United on an Eternal Mission

June 28, 2017 | Steve Vistaunet

When churches, schools, pastors, teachers and parents work together on the gospel mission, amazing things can happen. David Glenn, pastor of the Chehalis Church in Washington, can tell you a thing or two about that.

Pastor Glenn is up early most mornings. His day demands an energetic start — quality time with the Word and his treadmill. Beyond breakfast, he’s got things to do, places to go, people to meet. And no matter how busy his to-do list is, those things, places and people begin each morning at the Lewis County Adventist School (LCAS) in Chehalis. 

“As a pastor, there couldn’t be a better place for me to start my day of ministry,” he says with a grin. “Not only do I get to greet our parents and kids as they arrive for school, but I can make appointments and have conversations and prayer with people I probably wouldn’t otherwise see during the day.”

Far from an interruption, this regular partnership with the local Adventist school may end up being the most productive part of Pastor Glenn’s ministry on any given day.

And he’s not the only pastor there. Both his associate, John Mutchler, and Ira Bartolome, Centralia Church pastor, are also integrated into school life at LCAS. This collaborative DNA between the school and the two constituent churches has been growing there for years. The collegial spirit is palpable.

Karen Carlton, LCAS principal, does not take this relationship for granted. “One reason I love it here is this partnership," she says. "We have an amazing team of pastors and teachers who work together in so many capacities.”

It’s been that way so long that some could be forgiven for taking it for granted. But Carlton sees the daily integration and understands how intentional and vital this has become to the life of the school.

“Pastor Glenn sometimes jokes that his one spiritual gift is ‘just showing up.’ Well, one of my favorite pictures is when he ‘just shows up’ in the afternoon, and he’s wearing his suit jacket, tie and slacks, playing soccer with the ninth- and 10th-graders," she says. "Then he comes out all sweaty to greet parents as they come to pick up their kids. It shows how much our pastors have become part of our everyday lives.”

“This regular involvement,” she says, “makes everything at the school integrally connected in a more tangible way to the mission of the church.” It, of course, works both ways.

On a Thursday morning in late April, as Pastor Bartolome sought to coordinate a student project at a local thrift outlet, Pastor Mutchler accompanied ninth- and 10th-grade instructor Dan Baker and his students to Hub City Mission in Centralia. There they worked to repackage food items for later distribution by the mission to needy folks around the area. Baker, who served as principal before Carlton came, is in his 17th year at LCAS. In more than 34 years of teaching, he’s seen a few things, both pro and con.

“We’re spoiled here,” he says with a knowing smile. “Some of my teacher friends in other areas have pastors who never darken the door of their school. Not here. We have an incredibly supportive pastoral team who realize they get a better chance to interact with current and future parishioners here during the week than at the church.”

Baker knows from experience not every school and church has such a close partnership. Not all pastors or principals are on each other’s speed dial. Not every church board sees their local school as the most valuable resource available for reaching children and their parents with the gospel.

In fact, when the annual church budget is discussed, it may challenge a pastor or church board to remember why they wanted a church school in the first place. For some churches, local school subsidies make up the largest single item on the budget. When dollars are not obviously connected to ministry, when regular connections between church and school are not intentionally created, it’s easy to see why some members — even some pastors — are less than enthusiastic about the value of Adventist education.

But, thankfully, many pastors do recognize, along with Glenn, Mutchler and Bartolome, the value of partnering in the Adventist mission to share hope and wholeness with each community. They understand several important ways this partnership with Adventist Christian schools is designed to build the kingdom:

  • It is one of the most effective ways to reach the community for Christ — yes, evangelism;
  • It reaches not only children but their parents and extended families as well;
  • It provides an active daily approach to ministry, even when most church buildings are quiet and dark.

Doylene Cook, who has taught at LCAS for 15 years, has seen this firsthand. “These pastors are immersed in the kids,” she says. “They recognize how important the partnership is to our church mission. They’re on our team at worship, on the play fields and field trips. A pastor will stop me in the hall and ask, ‘What are you studying this week?’ Then he’ll create a worship talk for my students on that very topic.”

The pastors who work regularly with school children realize these daily connections create safe openings for those same children to return with additional questions. “I want to build bridges with them,” says Pastor Glenn, “so that if they do want to follow Jesus at some point in baptism, if they’d like to get involved in missions, that I’d be one of the ‘go-to’ people they feel comfortable with.”

“If the only time they see me is when I’m up in the pulpit,” says Pastor Mutchler, “then I’m just a guy that preaches. But when they see me at the door of the school everyday and we have fun together, then they see God and worship and church as a really important part of daily life. Here, everybody knows our name, and we know every child’s name. It’s a family, and when you combine that with the church — God just binds it all together.”

Interesting and eternal things happen when relationships and interactions are valued. Jennifer Hubbard, a parent of three LCAS students who works as a part-time teacher’s assistant, was baptized more than a decade ago. But when she began volunteering at the school, walking in the gym with a group of women on rainy mornings and interacting more regularly with the pastors' mission there, she found a personal and passionate growth in her Christian experience.

This spring she led two Pathfinder Bible Experience (PBE) teams from the school and church to first-place finishes at the North American Division PBE final event. She can hardly stop talking about the God-honoring mission shared by the area churches and this school.

Pastor Glenn says there’s a lot of truth to what he once overheard from a friend: “Whoever wants your children the most will get them.” It’s the main reason he and his colleagues “just show up” to spend so much time with the LCAS teachers, parents and students.

But does this investment of time and effort pay dividends? Long-term statistics are beyond the scope of this article, but certainly short-term results bear out the value of this partnership, and LCAS is not the only place where it shows.

Partnerships are bearing fruit throughout the Northwest. Nowhere is this more evident than in Oregon where the ministry model of “Together as One” has taken hold in places such as the McMinnville Adventist Christian School (MACS).

In 2009, when a group from the main McMinnville Church determined to plant a new church, they found a symbiotic partner in MACS. Instead of renting another facility, the Rivers Edge Adventist Company co-located at the school and began putting resources that would have gone toward rent into MACS renovations. Jim John, pastor of Rivers Edge, says, “We've really been able to build some incredible bridges with the school administration, the board, and with parents and students because they see we are part of their community.”

Prayer is part of that community. Pastor John says a regular Family Prayer Night has enabled the church and school families to experience the power of prayer for real community needs. Prayers from 4- and 5-year-olds mingle with those of their parents. It is a time of spiritual bonding.

Elizabeth Fish, MACS principal, says, “We are truly and uniquely a church-school, together, literally, as one. I can look around this school and see tangible ways this church has invested in us.”

And, it’s not just one church or one pastor. Like LCAS, pastors from all constituent churches are integrally involved. Joining Pastor John, colleagues Jerry Joubert of the McMinnville Church, David Ballard in Newberg and, until recently, Abraham Acosta from the McMinnville Spanish Church (before he was called to another conference) are all invested in this church/school partnership. Because they’re around so much, the students know them as friends and counselors, not just the men who preach on Sabbath.

“Each classroom has adopted a pastor who is 'theirs' for the year,” says Fish. “That might be anything from a worship each week to perhaps a game of 'tag' during recess. You might be surprised how much bonding happens when it’s the pastor who’s tagging you out.”

The synergy between church and school adds value both ways. “Being at the school so often has even changed how I preach sermons,” says Pastor Jerry of the McMinnville congregation. “Now I use many more illustrations and tell more stories so the kids can be part of worship.”

Verlaine Linrud, MACS third- through fifth-grade teacher, encourages her students to participate daily in what they call TAG — Time Alone with God. It’s not easy in a room with 15–20 other children, but it has become one of their favorite times of the day.

Each child finds a private spot in the room where they can open their Bible or journal and spend 15–20 minutes quietly reading, writing or praying. This special time wraps up with an opportunity to share additional thoughts with classmates.  

“One day during TAG time in my classroom,” Linrud recalls, “a student came to me and asked how old she had to be to be baptized. I assured her there was no age limit, but when she knew she loved Jesus and wanted to follow Him she would be ready. When we gathered for our discussion afterwards, the Holy Spirit impressed me to ask if there were any students who were thinking about getting baptized. Ten students simultaneously raised their hands. One student exclaimed, ‘Mrs. Linrud, we did the Bible studies already with Pastor Ballard, and we are ready. Can you please talk to our pastors for us?’ How could I refuse a request like that? The Holy Spirit was filling my classroom, and I recognized this as a powerful working of God."

And so, on a recent Friday evening, all four constituent congregations and a large group of community supporters packed the MACS auditorium to “fire code maximum” for a delicious dinner and a program of music and Scripture. Then came the dessert: four pastors wading into an above-ground swimming pool to baptize 12 MACS students.*

“This is the one day I have waited for the past 12 years,” one father said. Then he choked up. “We’ve saved money, driven old cars, worked late at night and given everything so our daughter can have this kind of education. Tonight we are so proud!”

The MACS celebration beautifully represents what can happen when congregations, pastors and communities fully adopt a school and create a new family for Jesus. Granted, spiritual victories are never guaranteed in every situation. Many factors intrude in the lives of families and children that can alter the outcomes. But if the statement is true — “whoever wants your children the most will get them” — then why wouldn’t we spend every effort to tip the balance in favor of eternal choices?

Victories in this spiritual arena are possible, says Linrud, because Adventist education doesn’t just include pastors and teachers. It encompasses every person of every age who deeply cares about training children for the kingdom — Sabbath School teachers, Pathfinder leaders, and all church and school support personnel.

Chehalis/Centralia and McMinnville — two communities are making that effort with big hearts and life-changing partnerships for the kingdom. If it can happen there, why not in your church, your school and your community?

*Three additional students were baptized in their local church that same month.