A few weeks ago I received a letter announcing a special constituency session to discuss the future of Ohio’s Mount Vernon Academy. Our conference boarding school, we were told, is facing a financial crisis.
I attended Sheyenne River Academy in North Dakota for all four years. I imagine that I grumbled about the food and being away from home and the rules and everything else. But I wasn’t away from there long before I realized what a favor that mediocre, maintenance-deferred boarding academy had done for me. I went from a small-town public elementary school in rural North Dakota, where aspiring to an advanced education was unusual, to a place where just about everyone would attempt a college degree. I was thrust into an environment where I had to learn to take care of myself, where I practiced leadership, and where I could have real friends rather than the school-time-only acquaintances that a Seventh-day Adventist child from a conservative home was restricted to back then. In short, Sheyenne River Academy gave me a bigger world than the children I’d been with in public school. And I don’t regret it. SRA led to Walla Walla College, Andrews University, and The San Francisco Theological Seminary. Though she didn’t have to board away from home, my wife spent even more time in Adventist schools than I did. Both of us are grateful for our Adventist education.
As neither a parent, nor an alumnus of Mount Vernon academy, I only know it as an observer, but it seems to me to be a fine school. The principal and some of the other leaders are acquaintances of mine, and I trust them. I have suggested MVA to families in my churches. I think MVA offers opportunities for a quality education, for life-long friends, and for nurturing in students an ongoing relationship with the the Lord and the Seventh-day Adventist church.
But this piece isn’t about Mount Vernon Academy. It’s about a bigger question: what do we do with precious institutions that don’t have a market any longer? What’s happening here is being repeated in all the conferences with boarding schools around the country, and in at least one union conference with a defunct college. (The demographics suggest that a few other small SDA colleges may join that list eventually).
There are a number of solid reasons why these schools are failing. At the top of the list: the church is aging, and there are fewer children. The median age across the NAD is in the mid 50’s, and here in the Ohio heartland it’s over 60. Some claim that we have the same proportion of our children in church schools as we used to—we just have fewer children.
Sending your children to board away from home has always been expensive: my parents took out loans to educate four of us. But it seems to have become more expensive compared to income. Many can’t afford a $10,000 to $20,000 school bill for high school, and then more for college. School administrators discount tuition to keep enrollment up, but someone eventually has to pay the bill.
And parents seem no longer as willing as my parents were to send teens off to board, even for the sake of a quality Seventh-day Adventist education. I did my own unscientific research, which amounted to talking with a few Seventh-day Adventist parents I know (some of whom went to boarding academy themselves) about why they aren’t sending their children. Here’s a précis of what they said.
•The teen years are so precious: we want our children with us so we can bond with them and enjoy them.
•We want to guide and direct our children ourselves, not send them off to be raised by young deans and teachers.
•Teens are vulnerable in all kinds of ways: we want our children near us where we can watch out for them.
•We trust our local public schools. We live in the suburbs, not in an inner city where schools are substandard and dangerous.
•We believe that our local public schools offer a better education.
•The children don’t want to go.
•The children want to play league sports, or participate in drama and theater.
•Boarding academy is too expensive.
•They’re too young to be away from home.
Again, I’m not a parent, so I’m not going to critique these reasons. It’s enough to say that not enough Adventist families are using this service that conferences provide to keep schools alive and healthy.
So crises are now a regular feature of the remaining boarding academies in the NAD. One of the first constituency meetings I attended as a young pastor was about the newly-built Dakota Adventist Academy. We had a number of those before I left that conference. In Central California I attended at least one crisis meeting about Monterey Bay Academy. This will be the second crisis meeting about MVA since I’ve been in Ohio. It’s deja vu all over again. Many boarding schools that were active when I was young are gone now. Those that remain are, with few exceptions, struggling.
Although we’ve been through this many times across the NAD, each time it comes up it seems to take everyone by surprise. In Silver Spring we have one of the most outsized denominational leadership teams in Christendom. But they don’t seem to have much to offer here. It’s a local problem. What we could use now are specialists in winding down ministries that aren’t working anymore, or transforming them into something else. But discussions about local conference boarding schools never happen at a creative edge. They’re always life-support discussions: institutional defibrillation, feeding tubes and respirators.
Many of you have been at these crisis constituency meetings, and you know how they go. The brethren explain the situation, which amounts to, “We don’t have enough paying students to keep this school open.” People queue up at the microphones to say, “You’ve got to keep it open.” Ellen White said we should; or, my great grandfather graduated here and you can’t close it now; or, Adventist youthdom will completely crumble without it; or, we’ve invested too much in the buildings to let them go unused. Along the way you’ll hear blaming of the principal, the academy board, the conference leadership. Why didn’t you see this coming and tell us before? Why didn’t you have a long-term plan to solve it? You will probably hear the word “mismanagement.” Expect at least one angry “over my dead body will you close our school” speech. (I once heard at such a meeting the demand that we fire as many conference pastors as needed to raise the money to keep a seriously underused school from closing.) Expect, too, some scolding on the point of faith, as in “where is yours?” (though I suspect these people would be the first to object if you tried to pay their paycheck in faith rather than hard currency.) Eventually someone presents a motion to raise lots of money and recruit students. Just raising your hand doesn’t cost anything, so most people will raise them.
It occurs to me that this old model of church governance—having a meeting where everyone gets to vote to have someone else solve an insoluble problem—isn’t applicable to this problem. Perhaps we need a new kind of decision-making model, one that depends on investment rather than hand-raising. Let’s say that anyone who has sent their children to the school and paid the bill gets an automatic opportunity to vote yes. (Being an alumnus isn’t enough: that was your parents’ doing, not yours.) Everyone else who wants to keep the school open has to invest to get their vote. You get a vote for pledging to pay the tuition (or some predetermined portion) for a student for the coming school year. Those who neither sent their own children to the school nor are willing to invest money in it now, get recorded as no votes. Maybe delegates can go home and think about it for a week or two. Or band with others to come up with the amount for one vote. Maybe they can convince a paying student to attend—another way to earn a vote. Perhaps each congregation can discuss it and see if they can come up with enough money to earn all the votes the congregation is entitled to.
But you couldn’t just sit there and raise your hand committing others to solve the problem based on a vague feeling that we should have a school. It’s like the shareholders in a buggy whip manufacturer or washboard factory voting to keep making the products even though there’s no demand for them. Pour money into it, use it, or accept its demise. It’s that simple.
I think we’ll have lost something precious when children don’t have the opportunity for this kind of Adventist education. But if my use-it-or-lose-it analysis is correct, it’s probably inevitable. You may be someone who has no connection to one of these schools, and you may suppose it doesn’t matter to you. But consider this. It may be one more degree turn of the rudder into the death spiral of the NAD church: fewer institutions serving the young, so reduced attachment to the church, fewer families raising their children in the church, less tithe, fewer pastors, churches closing, and on it goes. How to reverse it, no one seems to know.
 Every time I write about my alma mater, someone contacts me to say I must have misspelled its name. I assure you that the North Dakota river the school was named after was “Sheyenne”, not “Cheyenne”. Don’t ask me why. I wasn’t there when they named it.
 There wasn’t an elementary church school near where we lived, or I’m sure we would have attended it.
 These parents don’t say, “Because we don’t care if our children stay in the church or not.” But I’ve observed that children who attend SDA high school are more likely to keep a relationship with the church, go on to Adventist college, and marry a Seventh-day Adventist—though that’s not to say that Adventist education is a solid guarantee of later church involvement.
Loren Seibold is a pastor in the Ohio Conference, and co-contributor (with Monte Sahlin) to Faith in Context, a blog about the intersection of religion and culture.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6504