Getting Down to Business
Thinking strategically about Adventist education
By Ella S. Simmons
This year John M. Fowler, associate director of the Education Department at the Seventh-day Adventist Church world headquarters, will retire after 51 years of service. He tells how Adventist education changed his life and set him on this course.
Adventist Education in Action
While traveling recently in his boyhood town, John squeezed onto a typical overcrowded bus. As he tried to balance himself, the bus swung around a corner, causing passengers to bump into one another. John ended up next to a passenger with a familiar face. It was the face of one of his childhood friends. A long time had passed since they had last seen each other—and both had changed quite a bit.
Yet he was sure this was his friend. This was one who had experienced the same hardships and joys as he in his little village. He could never forget him. John’s group of decent and responsible childhood friends had been very close throughout their youth. The little group did nearly everything together. However, after secondary school they drifted apart and developed different values and views of life. While he thought little of these changes over the years, this day John came face-to-face with these different perspectives.
John was sure this was his boyhood friend. But the man would not respond to him with any sign of recognition. Then suddenly his friend dashed for the exit. As he was about to step off the bus, however, he turned, ran back, placed something in John’s hand, and left without speaking. He disappeared into the huge crowd on the street. He was gone from sight, but not from mind.
When John gave up searching the crowd, he looked at the object his friend had placed in his hand. To his amazement, it was his own wallet. His old friend had picked his pocket when they bumped into each other. Perhaps this was why he refused to acknowledge him. His good friend, the one with whom he had grown up, had stolen his wallet.
John could not accept the fact that his friend was a pickpocket. He wondered what had taken his friend down this path that was so different from his own. John had grown up to be a Christian pastor and educator, while his friend had become a thief. His friend had had high career goals. He was smart and talented—but now he was a thief. What made the difference?
John believes the difference was Adventist education. After secondary school he had accepted Christ and had become a Seventh-day Adventist. He declined scholarships to prestigious universities in favor of attending Spicer College, an Adventist school. His friend rejected Christ and took the typical path to education and career in search of fame and fortune. This was what was commonly expected. John says he, however, learned a new worldview in the Adventist school.
Sure, there are no guarantees, but John Fowler’s story is one of the many success stories of Adventist education. There is value in Adventist education.
Committing to Adventist Education: Inter-American Division
In a world that promises so much and pulls so hard, we have to recommit to Adventist education. The Inter-American Division (IAD) offers an example of this recommitment. IAD leaders want to increase the success stories of Adventist education in their territory. The division wants to increase its pool of educated, skilled workers and disciples in communities who will dedicate their talents to the Lord, just as John Fowler did 51 years ago.
So, on November 4, 2009, IAD leadership took unprecedented bold steps toward an extensive makeover of its education system from primary through university level education. After achieving its strategic goals for growth in membership and finances over the past 10 years, it now turns attention and resources to education—at the beginning of a new strategic plan covering the next five years.
Previous strategic plans resulted in tremendous growth—from 1.5 million members in 2000 to about 3.2 million today. Israel Leito, IAD division president, reports that IAD “finances have skyrocketed” over the decade. The division’s tithe returns more than doubled from US$92,643,763 to US$195,346,307, an increase of 211 percent. Offerings increased from US$5,586,594 to US$12,909,956, or 231 percent.
Refocusing and Thinking Strategically
Following careful study, IAD leaders noted a marked imbalance between the growth in membership and the enrollment of Adventist children and youth in its schools and universities. In fact, they found that they had enrollment losses in elementary education, slight increases in secondary, and no change at the university level. They also found increased enrollment among students who are not associated with the Adventist Church. They saw that enrollments of Adventist students in the IAD lag behind averages for the world church. This clearly demanded courageous and creative thinking in planning for the future.
Division leaders faced several challenges in education and set goals for the church, parents, schools, and leaders for meeting the challenges. All these involved parties would have to work together if a dramatic change would be possible.
The regional church leadership is challenged to (1) solicit authorities of the world church to study the possibility of incorporating Adventist education as one of the fundamental beliefs; (2) establish a new educational model from preschool to tertiary levels considering the physical, academic, student, and financial elements, including teacher salaries; (3) foster events for reflection and instruction about the philosophy of Adventist education; (4) strengthen internal and external university students, using the integral formation model; and (5) promote curricular and cocurricular experiences through the spiritual master plan to strengthen the spiritual life of each institution.
Parents are expected to disseminate among church members the philosophy of Adventist education to promote understanding and trust toward the work of educational institutions.
Schools must develop descriptions of formative actions, in light of their alumni profiles, which include teaching deep moral principles and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Leaders will (1) emphasize the integration of faith to be effectively perceived by students, based on the commitment and enthusiastic work of teachers; (2) update the denominational profile for teachers; and (3) transmit the vision of Adventist education characterized by the message of God as the Creator and sustainer of our environment.
The IAD set aside approximately US$8 million for its strategic goals during the next five years, and mandated that 80 percent of this amount go to education. Along with infrastructure, teachers, curriculum, and instruction, funds will be used for student loans and grants, coordination of educational programs, and for upgrading teachers.
Strategies for Enhancing Higher Education
The division’s commitments to higher education emphasize improvements to learning environments, staff, curriculum, and teacher salaries. It requires a new plan for informal education and a virtual library, for enriching master’s and doctoral degree programs, and for the creation of at least one “super classroom” with the latest technology.
All IAD universities are challenged to increase their program offerings. All are to offer master’s programs in all their schools or departments. All are challenged to offer a minimum of one doctoral degree aside from those in theology. In addition, the IAD will offer an accredited theology major, in affiliation with Griggs University, at the undergraduate level for students whose work and responsibilities prevent them from completing their programs on a campus.
Myrna Costa, president of Antillean Adventist University and also president of the IAD Education Center, observes: “When distance education is designed and delivered in the proper manner, all teaching and learning experiences which take place in a regular classroom, including integration of faith and learning, occur.” Further, Costa affirms that distance education is an avenue to positively impact the educational system for sharing the gospel in the territory’s three main languages: Spanish, English, and French.
Universities must standardize curriculum and make it possible for theology students to move smoothly from one university to another to learn different languages and the different cultures of the IAD, without losing study time.
Strategic Initiatives for Secondary and Elementary Education
The IAD will require universities to give more attention to secondary and elementary education. Segmenting education by levels is not producing desired results. To address this problem and for greater, more direct involvement from the division, the IAD budgeted for an associate director for its Department of Education, who is a specialist in elementary and secondary education.
The IAD will also adjust policies to provide greater financial support for secondary and elementary curriculum, facilities, and materials, and for the preparation and improvement of teachers, including increases in teacher salaries. A unique feature of the plan provides a salary bonus for the “best elementary teachers” and a one-time bonus for student recruitment.
Writing Another Success Story
Leaders in the IAD hope that the success they have achieved in building membership, finances, and organizations will be repeated in education. Moises Velazquez, director of education in the IAD, feels that “if we improve the quality of our schools and their campus facilities, and provide the necessary tools for our teachers to better their education … , churches will support our schools more and send their children to them.” After all, education is closely linked to salvation.
John Fowler’s life attests to this value. He credits Adventist education with challenging him to something more than climbing the professional ladder and just living a decent life. He tells that he learned three of the most important life lessons through Adventist education, including the fact that we are no accident of evolution, but intentionally designed by a loving Creator God. He is also sure that life has meaning and a destiny, and that we are not alone—God is with us and works in us.
Remembering this will truly write another success story—in the IAD territory and around the world.
Ella S. Simmons is a general vice president of the Seventh-day Adventist world church, with headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A. As a longtime educator she is passionate about the possibilities of Adventist education.