Preacher-teacher collaboration

In many churches the church school requires a major portion of the overall budget, yet its work is viewed as separate from the church itself. Is there a more effective way to unite the work of church and school in soul saving?

Monte Sahlin served until recently as a pastor. He is currently an assistant to the president of the Ohio Conference and works as a consultant to pastors and local churches.

Let's face it—there are some tensions between the pastoral and educational workers in the Adventist denomination. If you listen carefully at any workers' meeting or teacher in-service event, you will hear concerns about equal pay, conflicts over scarce resources, and a lack of perceived support for each other's ministries. Sometimes educators are critical of the evangelistic style of pastors, and at times pastors question the spiritual commitment of educators.

The tragedy of this tension is that it comes at a time when church and educational ministries need to stand together. Both the local church and the church school face stagnant growth patterns, economic pinch, and questions from their constituents about their mission and purpose. Pastors and teachers need each other more than ever! They need to support each other as they face the difficult issues of the present and the future.

Several years ago I was asked to work with the board of a small church school. The board faced a no-win situation. Projected enrollment for the next school year was only four children. The conference executive committee had told the board that the school could not operate another year unless amounts owed for teachers' services for previous years were paid by June 30. The teacher felt that the church should provide a special subsidy to cover this cost and continue the school. The pastor was of the opinion that too much of the church budget already was going for the school. Parents were unwilling to send their children a distance of more than fifty miles to the nearest church school, and one family said it would move away if no church school were provided. As I interviewed the key people involved, much of their attention focused on assigning blame. *

The teacher told me that the pastor and the church were not supportive enough. The pastor said that the school was bleeding the church to death. The chairman of the school board stated that the problem was caused by the way the conference was handling the situation. Nonetheless, all wanted to have a successful Christian education program and quickly agreed when I suggested a collaborative approach to the problem. Since that time I have had the opportunity to hear similar stories in many other places, and each story reinforces my belief that an intentional strategy of collaboration is necessary for pastors, teachers, and board members to work together productively.

Perhaps your situation is not as desperate as the one I have just described, but whatever your situation is, a strategy of collaboration can lead to better understanding and a strong alliance between the educational and pastoral arms of your work.

In this article I am going to suggest a strategy of collaboration, propose some action plans that might be useful in your situation, and finally share a vision of what I believe can be an effective collaborative outreach of the church and school. Of course, these suggestions will need to be adapted to meet the unique needs of your situation, and no one will be able to do all of them. I hope that these suggestions will stimulate dialogue of a new kind between teachers and pastors, combined with a lot of creative thinking, experimentation, and prayer.

The collaboration strategy

The essential concept I propose is that pastors and teachers become allies in dealing with the problems they and their institutions face instead of allowing the issues to divide them. Eva Schindler-Rainman and Ronald Lippitt are two highly respected authorities on collaborative processes. They report that collaboration is often necessary to solve seemingly intractable problems in organizations and communities and that it almost always releases a great deal of creative energy and momentum for change. They also observe that some basic elements must be in place for a collaborative effort to be successful.1

Collaboration begins with honest, open communication. This communication is built on trust developed in personal time together. Take the initiative, and invite your counterpart for a family social event. Set up a regular weekly talk time. Larger churches and schools, especially the school sponsored by a single church, might consider a regular schedule of joint staff meetings.

The issues need to be laid out on the table; all of the feelings and pressures and realities must be brought to the surface and discussed openly. In this discussion the focus should not be on blame or jealousy. If pastors and teachers cannot get beyond their personal hurts and perceived injustices, then both the church and school will suffer. This collaborative dialogue needs to begin with a clear goal: becoming allies so that both institutions are strengthened by learning to support each other.

Careful research should be done. What percentage of the tithe is being used for pastoral support, for Christian education, for evangelism? What percentage of the local church budget is going to school subsidy, to student aid, to indirect subsidy? What portion of the school-age children from church-related families are in church school? How much of the pastor's time is spent in school board and related committees, in worships and baptismal classes at the school, in other school-related activities? How much time does the teacher put into church offices, Sabbath school or Path finder responsibilities, and visitation of parents and prospective students?

Considerable data can be collected. Growth charts for church membership and school enrollment can be made and compared. Tithe, local church giving, and tuition income can be charted and the combined investment computed for the average supportive family. The percentage of inactive church members and families whose children are not in church school can be compared. All of this helps to move the dialogue away from blame to problem solving.

When the general data have been collected and reviewed, it is time for the pastor and teacher to go together and interview two groups of constituents. It is vital that these interviews be done together. When the visits are made separately, some of the persons inter viewed will say different things to each visitor. Human nature is such that we all tend to tell people what we think they want to hear, and this will result in the phenomenon of teacher and pastor getting differing messages from the same constituents.

The two groups to be interviewed include the strong supporters of the school and church, and those who have school-age children but have not enrolled them in church school (some of these may be inactive church members). At least ten to twelve visits divided equally between the two categories should be made.

The pastor and teacher should agree in advance on several key questions to ask such as: How can we increase the financial viability of our church and school? What needs to be done to increase church attendance and school enrollment? What needs of the families are not being met? Why are some church families not enrolling their children in the church school? Be sure that those interviewed understand that you have come to listen, not to recruit or raise funds. Encourage them to level with you, and don't argue with them or present any "answers"—just take notes!

After each interview the pastor and teacher will inevitably share some feelings about what they heard. When all of the interviews are completed, schedule a working session to work systematically through the notes that were taken. Summary responses to the key questions need to be clustered on a flip-chart or chalkboard. Trends need to be identified. Work together to understand the dynamics of the people, and resist the urge to find evidence to support your feelings.

Joint efforts 

The pastor and teacher should present the results of their interviews and the statistical and financial data they have collected to a joint meeting of the church board and school board. This meeting can be a special session for long-range planning and can serve to bring collaboration between the two boards and the entire staff.

The vast majority of Adventist churches have only two major mission objectives—public evangelism and Christian education. Most of them invest in Christian education about eight times what they invest in public evangelism. The church school is the primary missionary project of most Adventist congregations in North America. Yet is usually operated at arm's length from the church. This leads to the perception that it is a separate institution into which the church is pouring its resources at a time when it is pressed to find enough resources to continue nurture and outreach activities as well as to respond to new challenges.

Teachers and pastors need to work together to bring the school closer to the church, to make it truly a church school and not a parents' school. This can be done in many ways. Teachers ought to be local elders in the church. Perhaps the principal or head teacher should even be considered the associate pastor for Christian education. In fact, larger churches might find it worthwhile to use local funds to bring the pay of the school principal up to the pastoral level. In return, the principal would spend some extra time working with the pastor in planning, visitation, recruitment, ministry to parents, and marketing the school.

The pastoral and school staffs should meet together regularly. A weekly staff meeting may be too much, especially in small schools and churches, but a monthly schedule ought to be a mini mum expectation. The constituents deserve to hear the pastor and teacher "reading off the same page" in their ministries.

Christian Education Sabbath and programs in worship and Sabbath school by students from the church school are traditions, but perhaps they need to be renewed. Is there a way to include Christian education in the weekly worship liturgy? Since it is the major missionary investment of the congregation, should it not be more prominent? If the church school is so important to the congregation that it places nearly half its budget in the school, why not affirm the ministry of the school in every worship? Maybe the teacher should tell a children's story in each week's order of service or include a two-minute school update during the personal ministries time. The teacher should have some visible role in the leadership of each worship service. In worship the church reminds itself of what it is, what it believes, and what it is trying to do in the world. In the weekly Sabbath service the church holds up before the Lord for His blessing those things that are important to it. If the church leaves out the school, then the subliminal message is that the school is no longer important to the church.

There are a number of reasons that teachers and pastors should consider a regular exchange of roles—the pastor teaching in the classroom and the teacher preaching in the pulpit. This would slow down the galloping process of specialization that is slowly separating the teaching ministry from the church and may one day cause it to be completely cut off. It would also help each to understand the demands placed upon the other. Most important, it would help them to become a team engaged in a joint ministry. Finally, it certainly would tell the constituency that both considered the ministry of the other to be important.

Education as outreach

The most fruitful area of collaboration between school and church is outreach. Recognition of this has grown as curricula have been developed for teaching upper-grade students to witness. Can the pastor, the teacher, and the board members also be involved in Christian education outreach? Current policy seems to discourage the recruitment of significant numbers of non-Adventist students to our schools. Many pastors see this as an affirmation on the part of Adventist educators that they do not regard their institutions as missionary enterprises. I have come to believe that a new policy of seeking non-Adventist enrollments would be one of our most fruitful strategies. It would both increase the resources available to fund our schools and bring about church growth.

Americans have a growing interest in Christian education. "In February, 1983, the New York Times commissioned a national poll asking adults whether they would send their children to neighborhood public schools if the cost of private schools was not a factor. Of those responding, 37 percent said they would prefer to send their children to a private school. The enrollment in non-Catholic religious schools have been climbing sharply—from approximately 600,000 in 1970 to approximately 1.7 million in 1983. The north eastern states, home of many long-established, elite, private preparatory schools, had the smallest increase of 48 percent. In the West, enrollment in private non-Catholic religious schools doubled, and in the middle Atlantic- Southern belt from Virginia to Texas the enrollment quadrupled. In the District of Columbia, the home of many federal employees, enrollment in private, non-Catholic religious schools tripled between 1970and 1983.... [One of] the fastest growing segments of the private school scene [is] nursery schools and kindergartens for children in the 2- to 5-year-old bracket, in which enrollment nearly quadrupled between 1965 and 1983." 2

In one community in the Midwest, Adventists have been operating a church school for more than forty years, and the enrollment has never been more than 125. Ten years ago another conservative, Bible-oriented church began a Christian school that now has an enrollment of more than 400. More recently a third Christian school has begun. Why are we not taking advantage of this increased interest in Christian education?

If parents are interested in Christian education and they find that their children have a good experience in our schools, it seems to me that they would be responsive to considering member ship in our churches. An Adventist parent who enrolled his child in a private Christian school told me that when the school year began, all parents were asked to come to an orientation meeting. During that meeting not only did the staff cover policies and schedules but they also made a very winsome and straightforward presentation of why it is important to accept Christ and how Christian values are taught in the classroom. At the end of the meeting parents were told that if they had questions about faith, they could feel free to chat with any teacher privately at any time. Is it inappropriate for us to do the same?

Family life ministries are entry events that non-Adventist church school patrons might find especially interesting. Perhaps a parent resource center staffed by volunteers from the church and advertised as a community service might be located in the church school. This might include a toy library with special emphasis on at-home educational experiences for preschool children, as well as a series of classes and seminars on parenting, discipline, prepared child birth, et cetera. A parents' support group might be organized to meet weekly, and this could serve as a pathway to Bible studies and attendance at church or public evangelistic meetings.

Instead of positioning our church schools to take care of our own, why not position them as outreach centers to families and children? We feel that we need to defend our children from worldly influences, and this is usually the rationale for careful segregation. But today we have to face the facts that a great many worldly influences have wormed their way into church families via television and other public media, the attitudes of many parents, and the pervasive quality of modern secular culture. Maybe it is time to realize that "the best defense is a good offense" and fight back by making our schools intentional evangelistic enterprises.

Let me close with a personal request: I would like very much to hear from pastors and teachers who are now collaborating or who attempt to collaborate because of reading this article. If I can collect a number of firsthand case studies, I will summarize them in a future report.

1 Eva Schindler-Rainman and Ronald Lippitt,
The Volunteer Community: Creative Use of Human
Resources (Fairfax, Va.: NTL Learning Resources
Corporation, 1975).

2 Lyle E. Schaller, "The Role of Private
Christian Schools: Facts to Inform Your Position"
(privately published document available through
Yokefellow Institute, Richmond, Indiana).

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Monte Sahlin served until recently as a pastor. He is currently an assistant to the president of the Ohio Conference and works as a consultant to pastors and local churches.

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