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Dean Borgman

By Dan Jessen


Dean W. Borgman (b. 1928). Since 1996, Charles E. Culpeper Professor of Youth Ministry, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Massachusetts). A professor of youth ministry - active into his 70's? Also an evangelical Episcopalian priest with Orthodox and charismatic leanings? That's Dean Borgman!


Borgman simply confounds the stereotypes; his life story reflects a distinctive journey which led him eventually to seminary teaching. No rusty or crusty academic professor, Dean Borgman has a heart for God and people. With his diverse heart passions "worn on his sleeve" for all to see, his presence in the classroom has been seldom ignored. A multitude of students found his teaching and writing compelling and energizing. According to Bill Milliken, Dean learned to bare his soul on the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan (NYC), where one urban youth said to Borgman, "… we really don't listen to you when you talk to us. But when you get mad, then we turn you on and listen to what you have to say." (Milliken, 1968). Dean's candid spirit has permeated his classroom teaching, profoundly touching the lives of many students. They appreciated his focus on holistic approaches and solutions, rather than neat and easy answers.

Borgman's underlying teaching emphasis has been hope intermingled with pessimism. His writing seems to view adolescence through a lens of suffering, anger and hurt. Some have even faulted him for focusing on the extreme edges of adolescent society, the hard-core problems, while ignoring the average adolescent in her or his normal development. To offset whatever pessimism he may generate, Dean responds in his magnum opus book, Hear My Story:

Remember that most young people are doing well, and some are actually way ahead of many adults. But because others are in imminent danger of seriously hurting themselves or others, this book is needed (Borgman, 2003).

His desire has been to facilitate individual healing of teenagers in the midst of hurting systems (Borgman, 2003).

The Developing Years

Dean W. Borgman was born and reared in Connecticut, the oldest of a family of ten children, during the depression and war era of the 1930's and 40's. His mother was an accomplished musician, his father an ardent student of the Bible. The Borgmans were dedicated, conservative, fundamentalist Christians who sought to bring Biblical renewal to their local congregation and region, because New England at that time was a stronghold for Unitarianism, cults and ethnic Roman Catholicism. In that environment, Dean's boyhood church, Black Rock Congregational, Bridgeport, CT, stood out as a Biblical light in a dark place.

When he finished high school, Borgman was encouraged to attend a southern Bible college, where he was impressed by the passion of the teachers. But he was unsettled by an alternative eschatological view to the dispensationalism he had grown up with. Subsequently, he transferred to Wheaton College (Illinois) where he majored in Bible and theology. Dean got involved with the Navigators in an outreach ministry to adolescents while at Wheaton. Though only an average student, he was impressed with the scholarly achievements of his professors there, and especially by Dr. Lois LeBar of the Christian Education Department who introduced him to inductive Bible study. He was fortuitously present during the great revival of 1950 on the Wheaton campus during which he felt a call to world evangelization.

Returning to Connecticut after graduation in 1950, he set out in his own way to carry the Wheaton revival to New England. He got involved in his local church youth group while doing temporary manual labor jobs until the Korean War intervened. During the wartime draft, Dean volunteered for service as a paratrooper. But his deployment kept him in the U.S., allowing him to get additional youth ministry experience with a Youth for Christ organization in Georgia. Two years later he was back home in New England.

He was quite amenably drawn back to involvement with the "Black Rock Teenagers" group in his local church and with G.I. educational benefits he also attended graduate school, receiving a Master's degree in education from Fairfield University in 1954. He spent time "with a bunch of suburban kids in trouble with the law, both before and after his military service" (Milliken, 1968). All of this dovetailed nicely with his seven years of public high school and community college teaching history and social science. In his mid-twenties, then, he was consumed with spending time with teenagers, speaking to youth groups and discipling young people.

Eventually this interest led him to investigate Young Life Campaign, still in its infancy. Dean attended a Young Life training week in Colorado and, with the permission of Jim Rayburn (founder of Young), birthed Young Life in the New Canaan-Darien area of Connecticut. As a volunteer, Borgman organized a Young Life club in 1956, the first in New England.

In 1960 Borgman left school teaching to enroll in doctoral studies at Columbia University (NYC), naively thinking that teaching at the college level would provide more time for youth ministry. He was consumed with his studies and youth work, riding a motorcycle to and fro in pursuit of his revivalist visions. At Columbia, he studied theories of history, education and philosophy before being lured away from academia to the practicalities of street-level youth ministry. Some years later, however, Dean returned to academic studies at Northeastern University (Boston, MA), earning a C.A.G.S. in clinical counseling and community psychology in 1974.

Young Life had started an urban initiative in New York City under the leadership of Bill Milliken and Harv Oostdyke. (See Milliken, B. & Meredith, C. (1968). Tough love: A realistic Christian love is changing young lives in the ghettos of New York. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co.) Living in the City, Dean was soon drawn into this ministry as a volunteer, working on Manhattan's lower East Side with urban youth and mentoring the younger Milliken. Dean and Bill were soon a team reaching young lives trapped in the so-called urban ghetto. His time with youth on the lower East Side of Manhattan continued to stretch him personally, philosophically and theologically, impacting all of his subsequent teaching and other ministries. The lower East Side work subsequently became Young Life's first and widely-known urban outreach.

Bill described Borgman as the "hatchet man" (i.e., using tough love) as well as an interpreter between individuals having a confrontation (Milliken, 1968). In that setting Dean learned how to learn about a specific sub-culture. As Milliken explained it, "You have to learn why the situation is as it is. You have to learn about people. About the culture. About the environment. And you have so much to learn that you don't have time to think about helping anybody else" (Milliken, 1968). It was these lessons that Dean painfully learned in the crucible of the city streets and then faithfully, consistently passed along to students in later years.

But the Young Life urban project was not Dean's first exposure to minority youth; more than a few in his church youth group had come from Bridgeport's African-American community. Dean got to know them as individuals through camp and trip experiences. Later he had a roommate at Columbia University who introduced him to important aspects of Black culture.

His years in New York City were divided by a two-year missionary teaching stint in Liberia, West Africa. It was his desire to offset the "ugly American" image and his interest in African culture that landed Dean in West Africa. He was sent by the U.S. Episcopal Church to teach history and philosophy at Cuttington College, a school in the Liberian hinterlands (1964-66). Dean speaks of this as adding greatly to his education and cultural understanding. Interestingly, all Dean's children have had some African exposure. His two older children were born in Liberia; his two younger children lived a year in Kenya while Dean taught at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology during a sabbatical.

The experiences of the 1960's especially stretched Dean and opened his mind up to a broader theological framework. He was deeply impressed in his study of the church fathers and the historic foundations of the Christian community. Additionally, the liturgy and life of a high Anglican parish on the Lower East Side touched his heart and led him toward an affiliation with the Episcopal Church. Dean was subsequently confirmed in 1962, ultimately, ordained as an Episcopal priest (1980).

After Dean's return from missionary service in Liberia, he became educational director of street academies in Harlem for the New York Urban League. Then, in 1968, he helped found, direct, and teach in the Young Life Urban Training Institute in New York City. As the 70's opened, his wide experience, expertise and heart for urban youth ministry was being well recognized; he preached at and directed two Young Life camps, became a youth-team consultant for the Episcopal diocese of New York and later served as a trainer and consultant for Young Life nationally.

The Mature Years

After the years profitably spent in New York City, God opened doors for Dean Borgman back in New England. In 1973, Bill Starr, an executive with Young Life Campaign, in collaboration with Dr. William Nigel Kerr, Academic Dean, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, invited Borgman to teach courses for Young Life Institute credit at the seminary. Dean thus enjoyed a dual appointment as a Young Life trainer and Instructor of Youth Ministry. As the years passed, the Institute courses became part of the seminary's standard Christian education curriculum and Dean acquired faculty standing, moving to Associate Professor ten years later. Eventually, Dean was appointed to a full-time professorship in youth ministries. Meanwhile, dozens of students either graduated from the Young Life Training Program and/or enrolled for Borgman's popular courses at the Seminary. Many students elected his courses such as "Understanding and Reaching Youth," "The Gospel and Urban Youth," "Adolescent Spirituality" and "Christianity and the Problem of Racism."

In addition to his teaching at Gordon-Conwell (South Hamilton and Boston), Borgman has been an adjunct or visiting professor at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary (Boston), Fuller Theological Seminary (CA), Ontario Theological Seminary (Canada) and DayStar University College (Kenya). He has given countless lectures and workshops on youth ministry in the United States and internationally. He has served on various Episcopal diocesan commissions: Youth, Urban and the Spiritual Renewal. He has also been active on Gordon-Conwell's Lilly Endowment project for rising high school seniors taking mission trips to Latin America.

Africans and people of African descent remain a deep-felt interest for Professor Borgman. Dean and his wife Gail have traveled regularly to Kenya where they teach youth ministry at Daystar University, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology and other overseas venues. Gail is a clinical social worker as well as a soul-mate for Borgman in his youth ministry dreams and travels. She has also, like Dean, been a training consultant for Young Life's International Division in Africa and the Middle East.

In 1996, at the age of 68, Dean Borgman was recognized for his long service and many contributions to the field of youth ministry by his appointment by the Faculty and Trustees of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as the Charles E. Culpeper Professor of Youth Ministries.

As of 2006, Professor Borgman was continuing his research, his writing, his teaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and elsewhere, in the United States and internationally. In 2006, he was recognized by the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry (IASYM) as one of four founders. Additionally, he was honored for his service and achievement in youth ministry by the national Association of Youth Ministry (AYME), one of few so honored by this organization. So his work goes on!


Borgman does much of his writing on human hearts, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts." (II Cor. 3:2-3, NIV). His personal interest in each student, his mentoring insights, and his discipleship heart has produced a "human bibliography" in women and men serving across the world.

Dean would only admit to inspiring these leaders.

Jack Carpenter is a long-time and beloved Young Life leader and regional director. For some time Jack and his brother Reid shared an apartment and led Young Life clubs with Dean. Jack is now director of Maine Youth Forum and PRYME (a national fellowship of senior leaders seeking youth leaders who need encouragement and empowerment).

Chap Clark, Associate Professor of Youth, Family and Culture, Fuller Theological Seminary, remembers Dean's encouragement to accept Jesus Christ and looked up to him as a role model.

Reid Carpenter went from leadership in the "Black Rock Teenagers" and Connecticut Young Life Clubs to become a divisional director of Young Life. He later served as director of the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation. More recently he became president of the National Council of Leadership Foundations. He remembers Dean looking for him at a local teen hangout, taking him for a ride on his motorcycle and encouraging him to find in Jesus his Lord and Savior.

Rich Obenschain, Director, Gordon College Center for Outdoor Education and Leadership, came to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the late 1970's to discover God's calling and gifting. In a class taught by Borgman, students were instructed to look back over the different segments of their lives and record experiences that gave them a deep sense of success. As a result, Rich had an insight about his life which has guided him subsequently. Now Rich is a respected professional in experiential learning, having found his niche, as others have, through Dean's focus on applying God's Word in real life situations.

Kent MacDonald is Professor of Youth Ministries, Whitworth College, and Training Director for the Northwest Region of Young Life. He is a product of Borgman's training program at Gordon-Conwell but not without struggles. Out of their confrontations, however, Kent emerged as a passionate follower of Jesus Christ, a gifted musician and youth leader. For years Kent and Dean have co-taught a biennial "Relevant Youth Ministries" course at Daystar University.

Many urban pastors in the Boston (MA) area and elsewhere attest to the impact of Dean's life and passionate teaching in their personal lives and in their ministries.

Contributions to Christian Education

Dean Borgman's presence has been felt in Christian education in a variety of ways. Most evidently, he is known as a gifted professor with a flair for the unusual. In over thirty years of teaching, hundreds of students, primarily at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton MA and at its urban campus in Boston, have been led by Professor Borgman to greater understanding of and empathy for adolescents, especially those teenagers outside the cultural mainstream who need to be reached for and with the Gospel.

Likewise, others throughout North America and also on the continent of Africa have been impacted by this uncommon professor. His passion in teaching repeatedly has erupted and does erupt in classroom sessions, as Dean toils to make complicated concepts easy. This effort on his part was much appreciated by those he has taught. Students have also appreciated his openness, his frankness, his daring. Dean's challenge has been crystal clear. In his own words,

Do you care about kids? Do you want to understand their struggles? Would you like the world to do a better job nurturing youth? Are you involved or want to be involved in the lives of troubled young people? (Borgman, 2003)

Other contributions to Christian education can be cited. Borgman was probably a forerunner in advocating the concept of youth ministry as a cross-cultural activity. A keen student of culture himself, Dean would push students to truly understand teenagers, for example, in their music. Borgman asserts, "Young people may find more that speaks to their feelings and issues in music than they do at home, at school, or in church" (Borgman, 1997).

Additionally, Borgman developed and directed the Youth Ministries Concentration at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, a pioneering effort at the seminary level to upgrade youth-ministry professionals with excellent theological education. Also, Borgman served as a consultant and a founding professor in the establishment of Gordon-Conwell's precedent-setting urban extension in Boston, The Center for Urban Ministerial Education, now a recognized campus of the Seminary. Borgman has probably taught as many courses at CUME as any other single individual, enriching the ministry of hundreds of African-American, Hispanic and other urban youth ministers and pastors.

Outside the classroom, Borgman pioneered a practical research and training resource (a pre-Internet website) through his Center for Youth Studies. It can now be found at

He is the principal writer for CYS, which also produces a computerized Youth Workers' Encyclopedia (published by Exalt Software).

Perhaps Borgman's contribution to Christian education could be summarized in the challenge he has given over and over again to youth workers:

There is nobody in the world who doesn't need healing; we all need Jesus to heal us in some way. In fact, there is no one, even in deepest need, to whom you can't offer healing. You may offer healing time and a relationship, or perhaps a healing touch. Don't discount even a healing look. Jesus helps us understand the power of (mere) healing presence. In these ways Jesus can use you in the healing of any sufferer (Borgman, 2003).

Works Cited

  • Borgman, D. (2003). Hear my story: Understanding the cries of troubled youth. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
  • Borgman, D. (1997). When kumbaya is not enough: A practical theology for youth ministry. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.
  • Milliken, B. & Meredith, C. (1968). Tough love. Old Tappen, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, Co.


  • Borgman, D. (1987). A history of American youth ministry. In Benson and Senter, Complete book of youth ministries, 1987. A recounting of church and parachurch efforts to reach teenagers for Christ in coeducational settings.
  • Borgman, D. (1995). Youth culture and evangelism. In S. Kujawa (Ed.), Disorganized religion: The evangelization of youth and young adults, Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications.
  • Borgman, D. (1995). A theology of youth ministry: Reflecting on our work with young people from Biblical and cultural perspectives. New Rochelle, NY: Don Bosco Multimedia.
  • Borgman, D. (1997). When kumbaya is not enough: A practical theology for youth ministry. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers. An attempt to assist youthworkers become more effective by integrating Biblical, educational and sociological insights with the practice of youth ministry.
  • Borgman, D. (1998). Professionalism and cultural research in youth ministry. In D. Borgman and C. Cook (Eds.), Agenda for youth ministry. London: SPCK.
  • Borgman, D. (2003). "The Code of the Streets." In Scott Larson (Ed.), City lights: Ministry essentials for reaching urban youth. Loveland, CO: Group Publishing.
  • Borgman, D. (2003) Hear my story: Understanding the cries of troubled youth. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers. Borgman pleads passionately for underserved youth, those on society's edge. Included are many stories and case studies, illustrating basic principles for youthworkers who desire in their youth ministries to reach beyond white suburban populations.
  • Borgman, D. (2005). "Bridging the gap: From social science to congregations, researchers to practitioners." In Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, et. al. (Eds.). The handbook of spiritual development in childhood and adolescence. Search Institute: SAGE Publications.

Excerpts from Publications

Borgman, D. (2003) Hear my story: Understanding the cries of troubled youth. , Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers. (p. 370).

"There is nobody in the world who doesn't need healing; we all need Jesus to heal us in some way. In fact, there is no one, even in deepest need, to whom you can't offer healing. You may offer healing time and a relationship, or perhaps a healing touch. Don't discount even a healing look. Jesus helps us understand the power of (mere) healing presence. In these ways Jesus can use you in the healing of any sufferer." (p. 370)

"Do you care about kids? Do you want to understand their struggles? Would you like the world to do a better job nurturing youth? Are you involved or want to be involved in the lives of troubled young people?" (p. ix).

"We have seen . . . how many social systems today are programming young people to violence and dysfunction. We must be committed, then, to change — within and without. This means we must change people and systems." (p. 387-388)

"Remember that most young people are doing well, and some are actually way ahead of many adults. But because others are in imminent danger of seriously hurting themselves or others, this book is needed." (p. 410)

Borgman, D. (1997). When kumbaya is not enough. , Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers. (p. xii).

"Thinking about God's Word in a troubled world and considering what the gospel is saying to today's youth culture is theological reflection."

"Theology ought then to be good news to those around us. An effective communicator to young people tells stories. Youth ministers, teachers and preachers should recognize the priority of theology in narrative form. Our narratives and biblical stories must then be interpreted by propositions that come after or along with stories." (p. xiv)

"To do theology in youth culture forces one to be in touch with the spirit of the age and the trends of the times." (p. 13)

Author Information

Dan Jessen

Daniel C. Jessen, Associate Professor of Family and Youth Ministry, retired, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Was a colleague of Dean Borgman's at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for 16 years. Dan taught at the Seminary's urban campus as well, so he had additional exposure to Borgman. At the time of his leaving the Seminary, Dan and his wife Nancy have traveled to 30 countries on six continents, teaching workshops and short courses for seminaries, national pastors and others. They serve as missionaries with Ripe for Harvest World Mission (Mesa, AZ).