Seventh-day Adventist leaders will declare that Adventist education is key to the fulfillment of the church’s mission to share the gospel and propose a 29th Fundamental Belief on education during a three-day conference that opens Wednesday evening at the world church’s headquarters.
The suggested addition to the current 28 Fundamental Beliefs, which would describe the biblical basis for Adventist education, is among a raft of plans for Adventist education that are to be presented to world church leaders at the LEAD conference in Silver Spring, Maryland.
“We don’t have a fundamental belief on education,” Ella Simmons, a general vice president of the Adventist world church, said in announcing the proposal to church leaders and educators at a pre-conference meeting on Wednesday morning. “It is central [to Adventist mission], but we don’t have one.”
Leaders of the General Conference, the world church’s administrative body, are looking to draft the new Fundamental Belief and present it and other education-oriented plans to the 2017 Annual Council for a vote, Lisa Beardsley-Hardy, education director for the world church, said in an interview. After that, the text of the Fundamental Belief would have to be approved by the 2020 General Conference Session to officially join the other 28 beliefs on core issues such as “Baptism” (No. 15) and “The Sabbath” (No. 20).
It’s no simple matter to change the Fundamental Beliefs, which numbered 27 when they were first drafted in 1980. When the 28th belief (“Growing in Christ, No. 11) was added in 2005, General Conference Session delegates passed a protocol that requires at least two years of work at all levels of the Adventist Church before any changes can be considered at a General Conference Session. The last General Conference Session, in 2015, approved a first-ever update of language used in several Fundamental Beliefs.
Upholding Adventist Values
Adventist leaders plan to underscore the crucial role that education plays in fulfilling the church’s mission during the LEAD conference, which serves as a lead-in to the church’s Annual Council business meetings on Oct. 7-12.
“Seventh-day Adventist educational institutions were organized for the salvation of young people and their participation in the mission of the church,” world church president Ted N.C. Wilson said in his opening remarks at the pre-meeting.
Wilson, reading from a prepared 25-minute speech that he said he would expand on at the LEAD conference, urged Adventist schools and educators to uphold the values of the Adventist Church and cautioned that some were “veering away from the biblical model and the Spirit of Prophecy.” The writings of Adventist Church cofounder Ellen G. White are commonly referred to as the Spirit of Prophecy.
“If the devil can neutralize the model, he will have hijacked the very system God initiated to be a great blessing to His own Advent movement,” he said.
Wilson appealed to board chairs, union presidents, division presidents and others to follow God’s model, saying they were ultimately responsible to make sure that their educational institutions stay on the right course.
Toward that end, the LEAD conference will be asked to authorize the General Conference’s education department to work with the church’s world divisions to develop a supporting philosophy and plan for Adventist education. The plan, which is outlined in a document that will be presented to conference attendees, calls for the:
- establishment of measurable goals to increase the number of pre-kindergarten/elementary and secondary schools over the next five years;
- establishment of measureable outcomes that raise the standard of academic excellence;
- establishment of clear curriculum policies and indicators that position schools to nurture in the hearts of students a culture of church involvement and a broad spectrum of mission skills;
- incorporation of resources of the Biblical Research Institute and the Geoscience Research Institute in the Accrediting Association of Seventh-day Adventist Schools, Colleges, and Universities (AAA) process that clearly requires all accredited schools to advocate for and teach as truth the Fundamental Beliefs as voted by the General Conference Session;
- development of policy and criteria that define a new tier of Adventist education described as High Impact Schools (HIS).
- definition and development of standards for other models of education, such as homeschools, residence hall non-degree awarding “college,” pastoral-led classes, online Massive Open Online Courses in a way that enables such students to be a part of Adventist education;
- definition of the core of Adventist education at all levels and ensure alignment with AAA and HIS criteria, with latitude beyond threshold requirements; and
- development of Fundamental Belief No. 29 describing the biblical basis for Seventh-day Adventist education.
The proposal for a new Fundamental Belief won support from Daniel R. Jackson, president of the church’s North American Division.
“If there ever is a 29th, it ought to be Adventist Christian education,” Jackson told the pre-meeting Wednesday.
Challenges in Education
Speakers at the pre-meeting repeatedly turned to Ellen White’s writings to highlight the importance of Adventist education. Among the passages was a well-known statement from her book Education p. 30, which says, “In the highest sense the work of education and the work of redemption are one.”
Beardsley-Hardy told the meeting that Adventist education faces several challenges, including a steady decline in the number of Adventist teachers employed at Adventist schools.
“We are increasingly hiring non-Seventh-day Adventists to teach in our schools,” she said. “How are we going to achieve our purpose if the teachers are of another faith or no faith at all?”
Non-Adventists account for about 29 percent of the more than 100,000 church-employed teachers, including 52,000 primary teachers, 37,000 secondary teachers, 600 teachers at worker training schools, and 13,500 university and college teachers, according to data cited by Beardsley-Hardy. The church operates more than 8,200 schools, including 6,000 primary schools, 2,336 secondary schools, 54 worker training schools, and 114 universities and colleges.
In another development, the number of non-Adventist students enrolled in Adventist schools is growing, Beardsley-Hardy said.
“What an opportunity for evangelism because the majority are not Adventist,” she said.
But, she added, how can that goal be realized if teachers are non-Adventist?
More than half of the 2 million students enrolled in Adventist schools are non-Adventist, she said. Adventist schools are teaching 1.2 million primary students, 600,000 secondary students, 8,000 worker training students, and 140,000 university and college students.
In another challenge, Beardsley-Hardy said more than half of Adventists — or 52.58 percent of the church’s 19.5 million members worldwide — have no Adventist education, compared to 47.42 percent who have some Adventist education. In addition, a vast majority of Adventist pastors have less than eight years of Adventist education and 8 percent have no Adventist education at all, she said.
Beardsley-Hardy drew a strong link between schools and church membership. Historically membership has been stronger in places with established Adventist schools, she said.
“Education has proved to be a foundation on which church membership grew and stayed strong to this day,” she said. “That gives us guidance going forward. If we want a strong church, let’s start with education.”
Adventist educator and author George R. Knight took that thought one step further, saying his research had found a clear connection between Adventist education and the church’s mission to spread the gospel. Knight, providing a glimpse of his keynote speech to the LEAD conference, said early Adventists had not shown any interest in education or mission. But as the number of Adventist schools grew from zero in the mid-1880s to 245 schools in 1900, interest in mission soared.
“The expansion of Adventist mission and Adventist education go hand in hand,” he said.
Today, mission is the very reason for the church’s existence, he said.
“Education is central to Adventism’s mission to the world,” he said. “It is not an option. It is essential. It is the most essential aspect of the church’s mission as it moves out of the past and into the future toward the Second Coming.”