Tony Campolo: It was time to stop

The noted evangelical leader explains why he's closing his ministry organization, the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, after more than 40 years.

Too many religious organizations are tempted to keep going long after their missions are accomplished, Tony Campolo says. That’s why, after more than 40 years, he’s closing his ministry, the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education.

“The ability to scale down is important,” Campolo said. “How many organizations exist when their reason to exist and their ability to get the job done have long since come to an end?”

Religious organizations tend to believe that they have to somehow keep going, “as though there’s something ungodly about saying, ‘It’s time to stop,’” he said.

“We felt it was time to stop,” he said.

Tony CampoloCampolo, a sociologist, pastor and author, created EAPE to help young people launch their own ministries. In recent years, as Campolo entered his late 70s (he turned 79 earlier this year), he and the organization’s board of directors began considering how and in what form to continue the ministry, deciding eventually that it was time to close.

In addition to founding and serving as president of EAPE, Campolo is professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University and a former faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written more than 35 books and is one of the founders of the Red Letter Christian movement.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about his decision to close EAPE. The following is an edited transcript.


Q: You announced earlier this year that you are retiring and closing the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education. Tell us about that.

We created EAPE in order to facilitate young people who wanted to start new ministries. Duke and other schools turn out all kinds of dreamers who want to create an organization or program to accomplish this or that goal to advance God’s kingdom.

And Eastern University is also a place that turns out young people with visions and dreams like that, so we started this organization more than 40 years ago to help them achieve their goals, to actualize their dreams. Through my speaking engagements I was able to recruit young men and women who could volunteer for a year or two with these visionaries and dreamers.

Over the years, a couple of thousand young men and women volunteered over extended periods of time to do programming. We initiated a variety of ministries.

For instance, we found a young man named Tom Woodard whose vision was to do reforestation in the Dominican Republic and in Haiti with an organization now called Plant with Purpose. We started him off with $10,000 of seed money, and the rest is history.

We put a lot of time and effort into supporting some dedicated young people committed to doing inner-city ministry with programs like Mission Year, which at any given time has about 80 or 90 young people who live together in intentional community while serving poor and at-risk neighborhoods in six U.S. cities.

UrbanPromise is another ministry we helped launch. Its flagship program is in Camden, N.J., but it has spread to Wilmington, Del.; Trenton, N.J.; Miami; Toronto; and countries including Malawi and Honduras -- all programs working with inner-city youth.

Then there are programs like Cornerstone Christian Academy, a faith-based school in southwest Philadelphia that reaches out to at-risk kids, and an elementary and a secondary school we helped initiate in Camden.

Perhaps our most ambitious program was to do the basic organizational work and provide some seed money for the establishment of the National Evangelical University of the Dominican Republic, which now has 15,000 students.

There are 22 ministries and programs that EAPE initiated.


Q: You set up EAPE to spin off other ministries?

That’s right. It’s a program that was designed to help young people get their dreams and visions off the ground. We stand in the background, ready to help and give support.

We try to nurture these programs into economic self-sufficiency. The first year we may fund them 100 percent. The second year, 80 percent, and then 60 percent, 40 percent, 20 percent, and hopefully by that time they can be on their own. But we are always there to help if they run into difficulties.

Basically, we are out to encourage faith-based entrepreneurs, and that’s crucial. We not only help launch them; we try to shepherd them along the way and help them do the job that needs to be done. It was a unique model.

Q: How did you make the decision to close?

Well, there came a point -- in part, because I was turning 79 in February -- that our board of directors asked, “What happens when Campolo dies?”

It’s really funny to sit at a board meeting and have the board members saying, “Well, you know, he’s going on 79. He’s not going to be around that much longer.”

At first we talked about getting somebody to take my place. Much of what we do comes from recruiting people and raising money through my speaking engagements. So the question was whether we could find somebody who could develop an extensive speaking itinerary and be able to carry on the work of recruiting committed young people as I had done.

The first question that was asked was, “What about your son?”

Because he’s a good speaker. And his reaction at first was, “Great!”

But then he began to think it through, and he said, “I’ve seen so many ministries where the sons and daughters of the people who are leaders of ministries became the heirs apparent, and in most cases, it doesn’t work. And I don’t want to be strapped with, ‘Well, the kid’s just not what the old man was.’”

We understood that. So we figured that keeping the organization going by finding a successor was not the way to go.

Secondly, with all these ministries, we set out to do something, and we did it. So we sent a newsletter to our donors in the beginning of January with a big headline: “Mission Accomplished.”

We told them that we had created the organization to finance new ministries, to help young people with visions and dreams get established, to nurture them along the way. Well, we’ve done it, and as of June 30, we’re closing down!

Too many religious organizations do not face reality. There’s a temptation to keep a religious bureaucracy going long after its mission has been accomplished.

The ability to scale down is important. How many organizations exist when their reason to exist and their ability to get the job done have long since come to an end? Religious organizations are very prone to say, “Oh, we’ve got to keep this thing going.”

As though there’s something ungodly about saying, “It’s time to stop.”

We felt it was time to stop.

Q: What were the major issues that you had to address as you went through this process?

Here’s the thing. These various ministries have become predominantly self-supporting. But our donors are very faithful people, so we asked whether there was a way that we could take their commitment and transfer it to supporting one or more of the ministries we helped establish.

So when we sent out our newsletter in January, we enclosed a card that listed these various ministries and asked people to check one or more where they would be willing to send their money after EAPE closes.

Now we’re getting back these cards. If one of our supporters checked a particular ministry, we contact that ministry and say, “Here’s somebody that’s been a regular donor, and they’re going to send their gifts to you from now on instead of to us. We want you to give them a call and establish a relationship.”

We hope to shift the givers who have been giving to EAPE to one or more of these ministries we’ve established.

Working out this plan took several meetings and a lot of thinking through. It didn’t happen on the spur of the moment.

Q: What was the hardest part of this whole process? What were the toughest issues in reaching the decision to close?

I wish I could say that we went through real turmoil. The only turmoil came when we were trying to figure out what to do when I was no longer operative -- what do we do then?

The minute we said that it was time to say “mission accomplished” and go out with our flags flying, there was none.

Most ministries that close are closing because they’ve run out of money or run into organizational problems.

EAPE is at the peak of its success, so for us, closing raised the question, “If we’re doing so well, why close?”

The answer was that we’re doing well now, but in four or five years or more, when perhaps I am dead or sick or something like that, it’s going to be hard to keep this thing going.

So why not put it to sleep gently? Do the best we can to push the resources that are coming our way toward the ministries that we helped get off the ground.

We’ve been at that for about a year with meetings, phone conferences and retreats, spending long hours working out the details.

“[But] once the decision is made to die, peace sets in, and the only question is, “How are we going to do it?”

We really are at peace about this.

Q: Compare the process of starting the ministry 40-something years ago and now closing it. What’s harder? Starting a ministry or shutting it down?

Shutting it down.

When we started the ministry, we put together a board of directors. We went to a lawyer. He filled out the papers, we got approved by the state, we sent the papers to the IRS, and that was it.

No sweat. Nothing.

To close down, in Delaware County, Pa., we have to go through a formal process. They’re going to schedule a hearing at the county courthouse, and we will have to explain why we’re closing, give justifications for what we’re doing.

We didn’t have to justify coming into existence. We do have to justify to the legal authorities why we’re going out of existence. We have to explain, for instance, what we’re going to do with the money we have left and how we’re going to distribute that among our various ministries.

It’s fascinating that it’s so difficult. That wouldn’t be the case if we were failing. If we were running out of money, if we had great organizational problems, all we would do is simply die. The members of the board would resign. There wouldn’t be any money.

Q: In a news article about your retirement, you said, “Too often we old guys hang on too long and steal the spotlight from new, bright shining stars emerging as speakers and leaders.” Are leaders obligated to step aside?

Let me give you an example. For years I was a speaker at the National Youth Workers Convention, and there came a point where I had to tell them, “Look, I’m willing to come and do a seminar, but I need to relinquish the main platform so that younger communicators, especially women, will have a chance to speak.”

In my own experience, there were a couple of events that really nurtured my career as a speaker. Years ago, I spoke at one of the early youth specialties conventions, and it went well, so after that I began to get invitations to speak at youth conventions and churches and conferences all over the place. That’s how I got started.

Now, I had to say it was time to step aside so a new generation of speakers will have the advantages I had.

We tend to hang on too long, and it’s not that we lose our edge. As a matter of fact, I think I do better now than I did when I was young. But if you continue to steal the spotlight, you’re denying the next generation the opportunity that you had.

Q: What’s your assessment of church in America today -- both broadly and specifically regarding evangelicals?

I think that evangelicalism is going to experience a split.

There are some evangelicals who are moving so far to the right that they have become religious adjuncts to the Tea Party, while there are other evangelicals, like Evangelicals for Social Action, who embrace a progressive social agenda.

For instance, our organization, EAPE, declares that we believe in the doctrine of the Apostles’ Creed, and that we have a high view of Scripture and have no apology for talking about people coming into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord, Savior and God.

But we have some social concerns -- about justice, about immigration, about climate change, about what’s happening to the environment. We are concerned about what’s happening to gay and lesbian, transgender and bisexual people.

We look at what the religious right supports, and we realize that we have a ton of concerns that are moving us in another direction. Some evangelicals are moving farther and farther to the right on political and economic issues, and we seem to be moving more and more to the left.

I think there’s going to be a split, and it’s not going to be over theology. Splits don’t occur over theology. In the end, it’s usually political issues that divide us. So I see evangelicalism in the next 10 years going through a major split.

Q: What are your plans?

I will continue to speak, and I have one major book that I want to write, my finale. I’m working on it. It involves a lot of stuff that I’ve accumulated over the years that I never really articulated in a systematic form.

I think the time has come to recast theology in the context of the new cosmology that has emerged from contemporary physics. When Rudolf Bultmann came along, he was the first to say that theology is always written in the context of a cosmological worldview, and he tried to do that.

Well, the cosmological worldview that he held has become passé, and in terms of modern cosmology and quantum physics, the time has come to ask, what does theology look like in the context of the new worldview that is emerging?

Evangelical theology has to be recast. We talk about being anti-legalistic, but in many ways we are legalistic. I want a theology and an ethic that is broader than legalism and proof texting and focuses on how faith commitments can help us to become self-actualized human beings.