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Confronting the Challenges in Adventist Education

A Response to Dr. Richard Osborn’s Presentation to the San Diego Adventist Forum
In a November 10, 2007 presentation to the San Diego, Adventist Forum chapter, Pacific Union College president Richard Osborn set forth a clear, realistic view of Adventist education in North America. He directly or implicitly addressed many of the significant issues that confront higher education within the Adventist church. Unlike other presentations from church officials, Osborn did not pull his punches. He is forthright, realistic and is not afraid to call the shots as he sees them. May his tribe increase!
The economic factors Osborn enumerates are complex and profound. He is realistic in his evaluations and prognostications. He explains the challenges that confront students, parents, the colleges, universities and the institutional church. He is correct in his assumption that the institutional church will not contribute significant funds above the present levels. Many local churches, and the local church is the only entity in the Adventist system that produces a consistent income stream, are in survival mode.
There are, however, areas of concern that Osborn does not address. One is the potential liability that the educational system poses to the Adventist church. It may be that the educational system has the highest liability potential of any of the organizations that are part of the official church. Those who sit on K-12 boards know the razor thin financial edge most schools walk. Add the higher educational component and the risk is increased. If there should be a sudden economic down-turn and educational institutions are not able to generate the funds needed to meet payrolls and other expenses, the conferences would be liable for the short-falls. This could run into the millions.
It was not that long ago that the health system spun off from the church and now functions as a separate entity, thus freeing the church, it is hoped, from the high liability that goes with operating hospitals and medical facilities. (Some in the legal profession are not sure that the so-called curtain of separation is not as impenetrable as people hope.) If Adventist educational institutions were to be perceived to be a financial threat to the institutional church, what response might the church take to protect itself?
Another area that Osborn hinted at, but only in an oblique way, is how the attitudinal changes among church members affect Adventist economics and the educational system.
For my grandparents and my parents, tithe paying was a moral issue and so was Christian education. It was understood that a faithful Adventist paid tithe before paying the rent. Parents sacrificed to send the kids to Adventist schools. Osborn related how his parents sold property to pay for their children’s education. My own grandfather sold his prized cow to pay for my aunt’s college tuition. This is what “real” Adventists did. Not so today. Many of us have a very different attitude toward the institutional church and the trappings that are part of traditional Adventism.
Many of our church leaders hold degrees from non-Adventist institutions. I have one myself. When one of my children made the decision to attend a non-Adventist college, I did not consider his decision a moral issue. My wife and I paid his unsubsidized full tuition. I think it safe to predict that this attitude regarding Adventist education is becoming more and more common. Currently, every student who does not attend Adventist school represents a projected loss of tens of thousands of dollars.
Osborn’s opening statement that our college and university campuses represent the future of Adventist education is worthy of further consideration. For some this is one of the most frightening thoughts imaginable. For others, like myself, it is a cause for rejoicing. What gift it would be if the same creative power that dreamed up Facebook, Google, and YouTube were to energize the Adventist church!
I graduated from PUC in 1963. When my generation came on the scene, we thought the church wanted our ideas and energy, and together we would create a fantastic future! When I began my work as a parish minister in Southern California, there were more than thirty-five of us young guys (no women) who came out of seminary about the same time. We met together on a regular basis to talk, share ideas, and plan what revolutionary things we would do. We were, after all, the first seminary-trained generation. We knew what needed to be done, and we had the smarts to do it. We were surprised that not everyone stood up and cheered. As time passed, our ranks thinned. After ten years, the original group of thirty-five numbered three or four. A significant number of men (and we were then all men!) went to graduate school. Some pursued medicine or other medically related professions. A few were fired.
What fate awaits the present group of young people as they interface with local congregations and church leaders? Will the church welcome them or will the current church leaders tell the new kids on the block that their daring ideas are unwelcome? Will the current generation of educated people demand a strict adherence to Adventist traditional views on science and creation, the age of the earth, the worldwide flood, traditional Adventist eschatology and prophetic interpretations? Will the church make room for those who hold views on sexuality and gender that do not follow traditional Adventist understandings and practice?
When Osborn asks whether a North American church with one million members can continue to support fifteen colleges and universities and a vast K-12 system, we can only intuit an answer. The statistics he gives provide little hope for a bright and shinning future. Demographic projects are more grim than happy. The average Adventist family, he correctly notes, cannot afford the costs associated with higher education. The group that traditionally funded Adventist institutions and programs is an endangered species. There is no enthusiastic generation waiting in the wings. So how did we find our way into this morass?
Osborn reminds us that there is no over-seeing body that has responsibility and control over the educational system as a whole. Union Conferences own most Adventist institutions of higher education. (Andrews, Oakwood and Loma Linda Universities are. owned and operated by the General Conference.) Numerous people over the past decades have made a case that a significant number of these institutions should be closed. The liquidated assets would provide a significant endowment to reduce tuition costs for Adventist young people. Osborn did not venture far into this quagmire. He does acknowledge that Atlantic and Columbia Union Colleges have a questionable future. He did not recommend that these colleges be closed.
Implicit in what Osborn presented and what is evidenced in the track record of AUC and CUC is the need for an over-all strategic plan to guide Adventist educational institutions as they prepare for the mega changes ahead. It is doubtful that there will be such a plan unless there is an economic emergency of such proportions that reality cannot be ignored.
We pastors know that the church in North America is in dire straights—this despite the glowing accounts that often come from the official organization. We see what is taking place in our local parishes. The evangelistic programs we spend millions to support are not effective in attracting new members. We know that a high percentage of the people who graduate from our Adventist schools will not be active church members. Over the years we have watched as talented people leave our church because they do not like what they have experienced: the refusal to ordain women, emphasis on theological matters that are not pertinent to their lives, duplicity on the part of church leaders, the lack of gospel-oriented preaching, and the perceived, and sometimes real, emphasis on works.
I appreciate Osborn’s affirmation that PUC will not follow Southern University model that emphasizes conservative religious and social practices. Let the South benefit from this model and let the West continue on its own course.
I appreciate the fact that Osborn reminds us that the present Adventist church culture is on life-support from previous generations. When the plug is pulled, when people stop giving or people die off, then the church culture will die. But, he admonishes, one should not confuse church culture with the Christian faith. The church, as established by Jesus, will survive. The church culture, which has a tendency to become confused with Christianity, may not make it.
It is important, says Osborn, for the Adventist church to develop a missionary oriented culture (ADRA comes to mind) that will maintain the people we have. The high number of young adults who drop out is a significant problem. Osborn is correct when he says that the revolving door phenomena must stop. He believes that the Church must provide a new vision, and that the church members in North America buy into that vision. Osborn is quick to affirm that we have the ability to find solutions. He points out that too many of us are merely content to “survive until Jesus comes”. Can we, he asks, capture the same vision as our pioneers? He, along with all of us, awaits an answer.
Finally, Osborn suggests that the Adventist educational system was established to promote an end-of-the-world eschatology. Today, Adventist education must look to the Gospel message of inclusiveness, compassion and love to find a new direction.

Dr. Lawrence G. Downing pastored the Hollywood, California Seventh-day Adventist Church the White Memorial Church in Los Angeles. He has taught at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in the Philippines and served as Adjunct Professor in the School of Religion and School of Business and Management at La Sierra University.

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