The critical role of pastors

The critical role of pastors in Adventist education

Thirteen ways pastors can make a difference in their church schools.

Thambi Thomas, EdD, is associate director of education, Pacifi c Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Westlake Village, California, United States.

Church schools have been an integral part of the Adventist Church for more than a hundred years. Ellen White had counseled church leaders, “There should be schools established wherever there is a church or company of believers. Teachers should be employed to educate the children of Sabbath-keepers.”1 As early as 1853, Ellen White counseled members of the early Adventist Church of the importance of separating children from worldly influences.2 Not until the 1870s, however, did the Adventist Church begin to organize a denominational school system to educate the children and youth of the church. Church schools were to be instrumental in lifting the “standard of truth” wherever they were established.3 Today, there are approximately 922 elementary schools, 109 secondary schools, and 15 colleges and universities in the North American Division (NAD) alone. The education ministry of the Adventist Church now embraces 1.3 million students in 7,293 K–12 (kindergarten through twelfth grade) schools around the globe.4

The challenges

Adventist education in the NAD, however, faces many challenges. At the forefront of all these challenges is the declining enrollment in K–12 schools across North America. In 1999, the K–12 enrollment (including Griggs International Academy) was 64,762. In 2007, the K–12 enrollment, including Griggs International Academy, was 58,257. The chart to the right illustrates the changes in enrollment and in the total number of schools in the NAD. One can readily see we are losing more students more rapidly in recent years, and have fewer elementary schools—55 fewer schools in 2008 than in 2007.

According to NAD statistics, the majority of elementary schools in the NAD are small schools established by mission-driven pastors and church members following the counsel of Ellen White to establish a school wherever there is a church or company of believers. The “endangered species” in Adventist education is the small school with a teacher who teaches one or more grades in a classroom and doubles as the principal as well. Scores of teaching principals in small schools give unselfishly of their time, energy, and even personal resources to help these schools succeed. To hear of school-teaching principals in small schools, who also serve as bus drivers and/or custodians of the school because of necessity, is not unusual.

Two unfortunate consequences of school closures include the loss of employment for many teachers and principals who went into the education ministry as a divine calling, and Adventist children and young people finding it necessary to attend a public school. In a few instances, Adventist children benefit from attending private schools operated by other Christian churches.

Reasons for declining enrollment

The reasons for the declining enrollment remain elusive, but the decline could be partly due to the changing face of the Adventist Church itself. According to the recent Demographic Survey of the Adventist Church, conducted for the NAD Secretariat by the Center for Creative Ministry in 2007–2008,5 there are at least three findings that are significant to Adventist education:

• The Adventist Church is “graying” with 74 percent of families indicating they have no children in the household. Since a percentage of the remaining 26 percent have preschool age children, only one in five Adventist families are potential clients for the Adventist Church school.

• Forty percent of Adventist families surveyed had an annual income of less than $25,000 per year. When combined with the next income group, a total of 70 percent had an income of less than $50,000 per year.

• The number of immigrants in the Adventist Church (31 percent) is more than double the percentage of immigrants in the U.S. (12 percent). Many of these families have school-age children but are without the financial means to send them to the church school and must avail themselves of a public school education.

Pastoral support coveted

Depending on where parents live, elementary school tuition can be as high as $4,000 per year and day-academy tuition as high as $8,000 per year. One can easily see the financial challenges for families with several school-age children if they are in the lower income bracket. Regrettably, Adventist education is rapidly becoming something that Adventist families cannot afford.

A key player in the survival of the small school is the local church or constituent church pastor. While all principals covet pastoral support, regardless of school size, pastoral support truly becomes a matter of survival for the small school. Pastors have always played a critical role in Adventist education, but unfortunately, this, too, is changing.

This Demographic Survey of the Adventist Church6 report has another somewhat revealing detail: only 29 percent of Adventists have had the benefit of an Adventist K–16 (all levels) education.

An increasing number of pastors have not had the benefi t of an Adventist K–12 education or even an Adventist college education prior to coming to the ministry. They may have been educated overseas, and therefore, have not had the benefit of an Adventist K–12 or K–16 education before coming to the Adventist Seminary. Adventist educators see this as translating into a casual or even nonactive support of the church school.

Susan Vlach, principal of South Bay Junior Academy in Southern California, developed a simple yet powerful way of illustrating the four types of pastors she has worked with over the past 27 years. While this list is subjective and not based on research or empirical evidence, it does provide an interesting way of self-assessment.

Four types of pastors

An engaged pastor will have the opportunity to participate in the interview and selection process of the best teacher and/or principal who can effectively help fulfill the mission of the church school. No doubt one can expand any of the quadrants in the chart by adding other descriptors to the list. In like manner, one can easily place school administrators and teachers in each quadrant and arrive at a list of ineffective and somewhat effective educators to effective and highly effective teachers and principals. Perhaps this chart can serve as a springboard for some candid and prayerful discussions as pastors and educators come together to understand how one is being perceived by the other without seeking to assign blame. Conference presidents, like few other administrators in our system, have the authority and ability to facilitate this sort of dialogue.

The educational system as it has been, and as we know it today, will not likely survive without the active and engaged support of pastors. With the support of pastors who see the school as an integral part of the church’s mission, the school will more likely continue to grow and be effective in educating and nurturing the children and young people of the church and be a witness to the surrounding community.

Ideas for pastoral involvement

The following list, generated by secondary administrators in the Pacific Union Conference several years ago, recognizes the fact that many pastors are strong supporters of Adventist education. The list identifies the different ways pastors have been involved in their church school. I present this list with the hope that it will give additional ideas for even greater involvement of pastors in the local school:

• Pr omoting “Christian Education Emphasis Day” at church

• Attending school board meetings

• Conducting baptismal classes on campus

• Being involved with students in witness and Community Services activities

• Preaching sermons on the value and importance of Christian education

• Connecting with the youth by co-teaching Bible classes

• Assisting school with recruitment efforts

• Hosting a weekly or monthly pastor-student lunch

• Inviting teachers to participate in worship services

• Being visible on campus for informal talk/study times during lunch or after school

• Visiting parents who are not sending their children to an Adventist school

• Conducting a dedication service for teachers and students

• Embracing Christian education as an integral part and extension of the church’s ministry to the children and youth

School administrators, teachers, and pastors have a common mission and are driven by a common goal: preparing people for God’s kingdom. The support of pastors is critical to the success of the church school. Does the pastor see the teacher or principal as vital to the church’s ministry? Sometimes church school subsidy is viewed as a drain on the church budget and something that takes money away from evangelism, while not recognizing the church school as one of the strongest evangelistic tools the Adventist Church owns. To state the obvious, where else would one find a ministry that goes on five days a week for ten months a year? In the Pacific Union Conference alone, K–12 schools report an average of 500 students getting baptized each school year.

Ideally, the school should be an extension of the ministry of the church—where the pastor, school administrator, and teachers are seen as partners working together for the well-being and salvation of the children and youth of the church. They should recognize the truth of Ellen White’s statement that indeed “[i]n the highest sense the work of education and the work of redemption are one, for in education, as in redemption, other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”7 From this vantage point, church subsidy to the school will inevitably be seen as integral to fulfilling the mission of the church. Pastoral support is vital to the survival of the church school, especially the endangered small school.

1. Ellen G. White, “Educational Work,” General Conference
Bulletin, April 1, 1898,

(accessed May 19, 2009).

2. Walton J. Brown, ed. “Chronology of Seventh-day Adventist
Education,” (Department of Education, General Conference
of Seventh-day Adventists [n.d.]).

3. Ellen G. White, “Church Schools,” Australasian Union
Conference Record
, July 26, 1899.

4. Department of Education Seventh-day Adventist Church,
“Education Employment,”
edstats.html (accessed May 19, 2009).

5. North American Division and Center for Creative Ministry

6. Ibid.

7. Ellen G. White, Counsels for the Church (Nampa, ID: Pacific
Press Pub. Assn., 1991), 202; White, Education (Nampa, ID:
Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 30.

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Thambi Thomas, EdD, is associate director of education, Pacifi c Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Westlake Village, California, United States.

December 2009

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