment from alumni, faculty, students, and donors. They will speak of improving communication and transparency. Spokesman Regnerus said the executive team has already “decided that Moody’s officers will have a freeze in pay.”

Alumni are reflecting on the changes. Nancy Hastings, who heads the Moody Alumni Association, was “surprised actually, dazed maybe, real surprise.” She fielded emails on the day after the board announced its decision: “Some have been sad, others feeling justified, while some are dumbfounded—not knowing anything about the recent accusations.” Many alumni say they’re praying for the institute, in the understanding that “God’s always been faithful, I know He’s in control.”

Interim President Thornton told WORLD, “There is still sorrow in saying goodbye and seeing empty offices. These are dear friends and colleagues, and good and godly men, and we’ve shed tears together.” He said, “There has been no wavering on the doctrinal commitment.” Interim Provost John Jelinek said it’s not helpful to argue point by point about recent allegations of a “liberal shift” at MBI: “We want to respond positively to it.” Thornton was unwilling to discuss the firing of Julie Roys.

WHAT SHOULD OTHER CHRISTIAN COLLEGES take away from Moody’s experience? First, an awareness of hard times coming. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the available student population heading to college is shrinking, and has been for five straight years—down more than 80,000 just from 2016 to 2017. The study predicts the number of high-school graduates over the next decade to plummet.

Handout

Roys (Handout)

Students who once would have attended Christian colleges rather than less expensive secular ones now have three other choices. Online education is increasingly popular. So is attending community colleges for two years before heading away to college for the last two. Some state-funded colleges that were cheap now pose even more of a challenge: They’re free.

WORLD compared Moody financial statements and IRS 990 forms with those of 15 other Christian colleges—and learned that MBI is not an outlier. Other schools face financial challenges like Moody’s. Despite its large number of vice presidents, Moody is not at the top concerning executive compensation as a percentage of total expenses. During fat years many colleges drift toward adding executives and overspending on buildings.

On theological drift, MBI’s O’Neal is right to say even “little things are important.” The particulars of the definition of Biblical inerrancy are crucial to getting many other things right. Meanings of words must be fought for and guarded, not just to keep a ship afloat but to have it heading in the right direction.

Theological drift at MBI, if it’s there, is not more pronounced than that at many other Christian colleges. For example, MBI does not appear to have fallen for “theistic evolution,” a well-funded attempt to sprinkle some God-talk over Darwin’s theories and then conclude that Biblical accounts are not historical. Some Christian parents have learned that campus visits should include hard questioning in faculty offices as well as soft-serve ice cream in gleaming dining halls.

Moody apparently has made mistakes, but its problems are not unique. The lesson for other colleges may be what Jesus offered in Luke 13 concerning the fatal fall of a tower in Siloam: Don’t think you’re better than others, because “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Correction: Moody Radio fired Julie Roys on Jan. 8.

Paul Butler

Paul Butler

Paul is based in Arlington, Ill., and is a WORLD Radio correspondent and adjunct professor of communications at Illinois Valley Community College. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Paul on Twitter @EbenimMedia.

Paul Butler

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

Comments

  • karataxis
    Posted: Thu, 01/18/2018 11:56 pm

    Excellent point of reference ... "MBI does not appear to have fallen for 'theistic evolution,' a well-funded attempt to sprinkle some God-talk over Darwin’s theories and then conclude that Biblical accounts are not historical." However, more is required to validate any board member's status. The board cannot - must not - confirm itself apart from the fellowship at large.

  • Bob C
    Posted: Fri, 01/19/2018 10:57 am

    A long term slid in the student population, by 28% over the last 8 years, and millions in lost donations.  The bad publicity caused by miss-management, plus the exposing of the lies, or at least minimizing the truth in reporting of the situation to the public, all from the board-of-directors to the President and CEO, will not to increase donations or attract new students.

    I like Julie Roys hole-in-the-ship analogy. (I would have said MBI has taken multiple torpedo hits with serious flooding).  Don’t know if the recommendation to sweep the board out is needed, but the leadership needs to really come clean, remember the Bible, “…and the truth will set you free”, (John 8:32) and adjust operations to the new financial reality, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost,…” (Luke 14:28)         

  • Joe M
    Posted: Fri, 01/19/2018 12:09 pm

    "unlike students in Chicago who pay for their room and board but not their classes."

    Hey, did everyone catch that, because your reporter skated by it like it was of little consequence. The fact that Moody offers education for free is an amazing fact that's tucked away as an incidental to be missed by most readers not already very aware of MBI's unqiue stature in the Christian education world. Also relevant but missing, given the story's examination of Prof. While Privilege, is MBI's diversity profile.

    It's an important story, and I hope the school leaders are given grace to weather the storm. I'm not sure how many people appreciate that Moody stands next to Wheaton in the evangelical higher ed lineup -- actually ahead of it in terms of not caving to Neomodernism or whatever you want to call it (CCCU and Calvin College, I am thinking of you). And their publishing house has a unique place in church history as a lifeline to those who came to faith in mainline churches. I write as just such on of those.

  • paulg
    Posted: Fri, 01/19/2018 03:05 pm

    MBI needs to take a look at the many Christian colleges who are "doing it right", who don't put off making the hard decisions, who are staying true to their calling. Grove City College is one such example of a school which does not take any government money. They chose to do without instead of bowing to the ridiculous rules the government tried to make them enforce. God has blessed them for it. There are many other schools doing the right thing, too. 

     

  • William E
    Posted: Sun, 01/21/2018 06:52 pm

    The problems facing Moody's are not unlike those facing every other educational, cultural, secular or non-secular group in our society and world today.  "Mission Drift "as outlined in a 2014 book  by Peter Greer and Chris Horst of the same name, has impacted our institutions today as it has over history.  It is just that the speed of such drift has increased so  dramatically in the past 40- 50 years that it is no longer  easily hidden or disguised.  Much of the outrageous behavior from our politicians, teachers, business leaders, entertainment figures and even fellow citizens can be attributed to this so called "drift".  If we are to at all correct our course, the important thing is to recognize what we are drifting from - which can be described in the two words..."Holy Bible".

  • Joe M
    Posted: Sun, 01/28/2018 11:07 pm

    Also, the person repsonsible for this headline deserves a raise! 

  • phillipW's picture
    phillipW
    Posted: Tue, 01/30/2018 01:12 pm

    "As 34 professors lost their jobs, financial arrangements for the college president attracted notice. Moody gave Nyquist in 2009 a $500,000 loan to buy a $1.08 million Chicago condo—and according to Moody’s IRS report filed on Nov. 1, 2017, he had paid back none of the principal. Nyquist received more than $1 million in compensation during the three years from 2014 through 2016."

    Why does this not surprise me?  No different than any other greedy college these days.  Vastly overpaid executives and "leaders" who do nothing, and bring nothing to the table other than lip service to the padding of their own bank accounts.  

    Dwight L. Moody must be rolling over in his grave.