The impending closing of Mt. Vernon Academy has generated much discussion. The problem, according to Dr. Thambi Thomas, the former Pacific Union Conference associate director for education, is not just with boarding academies, but with K-12 day schools as well. What follows below is the executive summary of a paper Dr. Thomas presented at the NAD Education Summit in October 2010 that looks at the problem from a different perspective and offers a few of what he calls “let’s-think-outside-the-box” solutions.
Principals in Adventist K-12 schools wear too many hats. The principal’s responsibilities include, among other things, being the marketing director, bill collector, school board secretary, business manager, problem solver, mediator, disciplinarian and instructional leader. As a result, the principal’s focus is on what is needed to survive, not always predicated on what they should be doing to affect change and improve the school to meet the needs of a diverse student population, a changing constituency and demanding stakeholders.
There are two major challenges facing Adventist education: decreasing enrollment and the shortage of finances needed to operate the school. The Pacific Union Conference has seen a decline in K-12 enrollment particularly at the elementary level where the K-8 enrollment has declined by an alarming twenty-two percent in the past ten years. During the same period, however, there has also been an increase in total tithe and membership.
According to studies and research the lack of finances is seen to lie at the heart of the problem of declining enrollment and other perceived deficiencies in Adventist education. A survey conducted by the North American Division concluded that:
“Two in five Adventists in North America live in households with incomes of less than $25,000 a year, a category that includes the working poor as well as those below the poverty line.”
“Nearly a third of Adventists (30 percent) are from the lower middle class or households with annual incomes of $25,000 to $49,999.”
“A quarter of Adventist families fall into the middle (16 percent) and upper middle (8 percent) segments of the socioeconomic spectrum with annual household incomes of $50,000 to $99,999.”
“Just 7 percent of members live in households where the annual income is $100,000 or more. Those in their forties and thirties are more likely to be in this segment as are those who identify their ethnicity as White.”
The number of church-related families in the child-rearing years is declining more rapidly than the overall growth of the denomination can make up for. The result is a constricting pool of potential students in the Adventist community.
The median age for Seventh-day Adventists in North America is fifty-one. There is a significant trend toward the “graying of Adventism” in North America. Adventists are over-represented among those fifty-five years of age and older.
The percentage of Whites in the Adventist Church in North America has declined over the past two decades to about half the membership. At the same time there has been significant growth among minority groups.
Funding The Vision
Some churches are “required” to support (be a constituent of) a K-8 and a 9-12 church school in the area while it is optional in other conferences. There are many churches that embrace Adventist education and support it financially making it the largest expenditure in the church budget. The concept of a mandated church-school constituency relationship, however, is not working in many areas and has not worked for some time as evidenced by unpaid church subsidies to schools coupled with the lack of pastoral presence at many school board meetings often resulting in the school’s financial indebtedness to the conference. If we truly believe that the work of education and redemption are one and that Adventist education is evangelism in action—year round, perhaps it is time to put dollars behind that belief and fund Adventist education as though it were a ministry, an evangelistic outreach of the church! Schools in the Pacific Union Conference report the baptism of more than 500 students each year.
The 5% Solution Part A: Fund Adventist Education with Additional Tithe Funds
Churches will be asked to pay an amount between 2 to 5 percent (percentages are presented in concept/principle, not as rigid numbers) of tithe directly to the conference to help fund K-12 education in that conference. In 2009 this formula would have yielded $8,120,756 in the Pacific Union Conference.
The 5% Solution Part B: Retain An Additional Percentage of Tithe to Fund K-12 Education
Conferences currently retain 55 to 60 percent of tithe for conference operations. Each conference will be permitted to withhold an additional 5 percent of tithe before tithe is forwarded to the Pacific Union Conference in support of K-12 education in that conference. This would have yielded an additional $8,120,756 in 2009 for education in the Pacific Union Conference.
A. The Pacific Union Conference distributed $4,137,080 in North American Division reversion funds in 2009 to local conferences for education and an additional $2,640,689 in tithe reversion funds from North American Division for evangelism.
B. This proposal is suggesting the addition of another 30 percent of “tithe reversion funds” received by local conferences for evangelism, be ear-marked for education. This would have provided an additional $792,207 to education.
Under this proposal, principals will no longer have to bother pastors with delinquent subsidies. Pastors and principals can forge new relationships driven by the same purpose—the education and salvation of each student in our schools. Conference boards of education can focus time and energies on operating the school system without having to deal with the tenuous relationships between churches and schools because of subsidies owed to the schools. Additionally, this plan may usher in a renewed sense of belonging and shared mission on the part of educators and pastors on behalf of our children and young people.
For those who might still believe in the long-standing practice in the Adventist church that only pastoral ministers can be paid from tithe, one should consider a statement from the White Estate on Ellen White’s perspective regarding who can be paid from tithe funds: “For Ellen White the ministers in the ‘generally-accepted’ sense of the word were men appointed by the conference as licensed ministers or ordained ministers . . . as worthy of tithe support” Would this not apply to educators who are licensed ministers?
Thambi Thomas, Ed.D., is retired Associate Director of Education – Secondary for the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.