Fletcher Academy is attracting students—despite its no-phones rule. Christopher Carey, self-proclaimed treehugger and outdoorsman, serves as president and CEO of Fletcher Academy Ministries, Inc. He worked in both the healthcare and education fields at Valley View University, Southern Adventist University, and Centura Health before transitioning to his current role in 2020. In this interview, he talks about the many facets of the sprawling, 600-acre North Carolina campus—which includes a retirement village, an organic farm, an elementary school, a community gym and pool, and the academy—and the ways this ministry is working to make a difference in its community.
Question: How long have you served as president and CEO of this organization? Which of its ministries takes up the majority of your time?
Answer: I’ve been privileged to serve in this role for over three years, joining the organization pre-COVID-19. Each ministry requires a significant investment of time. I have a terrific leadership team in place that I rely on for moving us forward, making decisions, and implementing them.
When I first arrived, I put more time into our retirement community, board development, and restarting the farm. Currently, I’m focusing on strategic planning, fundraising, and staff leadership development.
You have worked at several different Adventist organizations. How is your role at Fletcher different from your previous jobs?
It’s different from other roles in that there are a variety of daily things that need to be done. Challenges include balancing feedback from myriad stakeholders in a complex organization, where interests overlap and sometimes compete.
What I like here is that it is a fulfilling experience. We have a great team, the students make it fun, and the beautiful natural setting amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains is especially enjoyable.
How is Fletcher Academy different from other Adventist four-year academies?
We’re an independent non-profit ministry founded in 1910 that maintains unwavering support for the Adventist church. We are a charter member of Adventist-laymen’s Services & Industries (ASI). Our beginning harkens back to the “Madison College” model—another self-supporting institution with a school-farm-sanitarium complex and a hands-on learning focus—starting only a few years after that Tennessee school.
Our co-founder, Dr. Sidney Brownsberger (1845-1930), started what became Andrews University and Pacific Union College before founding Fletcher Academy. He is considered a key pioneer in the development of Adventist education. This DNA is a part of who we are today and sets us apart from other Adventist academies.
Our emphasis on mission drives decision-making, resulting in hands-on learning opportunities, a farm for student character development (as opposed to primarily revenue generation), one hundred percent of students working, emphasis on academic and spiritual development, and solid intramural and outdoor activities. Rather than sports, our performing teams are our choir, band, orchestra, mission, and gymnastic groups.
What is the enrollment at Fletcher for the coming school year?
Our academy has grown by forty percent in the last three years, and our elementary school has doubled over the previous five years. Combined, our school’s enrollment is now 400 students for the 2023-24 school year. About forty percent of our academy students live on campus in our dormitories.
What do you think attracts students and their families to Fletcher?
I believe Fletcher Academy attracts students for several reasons. We have dedicated teachers and staff. We also have good leaders in Phil Wilhelm, our academy principal and chief academic officer, and Sarah Wilson, our elementary school principal, both of whom are dedicated to translating Adventist principles into meaningful action. We maintain high academic standards, resulting in improved ACT scores. Our emphasis on character development and sharing an Adventist worldview in all academic subjects resonates with families seeking holistic growth.
Location plays a role as well. There are several supportive, vibrant churches within a 30-minute drive. We’ve kept our tuition below the fiftieth percentile compared to similar schools. In speaking with parents, I’ve heard they liked our farm, phone policy, and educational programming. They want something that is Adventist, a safe place where homeschooled or traditionally educated kids may fit in and not be bullied, and an emphasis on music. Some tell me they also fell in love with the attractive campus.
And conversely, what holds people back from attending?
I believe what is holding people back from attending our school—or any Adventist school—is that they do not fully understand the benefits and true value of Adventist education. Adventist educators need to follow the blueprint of Adventist education and then better share the forever benefits for a student attending. People bring up the cost as a roadblock, but I am convinced it is not the real issue. For those who genuinely want to attend and understand the benefits, we work with parents, sponsors and churches, and God finds a way to cover tuition.
I have heard that Fletcher students are not allowed to have phones. How is that policy going?
We want to teach, mentor, and develop students to have a transforming influence on the world as disciples of Christ. Popular social media is not usually helpful in working toward this goal. A host of research raises giant alarm bells about the algorithms driving addictive gaming and social media. When layering on bullying, sexting, and peer pressure, you can see that phones can take a toll on students’ mental health and overall development. We realized we couldn’t focus on our goal of discipleship when competing against the corporations and algorithms that rob young people, their families, and our organization of meaningful interactions.
We offer students the option of having a special smartphone without the internet, gaming, or social media. You can imagine what they are commonly called by students: dumb phones. We still want students to be technology proficient and foster that through classroom teaching. Students are allowed increased access to laptops in the classroom with some limits on what is accessible.
I don’t know how many boarding schools are going in this direction, but I hope more will implement similar policies. Social media is not conducive to learning and growing as our creator intended. Most students understand our policy, although not all like it. Parents, teachers, and constituents received the change overwhelmingly positively.
When did the farm begin to operate? What is your vision for it?
This is a significant endeavor for us. We restarted the farm in 2020 with about one hundred donors and many volunteers. We now have a full-time farm manager and a quasi-endowment in place to cover operations over several years.
The vision for the farm is to serve as a platform for experiential learning, teaching students about sustainable agriculture, stewardship of God’s creation, and the value of hard work. Our goal is to supply the majority of our produce needs at our cafeteria, the academy, and the retirement community. We will also sell the best-tasting veggies to our local community. Additionally, the farm enables us to give back to the community. We donate ten percent of our produce to those in need, supporting ministries such as Asheville homeless shelters. I pray a student’s life will be touched in such a way that he or she will forever work to transform their homes and communities.
What kinds of required jobs do Fletcher students carry out?
All students are required to work, and it is a part of their schedules. With our growth, we have been challenged to develop meaningful jobs and thank God for His provisions.
We offer a diverse range of job opportunities across our various enterprises, from cafeteria work and grounds maintenance to IT work for retirees, vegetable cultivation, lifeguard duties, student work team leadership, paperwork grading, radio station engagement, and recreation center front desk help. We have also signed an agreement for upperclassmen to work at the AdventHealth Hendersonville Hospital, only a short walk from campus. This year, we are excited to launch a new initiative where some students will embark on entrepreneurial pursuits, allowing them to explore and develop their business ideas.
Where do Fletcher graduates generally go to college?
We have the highest percentage of our students going to Southern Adventist University, at eighty-two percent this year. It’s the nearest Adventist university, about three and a half hours away by car. I learned recently that Fletcher, when compared to all other feeder academies, has the highest percentage of graduates who attend Southern.
What does Fletcher do to engage with its community?
Mission is what we’re all about. Fletcher Academy participates in numerous outreach activities, mission trips, and community service days.
In addition to our farm donations, our fitness center serves both our students and the community, promoting health and fostering engagement in our 2,200 members. Additionally, we organize regular community service days and blood drives, and we collaborate with local churches on special projects. Our music and gymnastic groups regularly travel and perform at various events, further blessing the community. This last year, our students helped build a church in the Dominican Republic, served in Honduras, and helped with the flood disaster relief in Kentucky. As part of our student experience, all freshmen take disaster relief training so they are ready to help in emergencies.
What are the main goals you hope to accomplish in 2023-24?
First and foremost, we will keep doing what we’re doing. Areas of further focus include the beginning of a major campaign to build a new music building and elementary school, increasing volunteer opportunities, challenging ourselves to be more collaborative and nimble in decision-making, equipping students with more “adulting” skills, completing a 30-acre forested disc golf course, and finalizing our work toward designating the campus as an arboretum.
Fletcher Academy was founded as, and has always remained, a self-supporting institution. Has there ever been a push for it to become an official entity of the Seventh-day Adventist Church?
Not during the last one hundred years that I’m aware of, but we have a great relationship with the Carolina Conference, pastors, and churches. The Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists outlines the full history of Fletcher Academy. After the land was donated in 1909, the academy was pushed to become an official Adventist entity, but Ellen White’s recommendation was that “The local conference may feel that this property should be deeded over to its control. But this would not be best. I do not want to see everything under the control of one body of men. It should not be turned over to the local conference.”
How does the funding model for a non-profit, independent ministry of the Adventist Church work?
Our funding model relies on tuition, business operations, and donations. I don’t see that changing. The elementary school is primarily funded by tuition and support from three local churches. Our academy receives a significant source of revenue from tuition, donations, and income from our retirement community and recreation center. At the core of our decision-making is a synergistic missional inter-pollination among all our ministries that is greater than what is represented by the counting of dollars.
What is the secret to running an Adventist self-supporting ministry?
I’m still learning. Running an Adventist self-supporting ministry requires trust in God and the humility to recognize that we do not have all the answers. Essential components include having a capable and visionary board, dedicated leaders, teachers committed to student development, and faithful donors. Of course, everyone must understand what it means to be an Adventist educational institution and our place in world events. Decisions need to be guided by our mission, and we need to continually align our actions with our core values. We must never prioritize popular or cost-effective choices over decisions that align with our mission and purpose.
Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum.
Title image from Southern Adventist University.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.