Saving Adventist Education in the 21st Century

June 27, 2015 | Martin Weber

Throughout the North Pacific Union, church schools and academies reopen their doors next month to serve our children and teens. But what about next year?

Adventist schools struggle financially — even many that model academic excellence. For various reasons, many congregations have fewer children to populate educational institutions. Some church schools and academies that once thrived are now on artificial life support.

How might we save them? Let’s talk first about what not to do.

Scolding members into giving more isn’t helpful. In these financially challenging times, just returning tithes and basic offerings is all that most of us feel we can do. As for well-funded members, they give more abundantly and cheerfully not when they feel the heat but when they see the light that shines from a creative and compelling vision for our schools.

Lobbying conferences or union leaders for additional funding is no solution either. Christian education already requires so much of their operating budgets that expecting more funding is unrealistic.

Depleting local church reserves to sustain our schools also isn’t viable. Adventist education requires financially healthy local churches. This makes sense, considering that the local church is the most basic unit of our entire denominational hierarchy. It’s where babies are dedicated, children worship with parents every Sabbath, teens get baptized, young adults get married and people in my age bracket get memorialized.

Since the local church is the foundation of worldwide Adventism, the entire denominational structure exists to support local churches (where the money comes from in the first place). This includes global and division headquarters, union and conference offices, hospitals, publishing houses — and yes, schools. Schools are an adjunct of local churches — let’s be clear about that. No institution of any kind should swallow up funds needed to support pastors in discipling church members for witnessing to neighbors and workplace associates. Effective congregational nurture and healthy outreach require thriving, well-led churches.

Some Adventists propose diverting community outreach funds to sustain Christian education. “Schools are the best tool of evangelism we have,” they say. If so, their churches are out of balance. Education by definition is training and mentoring. Teaching our children while neglecting our neighbors does not fulfill God’s purpose for His church or even justify our tax-exempt status in the community.

Well, then, how do we find funds to support our church schools? Some ideas I’ve seen work well:

Maintain vibrant community outreach, which attracts new families into local churches. Their children can revive our Sabbath schools and church schools. For single mothers and other financially challenged parents, God moves upon the hearts of grandparents in the faith to share not only their funding but themselves to support and mentor both children and their parents.

Older students might earn more of their own tuition, particularly in academy. American teens don’t have time to work? No wonder, with evening basketball games and ski trips. There’s homework, of course, but also time for video games and selfies with smartphones (often funded by parents). Our best academies have industries or digital businesses in which students earn their tuition plus real world experience before graduation. Teens who learn to help support themselves usually don’t loiter through life into their 30s before becoming productive citizens and church members.

Adventist health care institutions benefit from Adventist education. So why shouldn’t they significantly support academies and colleges that train their future employees? Professional baseball supports a “farm system” for that purpose. Increasingly and appropriately, hospitals that bear the name of the Adventist Church are becoming more deeply and systemically involved in Adventist schools and colleges.

Technology can help save our schools, if we invest wisely. A few American academies, at least for some classes, collaborate in on-site distance education through a mother school to which they connect for live classroom instruction. Such real-time interactive classroom technology, though exciting, is enormously expensive to install and maintain, but cost-effective alternatives to support Christian colleges, high schools and eventually elementary schools are being developed.

To summarize: We’ve explored four pitfalls to avoid and four suggestions to consider in supporting and enhancing Adventist Christian education. Actually, many Northwest Adventist churches and institutions are already implementing their own creative ideas, in collaboration with local and union conference educational leaders.

Undeniably, the cost of Adventist education is high, not just for parents but for the sponsoring churches and the entire Adventist system. Yet the cost of not having education is even higher, considering the eternal value of our children. God can help us strategically sustain our schools without bankrupting our churches.