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.