Viewpoint: Time to Change Adventist Education's Eggs-In-One-Basket-Approach

(Spectrumbot) #1

The Seventh-day Adventist Church has a myopic, lopsided, failing strategy for the discipleship of its children and youth. While we have made an all-the-eggs-in-the-basket commitment to this strategy, it falls far, far short of being successful.

I read a book on the World War I Battle of the Somme a few years ago. The British launched the Somme offensive on July 1, 1916, sustaining 60,000 casualties on the first day, the worst single day in the history of the British army.

The story made me angry because for the next five months, the combatants did the same thing over and over again with little difference in results. Day after day, they charged out of their trenches into the face of the other side’s machine guns and artillery, as though the new day would be different. The toll in human suffering was enormous. The combined losses of the British, French and German armies were approximately 1,000,000 men. Even with all that carnage, the front lines moved at most seven miles at any point along a long battle line.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America is a case study in similar behavior. In the face of declining enrollment, shrinking schools, and school closures, we cling to the operation of schools as nearly our sole strategy for spiritually influencing and retaining our children. Like the armies in the Battle of the Somme, we continue to charge into the machine guns of school decline as though schools were the only conceivable and valid strategy for discipling our children and youth.

This is an enormous strategic issue for the church. Our children are our “feeder system” for future church membership. But when we rely almost exclusively on a very expensive, yet failing, school strategy to tap into this feeder system, we have a serious problem.

To be clear, this argument is not akin to the never-ending discussions about ways to reverse the fortunes of our schools. This is about the dire need to leap to new, non-school-based strategies.

Have you noticed that even in the recent discussions about the travails of Mount Vernon Academy, most of the discussion is about how to fix the school problem? There has been very little discussion on these pages (other than the insightful comments of Dick Osborn) or elsewhere about alternative strategies. There is a desperate need for vigorous discussions about the challenge of effective discipleship of all our children, whether they are in our schools or not.

For more than 30 years, we have witnessed declining enrollment in our Kindergarten through 12 schools. Total K-12 enrollment has declined by well more than a third over the past few decades. Schools have gone out of business. Others are struggling and marginal. A few may be sustainable. Boarding academies have been hit especially hard. In order to keep some of them open, conferences have had to increase subsidies in the face of declining revenue from smaller student bodies.

But the enrollment picture is actually worse than it appears. We have lost a generational opportunity for growth. The Millennial Generation is almost the same size as the storied Baby Boom Generation. They started entering first grade from the late 1980s and continued doing so until recently. You would think this would have caused upward pressure on K-12 enrollment in Adventist schools, but the opposite has been true. So the bulge we might have experienced from the Millennial Generation has been irretrievably lost.

To look at the big picture, here are two key data points.

1. I know of no local conference in the NAD that estimates they have more than one-third of the Adventist children/youth in their conference enrolled in the conference’s K-12 schools. (Based on conversations with church leaders; good demographic data are notoriously scarce.) The NAD Department of Education believes the Division-wide K-12 enrollment does not exceed 30% of our children. So at least 70% of our children are elsewhere.

2. According to data from the NAD Treasury Department, the conferences in the NAD invested $151,000,000 in K-12 schools, and related costs, in 2011, the last year for which data have been compiled. Local church subsidies added another $126 million. So between our churches and conferences, we invest over one quarter of a billion dollars per year in schools, not including tuition.

The sad reality is that we are investing this kind of money to touch 30% of our children. When the church commits large sums of money to one initiative that reaches a small-and-declining percentage of our children, one must question whether we have a prudent strategy. It appears we are determined to stick with this one approach, no matter what the facts tell us, no matter how poorly the strategy is performing, and no matter how much it costs us.

Some will object that we have other strategies for our children. Yes, we do. Sabbath School, Pathfinders, and summer camps are among them. But what we spend to subsidize schools is vastly greater than the combined investment in all our programs for our children. This disproportionate investment in schools would not be a bad thing if it were touching most of our children. But it isn’t. Not even close.

We soldier on, however. We remain committed to this All-The-Eggs Strategy. We keep doing the same thing over and over, hoping against hope we will get different results. Meanwhile, our schools reach fewer and fewer of our children.

Let me ask. Why are we so committed to this one strategy almost to the exclusion of others? Why do we exclude the majority of our children when we make major investment decisions? A key task of any organization is to allocate its limited resources to achieve maximum mission impact. When we invest vast sums of money in only a minority of our children and youth, it screams of shortsightedness.

Through our current actions we in essence say, “We don’t care that we are not effectively reaching out to the majority of our children. We have discharged our responsibility to them by operating a few schools.” No Church member or leader would actually think or say that, but it the inescapable message of our current strategy.

This lopsided approach does not bode well for the future of the Church. It is time we face reality and admit that we are dealing with a long-term, irreversible trend in our schools. We must start thinking outside our school box, and develop and invest in new and different strategies for all our children and youth.

Will this shift in thinking be difficult and controversial? Absolutely! There are those among us who would pay any price to keep schools open, even for a few children. There is a constant search for new school funding sources even as enrollments shrink. But this quest ignores all our other children, souls for whom we have a responsibility equal to the students in our schools.

Fortunately, the church is initiating new efforts. The North American Division is investing in the development of a web-based tool called Adventist Learning Community. It is intended to be an online resource for training and educating children and adults.

Some content is oriented toward children and youth not attending our schools, including an online Bible curriculum for teenagers. There is also a plan to develop online courses to support homeschoolers and Adventist schoolteachers who may not be expert in a given subject. Not unexpectedly, there is resistance from some Adventist educators who see this initiative as competition for schools.

The Adventist Learning Community is expected to go live this year. It is a start in the right direction. Importantly, it is recognition by NAD leadership that new approaches are needed. The development is sponsored by Larry Blackmer, Vice President of the NAD and is led by Adam Fenner, PhD. (You can see an “advertisement” for Adventist Learning Community on YouTube.)

This article is solely about high-level strategy and resource allocation. It is intended to challenge members and leaders to recognize reality and begin to think about new initiatives to disciple our children. As we formulate new initiatives, they should have the following characteristics:

Equitability: Our Church must have good things to offer to all our children/youth, touching their lives regardless of their circumstances or location. (As schools decline and close, our current strategy becomes more and more inequitable.)

Scalability: As we add churches, members, and children, our strategies must expandable to serve them all. (Our school strategy is not very scalable; Too expensive.)

Sustainability: There must be a high probability that our initiatives will be affordable, effective and successful over the long term. (Is our present All-the-Eggs approach looking sustainable?)

Will we operate schools in the future? Yes—where they are viable and sustainable. However, we must create a new backbone for our efforts on behalf of our children and youth. The new backbone must be non-school based, and we must adequately invest in it. We cannot perpetuate the All-The-Eggs Strategy any longer.

Edward Reifsnyder is a healthcare consultant, president of The Reifsnyder Group, and senior vice-president of FaithSearch Partners. He and his wife Janelle live in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have two daughters.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


The sky is falling. Not. The decline in enrollment has been partially offset by an increase in homeschool participation. Adventist Education expensive? Not. It is the best bargain around. Another possibility is that the public schools are becoming more accommodative of religious needs. The increased proportion of immigrant members of lower socio-econonmic status find the public schools to be very good in comparison to the options they had in their home of origin. Other immigrant groups are taken back by what the perceive as the worldliness of western Adventists and don’t want their kids in Adventist Schools. Regarding the large dollars invested in education, that is where the highest return on investment is achieved. If the equivalent amount was spent on Evangelism, the results would be dismal. As stated that at any given time only 30% of Adventist youth are in Adventist schools, but I would contend that over the entire span of their education, \more than 50% receive some portion of their education in an Adventist school. The Adventist school system if nothing else educates the next generation of pastors, teachers, medical workers, and at the same time provides at the academy and college level a chance for Adventists to meet a spouse. It is indispensable.


I appreciate your thoughts. I am not sure, however, that the All-the-Eggs in one basket is the primary problem. I think if you wanted to go the route you are suggesting, the Mormon church is an excellent example to follow. They go to public school, but use their money and resources for many vibrant youth programs before and after schools, weekends, etc. But unlike Adventist kids, Mormon kids can fully participate in sports, dances, and other cultural happenings at their schools. It is extremely difficult for Adventist kids to attend public schools unless their parents are willing to let them have the same experience as their peers.

I would suggest that the problem isn’t so much having a separate school system, but more how we run the schools. Let’s do away with boarding schools. I mean, really, is it a good idea for teenagers to be away from their parents? Let’s put our money into making K-12 schools really excellent - top notch academically and spiritually. And let’s market ourselves to our communities as a viable, welcoming alternative for those looking for private education. The Adventist school our kids are in has been doing a relatively good job of that and we now have about 30% non-Adventist enrollment. I think that is the key to the future. We can run a great and financially viable school system with the right leadership and right attitude toward our communities.

(Jacqueline Hegarty) #4

I would like to see the church give more credibility and support to Adventist (and non-Adventist) homeschoolers, as part of a revised strategy of education.

(Steve Mga) #5

If we were like my Jewish friends,
We would have Religious School on Sundays for a few hours.
They not only teach about what is to be Jewish, BUT
also teach the kids fluent Hebrew.
By Age 13 both boys AND girls HAVE to be able to lead out
in the Religious services of the church, this includes being
able to Sing the Religious service.
Religious instruction continues through the High School Age.

(Rheticus) #6

It will be interesting to see how/where they draw the line between education and indoctrination

(Elaine Nelson) #7

Adventist schools K-12 cannot possibly meet the needs of all students who need many more academic subjects that are not possible in SdA schools.

Has anyone polled the many parents of school-age children as to why they are not in church schools? There are so many opportunities to explore a wealth of subjects prior to college. There are also courses for college credit offered that give the student a head-start on college. Church-operated schools were originally planned to “keep” young people in the church. What are the statistics on retention of academy graduates? It is not good.

Even the larger student body in public schools offer band, orchestra; too expensive for most small church schools. The public charter schools outperform the average public school in both preparation for college but also many technical and trade jobs; another area where small schools cannot afford.

Excelling in a small school means little compared to excellence in a much larger school with the competition. “A” students from high schools are often shocked at the difficulty a most universities with the competition of so many other “A” students.

As for extra-curricula activities: sports and school dances, there is no replacement that most church schools can offer. As a parent, grandparent, and great-grandparent, I would not even consider my progeny attending church school. For those who wish, the internet offers courses through high school and college which “protects” children from “worldly” influences. The inference that only by staying within Adventist milieu one can remain Adventist indicates a belief that is too fragile.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #8

The premise is that the Adventist educational system from K through 12 is a feeder system into the Church.True eduction is to ask questions. Adventism’s primary claim is that it has the answers. Look no further, On-line education is even more designed to be of an answer mill. The cost benefit is what is killing the current system. From the parent/student perspective, I see no improvement with any competitive on-line system With a prime objective to feed the Church. American eduction is primarily a career mill. Thus social interaction is an essential component of career education. Ohio is just the canary in the mine. Tom Z

(Carolyn Parsons) #9

I wonder if anyone has measured how affective this is in practice. Is SDA K-12 education actually keeping young people in the church? I wonder…

(le vieux) #10

Pity secular universities can’t figure that out.

(Rheticus) #11

In engineering and math, it is trivial - the stuff has to measurably work.

In the sciences, it is relatively easy - the stuff has to be based on repeatable experiments, and predict testable results

In the arts, it is set by splitting into “schools” and which ever school can maintain enough adherents to survive the budget cuts is where the balance lies

In religion, it is the same as the arts, except that the losers claim it shows you have been deceived by the devil.

(le vieux) #12

I’m highly suspicious that there is a fair amount of political indoctrination on university campuses. Not so much in observational and operational science. But when it comes to the “science” of origins . . . .

(Carolyn Parsons) #13

Observation and operational sciences, and most other types of science are still dependent on the theory of evolution. An academic might ignore the theory of evolution, or be involved in applied sciences where evolutionary theory does not come up much. But they are all standing on a foundation of the theory of evolution.

In my field of Animal Science, evolution does not come up every day, but evolution is used to study how the bovines we are feeding came to have rumens, what is the advantage and disadvantage of their evolutionary adaptation? How we handle a dairy cow is dependent on their evolutionary past. We use it’s evolutionary behavior to understand that is was a prey animal when domestication began over 50,000 years ago. Even after all these years of selective pressure and breeding for extreme phenotypes for beef or milk production, they still retain their herding behaviors, their defensive postures and their fear of sudden movements.

It’s not indoctrination. It is science.

(Elaine Nelson) #14

Of course there is no religious indoctrination in Adventist schools. Why would Adventists have their own schools if not for indoctrination? Isn’t that the stated purpose–to keep them in the church?

(George Tichy) #15

There is never more indoctrination of any type than religious indoctrination in our schools.

And one factor that makes it weird is the fact that students usually are discouraged to ask questions and to challenge whatever is being passed on to them. It may have changed a little bit lately, as the new generation no longer accepts the “It’s so and so because I am saying it.” But, unfortunately, indoctrination is still a much desired process in our midst.

(le vieux) #16

Really? We could have never sent men to the moon without evolution? Oh, yeah, that was all faked in Hollywood. I suppose the those who figured out how to make plastic needed evolution to do so? And we required evolution to develop vaccines for Smallpox and Polio?

Sorry, I don’t buy it.

(Carolyn Parsons) #17

Of course. Evolution is the science underlying viruses, immunity and vaccines.

I suppose those making polymers don’t need to understand evolution.

(Elaine Nelson) #18

Ignorance still flourishes in many Adventists, rejecting all they cannot understand, relegating it to evolution.

(Peter) #19

Studies have demonstrated that a not every person is capable of being successful with online learning. Colleges are now giving readiness tests to students before allowing them to enroll in online courses. Humans are “wired” with numerous learning styles. We don’t already ideally learn the same way. So while this proposed web-based tool has significant potential, it cannot and should not be considered the whole answer for teaching our children and youth, let alone a significant tool with which to draw them into and keep them in the church.

(Peter) #20

Although I no longer personally accept the doctrine of the investigative judgement, I was greatly surprised to learn that my children (now in their mid-30s) who went to Adventist schools from K-college do not understand what the IE is. From that I concluded that our academies and colleges are not even doing very well teaching Adventist doctrine.