General Conference Treasurer Calls Mt. Vernon Academy Saga a "Wake-up Call"


(Spectrumbot) #1

In a news analysis piece for the Adventist Review, General Conference treasurer Robert Lemon wrote that the painful ultimatum facing Mt. Vernon Academy, the oldest boarding academy in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, "should serve as a wake-up call on the future of these schools in the U.S."

Mt. Vernon Academy in Ohio, which has suffered a long bout of financial trouble compounded by mismanagement, must raise $3 million by March 10 or begin taking steps to cease operations, the Ohio Conference decided.

Elder Lemon wrote that the world has undergone significant changes since Ellen White instructed denominational leaders in 1893 that there should "be located, school buildings in Ohio which would give character to the work." The church must adapt, accordingly, Lemon said.

Lemon advanced two theses in his article, first, that "Adventist education is worth it." He wrote,

It hurts deeply every time I hear about an Adventist boarding academy closing or finding itself in serious financial trouble. Adventist schools are not perfect, and no amount of Christian influence can save all our children. After all, Christ in a perfect world lost Adam and Eve and one third of His angels because He valued freedom of choice so much.

But when it comes to the only thing that really matters—our eternal destiny and that of our children and those we love—the worst Adventist school is better than the best the world has to offer.

Lemon called himself a "proud product of our Adventist education system," saying that in his day (the 1960's), Adventist boarding academies had enrollments from 200 to 400 students, in many cases. Put into perspective, Mt. Vernon Academy currently has just over 80 students. "U.S. boarding academies are fading away," Lemon said, despite the fact that Adventist schools are experiencing dramatic growth worldwide.

Lemon's second these was that the U.S. Postal Service, in its adaptation to new realities, can serve as an example of organizational restructuring to accomodate changing times.

Boarding academies are owned and operated by conferences, and this is important for the sense of ownership and commitment of the conference constituency to the school. But changing U.S. demographics have left fewer Adventists in rural areas who require boarding academies. Would it not be better to look at having two or three conferences operate and support a boarding academy, leaving one or two strong boarding academies per union?

Read the rest of Lemon's commentary at the Adventist Review online:

"Threatened Closure of Adventist Academy Serves as a Wake-Up Call."


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6567

(Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:13) #2

From the Review:
“These days, Adventist secondary schools are experiencing significant growth worldwide, with 522,596 students studying at 1,969 schools in 2012, according to the latest figures from the church’s Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research. That’s in comparison with 257,937 students in 1,126 schools in 2000 and 60,952 students in 398 schools in 1970, around the time I graduated from academy.”

Lemon limits his wake-up call to boarding academies. He cites secondary enrollment growth worldwide, but I believe that at least in North America it has declined. Perhaps Lemon thought the secondary education problem could be explored only one aspect at a time, or maybe closing boarding academies is more emotionally explosive for Adventists. It seems counter productive to me to mask the entire problem.


(Winona Winkler Wendth) #3

This kind of thinking is causing mischief on more than one Denominational front. We shouldn’t allow global statistics to drive national decisions. Also: it’s too late to try to solve problems one at a time, when they are mutually causative—that’s what good strategic planning is supposed to do: see the whole picture, recognize the reticulation of the problems, bring in historians, economists, anthropoligists and social predictors. “Hope is not a strategic plan.”


(Sherlock1) #4

Here is another wake up call. School business operations need to be run like a business and not by pastors or treasurer wannabe’s. Often times they don’t budget properly or follow through with “customers” who need to make their regular payments. Far too often students are allowed to continue with their schooling without paying the same amount as the student next to them and they have no additional money or subsidy contributing to the bill. If it costs $14000 per student then that is the amount that needs to find its way to the business office for each student, whatever methods are used to do so in a timely fashion.
Another issue is the structure of the church financial budgeting for institutions. Large amounts of offerings are budget allocated for the colleges/universities from all conferences whereas the academies are restricted to offerings from their own conference. If you have only 10 young people from your conference attending an SDA university but have 50 from your state needing to attend high school the offerings from the entire conference going to the higher education institutions is amazingly large for those 10. This is a real killer that makes SDA high school level schooling very expensive.


(Phillip Brantley) #5

A ridiculous and shameful article penned by Robert Lemon. No one should be surprised that his major recommendation is consolidation. There is one fundamental difference between the bean counter that he is and economist, salaried grunt and capitalist, the lazy and the industrious, the poor and the wealthy, the loser and the winner: the latter always seem to find ways to succeed where others have so miserably failed. It is not difficult for someone with the relevant spiritual giftedness to operate a Seventh-day Adventist school and achieve impressive growth in terms of admissions and gross revenues on an annual basis. The woes of Mount Vernon Academy are the direct and predictable result of poor stewardship. It is too bad that the whimpering Mr.Lemon (Excessive. - webEd) does not seem to understand this.

In 2006, I downloaded the following columns written by Robert Kiyosaki: Lazy People Don’t Get Rich, http://www.richdad.com/Resources/Articles/YF---8-8-2006.aspx; Go Forth and Multiply Your Money, http://www.richdad.com/Resources/Articles/YF---8-22-2006.aspx, Lying is Easy, Wealth Takes Work, http://www.richdad.com/Resources/Articles/YF---9-5-2006.aspx. It is rare that I ever save anything I read online. I do not opine that Mr. Kiyosaki is necessarily sound in his theology, but I find many of his observations pertinent, on point, and instructive in this present discussion.


(Steve Mga) #6

:Hopeful
You are right on. The whole Christian Educational program of North America needs to be addressed, including the Elementary level.
I would like to address the Elementary Level. For Elementary Christian Education of the young youth in the local churches we leave it up to the Pastor and to the Elementary School Teacher. If there is no Elementary School then there is very little Christian Education addressed by the local church outside of what ever is done in Sabbath School. Some of this may be well planned, but a lot of it might be “off the cuff’” type stuff, or just “busy” work to keep them entertained until Church time. There is no curiculum like there is in a real grade school and using the text books and materials for grades 1 through 8 that would be learned. Having HomeWork assignments would be helpful. Having Reading Assignments from the Bible and Biographies. Assisting the youth from Kindergarten through 5th Grade to Read. There is a whole lot of Christian Education that could be done in Sabbath School if it was well organized. Encouraging the Elementary Level youth to have to think about what they hear and read, to learn to voice opinions and to expect them to ask questions. Not just “spoon feed” them as most Sabbath Schools for youth do.


(Phillip Brantley) #7

I feel inspired to elaborate on my previous comment. A major reason why many of our Seventh-day Adventist schools have been mismanaged and forced to close is because our church culture does not sufficiently value candor and truth telling. A Seventh-day Adventist can be told by his or her boss to stop whimpering and making excuses. A Seventh-day Adventist child can be told by his or her father to stop whimpering and making excuses. A Seventh-day Adventist student can be told by his or her professor to stop whimpering and making excuses. But no Seventh-day Adventist who sits on a church board, a school board, a conference executive committee, or who works in the conference, union, division, or GC office can be spoken to or about in such a candid or truthful way without hurting someone’s feelings. It’s strange.

Mr. Lemon’s thesis is that nobody did anything wrong; the closure of Mount Vernon Academy will be because the world has undergone significant changes. The message he is sending to every Seventh-day Adventist in church and/or school leadership is this: Whatever happens on your watch is not your fault.


(Andreas Bochmann) #8

Mhmm… your argument presents a very clear cut American perspective. Work hard and you will become rich. Riches are the blessing of God for those who help themselves.

While I certainly sympathize with your view that accountability ought to be extended to boards and treasures of educational institutions (though I am puzzled by your term “whimpering” which seems to rather describe your frustration than the actual people you are referring to), while I believe - presumably with you, that there is no use to flog a dead horse, I would like to question your position on three counts:

  1. isn’t there evidence indeed that the age structure of the Adventist church in the NAD has changed, i.e. there are fewer school age children now, than there used to be? In other words, on what basis do you deny that things have changed?
  2. is education indeed a money making venture? Or could it be - alternatively - that trying to make it a money making venture is achieving the exact opposite of true education?
  3. you accuse - whoever - of mismanagement over long periods of time, perhaps due to incompetence. While this MAY BE true (and, yes, we have seen this before), do you have evidence for your strong accusations?

To be sure, I don’t know MVA or its background, thus the questions I raise are genuine. You seem to be more knowledgeable on the concrete situation. However, I can assure you, I have seen Adventist institutions where treasures have worked their … well, have worked very hard to make up for errors of predecessors - and were blamed for the lack of success in the end, while the church “gracefully” excused itself from any responsibility, while stating how important those institutions are for them…


(Winona Winkler Wendth) #9

You are right about the American part of this—and “traditional” Adventism is, at heart, very middle-class American. We privilege working hard over working smart and overemphasize the “Dignity of Labor,” rather than the dignity of creative production. Recently, Middle American and New American Adventism has started slouching over in the Calvinist notion of the “Gospel of Prosperity,” as well.

One of the tremendous challenges we have is that from the beginning, when Jesus’ return seemed immanent, we leaned away from long-term investments or planning—what would be the point, we asked, and, in some corners, that seemed like an indication of lack of faith. This is a belief that has deep roots in our sociology: Fix problems as they come, pray for sustenance, and don’t plan ahead: God will provide. Lack of faith and spirituality have been blamed for the demise or near-demise of more than one Adventist institution; but prayers and offering plates do not resuscitate dying institutions.

Our collective frontal lobes somehow take a nap when it comes to issues like this (at the same time, Americans love to say, “God helps those who help themselves.”). Long-term investments from life insurance, annuities, and retirement up through school and church endowments have been frowned upon for a very long time, even though Denominational leadership have been investors for decades. These challenges are endemic. And yes, many of them are peculiarly Protestant American.


(Phillip Brantley) #10

The high median age of the NAD membership is not an exogenous shock to the NAD church economy. The NAD bears full responsibility. The best way to lower the median age of the NAD membership is to baptize people, impress upon members the importance of growth, and make sure that our churches, schools, and other institutions are governed in an intelligent manner.

We all sit together in pews, we all dress nicely and appropriately for church, we all sing together, and thus there is a false sense of egalitarianism that we are all smart and that we are all qualified to serve on boards and committees. The reality is not everyone is smart, not everyone is qualified to serve, not everyone is spiritually gifted in matters of finance or governance.

I can accept that not everyone is smart, qualified, or gifted, but is it too much to ask that all Seventh-day Adventists aspire to a high standard of excellence? My philosophy is that I will not serve on a board or committee unless the church, school, or whatever church entity it may be aspires to a high standard of excellence. How is it that someone can serve on the board of a church that is not growing or serve on the board of a school that is in decline and not feel ownership of such failure? I do not understand how Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists personnel could over the course of many years drive Mount Vernon Academy into the gutter and then go about their day oblivious to the catastrophe that is happening on their watch.

If I were a member of Ohio Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, I would feel so disgusted with what is presently occurring, I would leave. I would wipe the dust off of my shoes and leave. I would no longer try to be a missionary to losers who have no desire to learn how to become winners. I know that is what I would do, because that is what I have done before.


(Cfowler) #11

Phil,

You have made me very curious to know what things are like in your neck of the woods. What is the state of the church in your area, and the SDA schools, if there are any there?

Would you care to share?


(Loren Seibold) #12

If I’m not mistaken, all of the MVA treasurers had degrees in business or accounting. Not one was a pastor.

On the other hand, the lay committee that oversaw it (including a leading businessman in the SDA community, who manages other people’s money, and just got an award from the union for his service) didn’t ask any of the right questions when it was happening, then at the meeting proudly threw the school leaders under the bus, saying it was the school leaders’ fault, not theirs.


(Winona Winkler Wendth) #13

One element in these situations is the large number of ex officio officers on institutional boards—members whose careers are on the line if they say the wrong thing or stand against a senior leader in public (boards are tricky enough on that front, anywhere). Having experience in business is not the issue: having experience in education and educational systems is what has been lacking. College constituencies, too, were originally designed to be an assortment of Union members who have knowledge of and experience in higher education; however, that is rarely the case today—a “college constituency” is now simply a (somewhat) smaller group of delegates than that of the overall Union constituency. This holds true for academies: those members voting on conference issues that derive from specifically education administration are not knowledgeable and are often disinclined to work hard to develop alternate solutions to problems a school or academy is contending with. Few have experience in elementary or secondary education outside of the Denomination. Specialists should be brought in—people who are encouraged to look for solutions that are Union or—yes—Division based. Right now, someone could drop $100 million on the situation, and it would repeat itself over and over again. The politics of the Unions and conferences are so inter-dependent, boards so tightly interlocked, that fixing things is like trying to punch one’s way out of a bowl of jello. This is not situation of poor financial management; this is a situation of bad planning, poor vision and research, and limited political resources.


(Andreas Bochmann) #14

Thank you, Phil, for your kindness to provide your view on my questions. I take from it that:

  1. You agree that the church structure has changed - and blame the NAD for it. Quite apart from raising further questions about such “blaming games”, you certainly must agree that the overall change of the structure of the church cannot be attributed to the leadership of MVA.
  2. You appear not to address my second question, though your terminology of losers and winners might be a clue that indeed you maintain that “success” is defined by financial viability. By that definition apparently MVA has failed and needs to be closed down - which might indeed be the right decision. All I am suggesting is that “success” for educational institution should be defined in a far broader manner. If finances are the the measure of “outcome”, why bother in the first place. In the stock market there is more money to be made (if you place your bets intelligently)
  3. You appear not to have detailed knowledge of the situation in Ohio. It is still not clear to me, who you are accusing - the Conference, the board, MVA’s executives (especially the apparently highly qualified business directors) or the NAD for that matter.

What I do share with you, is the view that excellence needs to be achieved; complacency will not help. The tendency to shift responsibility to someone else is as old as humankind. Thus we need to be aware of it ourselves. What I still fail to understand is your very obvious level of frustration - is it because you mourn the downfall of MVA or is it a more general feeling of general disgust with the state of the church?


(Loren Seibold) #15

You are exactly right. And it will. As I said in an earlier piece, I have never heard a creative discussion of this, only survival discussions.


(Interested Friend) #16

Has that been proven? if so, what are the facts?
In The Grip of truth


(Interested Friend) #17

I really hate to agree but in a very large measure I believe you are correct. Remember the exposé in this blog of WAU by a former staff member? I haven’t seen any indication that any heads rolled or that anything has changed at WAU, have you?
In The Grip of Truth


(Winona Winkler Wendth) #18

No.

Changing senior leadership is very costly and time-consuming: Contracts have been signed, in some cases, although presidents serve at the pleasure of the Board of Directors or Trustees. Silver and or golden parachutes come into play, finding temporary replacements is often very difficult, especially if a school is in trouble, weeks of negotiations can drag on, and unless someone has committed a spectacular and provable breach of ethics, changing leadership during a school year is not a good idea. Removing faculty is easy; replacing a dean is, too; and moving a provost out of his or her position can happen in a heartbeat (as was the case for seven in the last eight years). But a president: No.

However, they are doing a yeoman’s job of marketing the graduate and professional programs—from what we can see on their web page. Should that marketing prove successful, this would raise the head count for the college, but not raise the number of financial full time equivalents, so they would have fewer dollars’ income per student to support those who are left—a radically reduced faculty and a diminishing student body: a tailspin situation difficult to pull out of.


(Tina Nesmith) #19

Maybe a retirement conversion is in order, as the baby boomers who once filled the halls of MVA are headed in that direction. That could be another creative reuse, and SDA are known for their fine medical care.


(Elaine Nelson) #20

I absolutely disagree with Lemon’s sentiments that “the worst Adventist school is better than the best the world has to offer.” Would this be said about any other SDA institution, i.e. medical?

This is sheer nonsense; and while his experience reflects that conclusion how many parents who value their children’s education agree? While I can’t speak for all, I have attended several SdA academies in the past and they were all far inferior in education to the “best public schools.”

There are fewer students each year at the local K-12 day academy and it cannot compare to the high schools in my area which are liberally funded, offer multiple courses that can never be at any SdA academy; courses that prepare students for the finest universities. Two children received postgraduate courses at the local state university and one grandchild (now with a PhD) is a graduate of the U.C. system. My high school granddaughter is now taking AP courses giving her college credits and I have no doubt she will have scholarships at the universities here in California.

While all SdA academies cannot be equal, as the student numbers decrease there are fewer teachers and fewer offerings. As things stand presently, and according to this report, there will be more closures and the church has not prepared for this by offering more religious education by the church as do the Jewish, Mormon, and other denominations. There should be definite planning and curriculum for local churches to begin offering such programs.