Ella Smith Simmons, EdD, is a vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

About 35 years ago Isaac Lester, a seasoned pastor, and I, a new principal with some leadership experience, began a running conversation about the pastor’s role in Adventist education. This, the mid-1980s, was a period during which new concepts of pastoral roles and leadership were being discussed and tested widely in the United States. Many had come to view the pastor’s role as that of chief executive officer, a CEO/ leader type, whose job was to cast vision, then motivate and rally the members to carry on the work of the church.1 Others held to a more hands-on role for pastors. As we would be working together, I needed to know my pastor’s stand on this crucial subject.

Fortunately, we both had two priority goals: (1) the elevation of educational quality at our local church school and (2) the expansion of educational opportunities and access to the children of our church and, to some degree, the children of the wider community. Our church community was fairly typical, made up of working-class and professional members. Even though many of them had migrated to the suburbs, they continued to support the little school located in an urban setting.

Given the related challenges and our mutual aspirations, we vowed mutual respect and support and set out on a journey to provide the best possible leadership and nurture to that church school. I have treasured this experience and wish with all my heart that other principals could form such rich partnerships with our wonderful pastors. I learned from the Adventist Pastor: A World Survey that there are very real factors that stand in the way of this being replicated on a wider scale.

Undertrained and overstretched

This study, conducted by Roger Dudley and Petr Cincala, provides significant information about the pastor’s journey. Seventh-day Adventist pastors feel that God called them to be a pastor (96 percent), and they enjoy being a pastor (95 percent). They feel that being a pastor seems to fit their spiritual gifts (91 percent). Further, most feel supported by their congregations (83 percent) and their local conferences (73 percent). Dudley and Cincala observed that this was a “major finding” “since the morale of the ministers has much to do with the success of their ministry.”2

However, as might be expected, these numbers dropped when it came to various other ministries of the pastors. While 46 percent of ministers said they got by most of the time and 36 percent felt that they had sufficient time for other necessary pastoral tasks, 18 percent (766 pastors) reported that they rarely or never got their work done. This finding is significant because it pertains to the individual pastor’s ability to sup- port the local church school. The survey revealed a need for additional education and training for practicing pastors—an “obvious but often overlooked need for pastoral development.” In fact, 70 percent of the pastors indicated that from their own perspective they were not sufficiently trained “to maximize their ministry.” I began to realize that Elder Isaac Lester was—not just metaphorically, but also statistically—one of a kind.

Pastor-principal partnership

It all began with our introductory conversation in the school cafeteria one day about our respective operational responsibilities and authorities. Who was responsible for what and in what capacity? Was the pastor to be lead administrator for both the church and the school or was the principal to take the administrative lead of the school? How should we work together? Who would bear responsibilities for the spiritual health of the school, for general programming at the school, and parent-relations connected to the school? Who would take responsibility for its financial viability? Who would speak for the school outside the church context to the higher organizations of the Adventist Church, the conference and union, and to the local public community?

These and related questions got the conversations started and, to this day, we return to them from time to time, including the focused interview I conducted with Elder Lester for this project. In this article, you will find the culminations of many conversations, the developing crystallizations of some, and even a few remaining questions that have survived our departure from that setting long ago. These findings have come from tested, theoretical answers to specific queries, our trial- and-error discoveries, and the ongoing promptings of the Holy Spirit. These are our lessons learned, the sum of our information cache, our knowledge base, and our wisdom repertoire for pastoral support of Adventist education at the local school/church level.

An ever-present problem

Given that the Adventist Church has operated schools for close to 150 years, it is somewhat strange that this question of the pastor’s role in Adventist education is still present in the church worldwide. Perhaps it stems from the continuing and generally emerging role of the local church pastor, with the church school being just one of too many responsibilities. Perhaps it derives from the pastor’s overall lack of personal experience with Adventist education that has resulted in diminished understanding of the need for Adventist schools at the local level. Perhaps it may simply be related to the absence of emphasis and clear direction from the church’s higher organizations that articulate well-defined goals for other priority ministries such as public evangelism, church planting, and sup- port of foreign missions.

Our approach to the problem

Elder Lester and I began in our context, looking first to Scripture. Our foundation was from God’s directions for educating children. First among these directive principles is Deuteronomy 6:4–7: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children.”3

Next we took literally Isaiah’s words: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children” (Isa. 54:13). Then we analyzed our situation and found that it resembled one described by Ellen White in an address delivered in the St. Helena Sanitarium (California) chapel, July 14, 1902. She spoke regarding “the necessity of withdrawing our children from the public schools, and of providing suitable places where they can be educated aright.” She further said, “I have felt surprised at the apparently indifferent attitude of some, notwithstanding the oft-repeated warnings . . . with reference to their future, eternal interests.”4 While our church had a long history of providing Adventist education for its children, it now was becoming irrelevant to many members due, we found, to at least three factors: cost, perceptions of lost quality, and a general indifference to the necessity of Adventist education.

We drew principles from the schools of the prophets as one of our models, though we were often challenged to make operational associations to twentieth-century urban education. Nevertheless, we gleaned valuable guidance. One point particularly stood out to us. We were alarmed that many of the children in the congregation lacked a reference point to the Adventist Church, important historical references that church school education would provide. In that regard Ellen White said, “There is a work of sacred importance for ministers and people to do. . . . They are to revive and recount the truths that have come to seem of little value to those who do not know by personal experience.”5 Then we took the counsel that admonishes our churches to teach the children to be diligent in missionary work and to teach them self-denial and self-sacrifice for the good of others and the advancement of Christ’s cause.6 Elder Lester embraced these as personal challenges in his teaching and preaching through his pastoral role in supporting our church school.

Challenges of the current context

Our approach and experiences in themselves may be of value to some, but we must consider the current context for Adventist education by looking to what little we have in the way of statistics regarding pastors and Seventh-day Adventist education. We shall look at the global pastors survey.

In 2013, the General Conference received a report of findings from research it had commissioned to survey pastors in the nearly 600 local conferences and missions of the world church. The entire population of field pastors of the thirteen divisions of the church comprised the population for the study. The intent of the study was to investigate the pastors’ attitudes, practices, and personal feelings in regard to specific ministries and programs of the church. This study included a brief survey sequence on pastors’ involvement with church institutions, educational institutions being among them.7

Data from this survey segment came from the following question: “Do you personally, as a pastor, work with any of the above institutions such as educational, medical, publishing, etc.?” Pastors were instructed to respond with “yes” or “no” indicating their work with these three types of church institutions. Of the 4,261 pastors surveyed, 1587 (just over 37 percent) reported that they work with educational institutions, and 2672 (63 percent) reported that they do not work with educational institutions.

Another question asked the pastors about their own education. They were asked to indicate the number of years of their education that had been in Adventist schools. Pastors reported that 8 percent of them had no Adventist education while 14 percent had 13 or more years of Adventist education. The largest group, 36 percent, had five to eight years of Adventist education.

Number of Years in SDA SchoolsPercentage
Zero  8%  
One-four Years  26%  
Five-Eight Years  36%  
Nine-Twelve Years 16%  
Thirteen plus Years  14%  

The survey found that the ideal pastoral assignment is a district of two or more smaller churches (37 percent), followed by 25 percent for a fairly large church with one pastor, and 17 percent for a larger church with a multi-pastor staff. Only 14 percent made their first choice of a congregation connected with an educational institution or hospital. Essentials of what schools need from pastorsThis study can be understood as a study of a single case pastor-principal partnership in promoting Adventist education. This was brought current through a focused, reflexive interview to verify perceptions and articulate lessons learned as words of wisdom and advice for today’s pastors who are seeking guidance.Local church schools have particular needs for direct and indirect support from their pastor(s). While recognizing the heavy load of responsibilities that weigh on the local church pastor, we found that, in a more ideal world, the essentials of pastoral support for local schools would include that the pastor must:

  • be familiar with the general basics of Adventist education, its scriptural foundations, philosophy, goals and objectives, structures, content/ curricula, instructional methods, personnel, and so forth;
  • be familiar with the particulars of the local church school, with a clear understanding of what should be the topmost priority within the local context;
  • be knowledgeable of the church’s needs for education, quantitatively and qualitatively;
  • work collaboratively with the school principal and openly support the principal’s leadership of the school, including providing guidance if a principal goes astray;
  • be willing to promote the school by being visible at the school, inter- acting appropriately with school personnel, students, and parents in casual encounters, worship, spiritual instruction, baptismal classes, and so forth;
  • be active on the local school board or serve as an advisor to the board for governance oversight, including policy development and implementation; • promote the school through preaching and teaching to educate members on the nature and necessity of Adventist education;
  • promote the school by providing time during church services for the school’s teachers and students to take part in or lead out in various aspects of the service on regular and special days;
  • lead in advocating for the provision of resources for the church school from the local church budget, private donors, and sources at the higher levels of church organization for providing teachers, school facilities, student transportation, and so forth; and
  • seek to garner support for the church school when visiting members—those with children and those who have no children.

God’s continuing call

The upbringing of the church’s children and youth requires the attention and nurture of an entire congregation, and this necessitates the pastor to rally the congregation to that aim. No one else can do this work to full success. The pastor is the greatest influence in a local congregation or district. To ensure the confidence of the members and pastors, church schools must constantly evaluate themselves to be sure their conduct is aligned with the evangelistic mission of the church. “When properly conducted, church schools will be the means of lifting the standard of truth in the places where they are established.”8 To this end “the church has a special work to do in educating and training its children.”9

Classic and contemporary research clearly and consistently provides convincing evidence that educational success for schools and individual students requires significant parental involvement with community support in the schools. Historically, the church’s most notable model for supporting Adventist education requires the commitment of the home, school, and church. It is imperative that the pastor, while not taking on the operational details, support this alliance in cooperation with parent leaders and school personnel.

Hindrances to crucial partnerships

Schools need pastoral support in order to engage more families and members of the church community in the schools. Pastors must identify the right individuals and small groups within the local church who have the related knowledge and skills to lead or carry out a variety of efforts. At one time the Adventist Church was to rely heavily on the Home and School Association for significant parent involvement in the schools with support of the church community. Originally, there was to be a Home and School Association in every church where there was a church school or the intent to organize a church school. However, in many locations and over time, there has not been sufficient involvement in and support of the Home and School Association.

Pastors searching for means and methods should call for, and actively support and revive, a Home and School Association in the local church, and use it to recruit as many church members as possible to partner with the school. Plans and policies for organizing and sustaining a Home and School Association are outlined in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual. The Seventh-day Adventist Home and School Association is designed to be far more than the typical public school Parent-Teacher Association (PTA). The ultimate goal is to have all church members enlisted to promote Adventist education and, operated properly, the Home and School Association would be a tremendous blessing to our schools, churches, and pastors.


It needs to be said that pastors can realize their full potential for influence on our schools only in partnership with mutually supportive local school principals and teachers. The principal or lead teacher, in particular, can hold up the pastor’s arms as the pastor seeks to draw the congregation into a faith commitment to the education of the church’s children and youth. Nevertheless, there must be support from the Adventist Church at levels beyond the local congregation.

Time will tell regarding how the church will respond to meet the pastors’ needs and provide more and better in-service education for Adventist pastors worldwide. According to the findings of the study, these developmental opportunities, along with increased and wider fellowship with other church workers, and even greater support from the conference and congregation, will enhance the pastors’ ability to engage in the ministries of the local churches, including the local church school. This has profound implications for our colleges, universities, and seminaries.

If Adventist education is to be successful at the local church level, the local church pastor must be committed to Seventh-day Adventist education and actively support and promote it, both in the congregation and in the local church school. For this to happen with necessary intensity, within the milieu of expectations pastors face on a daily basis, Adventist Church administration must sound the clarion call for Christian education to be as central to the work as evangelism and church membership retention. Until this takes place, dreams of a reorientation in Christian education will remain just that—dreams.

1 S. Joseph Kidder, “The Biblical Role of the Pastor,” Ministry, April 2009.

2 Roger Dudley and Petr Cincala, The Adventist Pastor: A World Survey (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists ASTR, 2016), 4.

3 Except as otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version (NKJV).

Notebook Leaflets From the Elmshaven Library (Leaves of Autumn Books, 1985), 1:77. See also Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 3(Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 209.

5 Manuscript 22, 1890, in Notebook Leaflets From the Elmshaven Library (Leaves of Autumn Books, 1985), 2:155.

6 See Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948) 6:429.

7 Dudley and Cincala.

8 Ellen G. White, Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students Regarding Christian Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1913), 176.

9 White, Testimonies, 6:193.

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Ella Smith Simmons, EdD, is a vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

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