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Holy Bricks

Not long ago my brother sent me a link to a site about abandoned places in North Dakota. The abandoned place we were interested in was Sheyenne River Academy, the Seventh-day Adventist boarding school where I and thousands of other midwestern Adventist teens got our diplomas. The background story is that after 3/4 of a century of operation, the old campus several miles outside Harvey was run down. Though it was in the center of the state, it wasn’t in the center of Adventist population. So in the 1970’s a couple of entrepreneurial conference leaders (Ralph Watts II and Ed Scheresky) and a North Dakota businessman and SRA graduate (Wallace Carlson) got together and made a plan to build a new school on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River north of Bismarck.

Those of us who benefited from Adventist education couldn’t but appreciate their desire to give it a boost. This was a prosperous time for North Dakota farmers and ranchers, and in my mind these leaders can be forgiven for believing that North Dakota was on an upward track, and the money would be there. Who knew otherwise?[1]

It is harder to forgive them for never making an accurate assessment of the actual student base, and so designing a school for 400 students. (They believed that the school would be so fantastic that it would draw students from all over the world to the frigid, windswept hilltops of North Dakota.) It is even harder to forgive their borrowing millions to complete the shell of the school without asking the constituency’s permission. It didn’t end well: the officers took calls elsewhere, the union called a crisis constituency meeting (which was the first time I experienced the legendary filibustering skills of then-GC Vice President Neal C. Wilson) and the people of the conference paid for Dakota Adventist Academy.

Secondary education in particular has, in the last quarter century, been the source of many crises in our system, and stories of poor management of schools and their properties are endless. (The latest is the Newbury Park Academy property in Southern California Conference, a massive asset that was turned into a debt the extent of which most church members there have yet to realize.) Dakota Adventist Academy has cost millions, and the dedication of the Adventists of my home state to keeping it alive for (in some years) fewer than 50 students could be called, depending on your point of view, faithful or foolish.

The ruins of Sheyenne River Academy still stand, and people still mourn. Wrote one visitor to the aforementioned site, “All the alumni out there who are saddened to see what shape it is in should as a group purchase SRA back from the owner, redo the campus adding an SDA museum, small publishing house, ABC, lay evangelism center, wellness center, etc.” That’s not going to happen, of course, in a conference with a declining rural population and a newer school to support. But it illustrates nicely what a friend calls “holy bricks”: the tendency to cling to church buildings and institutions even when they’re no longer the best way to reach our goals. Anyone will value a significant building or site, but when it’s the place where you spent the formative years of your life, where you met Jesus, made lifelong friends, and perhaps where you fell in love with your spouse, can you blame people for wanting it to be there forever?

(This isn’t a problem unique to us. In the heavily Roman Catholic rust belt of Ohio I see empty Catholic churches and schools, the result of population decline and consolidation. The locals are still furious about it, though their church leaders only did what was unavoidable.)

You might think that we Adventists, for 170 years insisting that we are about to leave for heaven, would never have been tempted by holy bricks. Why build something to last 100 years if we only expect to be here another five? Why get attached to institutions at all? Our building strategy, were it based on our theology, would never go beyond modular units on concrete blocks.

But we’ve put down deep roots, and now every change of place or building creates a crisis. The conference office in my conference isn’t well located for population access or spousal employment, so increasingly the conference officers don’t even live in the small rural city of Mount Vernon, Ohio. All conference meetings are held in one of the larger cities so more people can attend. The building is shabby and far too large, and could be replaced by a moderate-sized business suite in Columbus. The ABC, located on the same country road, struggles to stay in business.

But while that might suggest relocation, attempting it would almost certainly create an uproar. Whenever in the past it’s been suggested someone tells us that Ellen White personally selected that site for Adventism’s center in Ohio (though no evidence for that has ever been found.) Some say that were we following the counsel of Ellen White, we’d never consider moving into a large city. Others argue that it is vital that the conference office remain near Mount Vernon Academy. But the real reason is that change is hard, and it’s better to keep things as they are than try something new and risk the kind of upset that happened in North Dakota.

It’s hard to come up with a good answer to all of this, and I understand why. I’m sentimental about places, too. Not only did I graduate from Sheyenne River Academy, so did my parents, uncles and aunts, siblings, and most of my cousins. My mother and father met there. I made marvelous friends there, had my first ever date there, and kissed a girl for the first time there. I learned to take personal responsibility for myself there, to study when I needed to, to wash and iron my own clothes and clean up after myself. I preached my first sermon, prayed with other students, and learned a bit of leadership there. It was a place of life transitions. I still remember my shabby, poorly-heated dorm room (in the red brick building with the mismatched addition, top floor, 2nd window from the right) with some fondness.

Yet I can’t help but think that when we get to the point where we preserve places without regard to whether they’re still the best way of fulfilling our purpose, we’re not doing God’s work. My favorite illustration of that happened when a conference president friend was forced to close an academy in his conference because there weren’t enough students. One angry member cornered him and said, “I don’t care if we don’t have a single student left, you’re not going to close our school!” It’s hard to pull the plug, even when you have to.

I’ve heard the theory that these wouldn’t be problems if church business were done solely by lay businessmen, and ministers were confined to ministry. But I’ve not seen laypeople much more effective at making these decisions than church leaders. If anything, they’re more susceptible to the allure of holy bricks. I remember a meeting I attended to decide the fate of a church school where the conference leaders were the only people in the room talking business. “The money isn’t there, the paying students aren’t there” they said. “It’s simple: without money or paying students, it can’t keep going.” A layman (who, it turns out, didn’t send his own children to the school) made an impassioned speech implying that the leaders hadn’t enough faith, and followed it with a motion, which was passed, that the school would continue—contributing nothing to a solution, and leaving the leaders holding the bag.

I imagine something similar happened with Atlantic Union College, which we’d heard for years was struggling and borrowing against its property even as enrollment declined. Many people knew that long-term survival was unlikely, but how can you shutter a school with such a distinguished history? A graceful exit in time to prevent indebtedness much less preserve property value proved, alas, impossible. The patient consumed much of its life support before it succumbed.

Did those few extra years achieve something, save someone, influence someone, or train someone, without which God’s future work would be crippled or impossible? Perhaps. Who knows? That’s a judgement of faith. A lot of these situations are. We should have a college in New England, we say. We should have a boarding academy in North Dakota. So oughtn’t we hang on just a little longer? Try a little harder? The argument could be made that God’s work isn’t governed by cost-benefit analysis, and so our decisions can’t be based on whether they make sense or not. There’s a kernel of truth there—we’re called to be faithful, not successful—yet I’ve also seen utterly foolish ideas argued for by saying, “We must step forward in faith!”

One point on which I believe we’d all agree is that preserving financial capital (real estate or otherwise) isn’t our ministry. Our work is reaching people with the gospel. That’s why I wish there were some better way to make business decisions so that we could maximize our work for God rather than squandering time and money agonizing about saving things—buildings, but also departments, programs, methods and ideas—that don’t work any longer.

If you’ve got the answer, I know a few denominational leaders who’d like to hear it.

[1] North Dakota’s economy is doing well right now thanks to unconventional oil deposits. But that’s confined to western counties and adjacent cities. The state has fewer inhabitants than it did in 1923. Agriculture has restructured for machinery, not workers, leaving many abandoned towns and farms. Paying for schools, law enforcement, and roads in depopulated areas is a challenge. The major metro area is Fargo-Moorhead on the Minnesota border, at a little over 200,000.

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