Something quite unusual

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There are nine Seventh-day Adventist conferences in Australia. All have schools. All have baptisms. What is curious is that some have lots of baptisms associated with schools, and some do not. By “baptisms associated with schools” I’m referring to baptisms of students in, teachers at, or parents of children attending an Adventist school. The large variance isn’t just in raw numbers but also as percentages of total conference baptisms. And it doesn’t seem to matter if there are lots of baptisms or few baptisms in a conference.

The national average is that almost one-third of total baptisms in Australia are associated with our schools. But there is an outlier. In 2015, 72 per cent of baptisms in the North NSW Conference were associated with our schools. And that pattern has been repeated over the past three years. When there’s a statistical outlier like this, there are at least three possible explanations. First, NNSW could simply be over-reporting. Second, all the other conferences could be under-reporting. Or third, maybe NNSW is onto something that we can all learn from.

My number one goal at NNSW’s schools today is to ensure we don’t ever miss a single child ever again.

So I called Dean Bennetts, CEO of Adventist Schools NNSW, to pick his brains. It turns out there are a lot of brains to pick. I hadn’t talked with him in any depth previously and was, frankly, very impressed. Mr Bennetts served as principal of Central Coast Adventist School for 17 years prior to becoming CEO of the NNSW school system. During that time, the school grew from enrolments in the mid- 100s to just under 900 students. This is what I learned from our conversation.

The NNSW statistics are likely accurate

Mr Bennetts has taken special care in collecting and reporting accurate baptism statistics. “Unless we have accurate information we can’t track how effective we’re being,” he says. “So this is a very high priority for me. We go through the data carefully. If there’s a number that looks odd, we check it out. Accuracy is what we value.

“The skills and support of Dr David McClintock, associate South Pacific Division Education director, in ‘number crunching’ has been a vital accuracy and validity test for the data.”

Vision

This focus on reporting is driven by Mr Bennetts’ vision. “When I first started at Central Coast Adventist School (CCAS), our goal was to operate safe environments for our Adventist kids, to ensure they weren’t tainted by the world,” he says. “The economics of keeping the school system afloat, however, made relying exclusively on Adventist children unworkable. That is why we began to accept a higher proportion of children from non-Adventist families. Of course we cared for and nurtured these children. But they weren’t our primary focus. I had been at CCAS for almost a decade before I had an epiphany: these children are our mission field. And that changed everything. From that point on, reaching all our students with the gospel became our number one priority.

“My greatest fear is that when I meet Christ, He’ll look me in the eye and say ‘Dean, why’d it take you 10 years before you saw the harvest was right in front of you?’ I wonder how many kids who were open to the gospel we missed. My number one goal at NNSW’s schools today is to ensure we don’t ever miss a single child ever again.”

Results aren’t a fluke

It is, of course, one thing to have a goal; quite another to do anything about it. And this is where the NNSW approach is interesting. There are five practical things they are doing to ensure they reach their objective.

First, they set the goal explicitly and communicate it repeatedly. And this goal isn’t just communicated to all the teachers and principals; it’s explicitly repeated to parents and students. Non-Adventist parents are told when they are considering enrolling their children in NNSW’s Adventist schools that their children may decide to join our faith community.

Second, there is adequate and appropriate staffing. “It isn’t just about having chaplains, it’s about having the right chaplains and associated staff,” Mr Bennetts says. “For example, at CCAS we had a staff member allocated about two days a week to work on worship music. Music is so essential when kids are high school aged. Having highly professional, beautiful worship music is therefore essential to reaching their developing spiritual identity. We also work very hard to ensure our chaplains are our most talented, dedicated and equipped pastors for the role. We need our best talent ministering to our most precious flock.”

Third, chaplains are present. “Our most effective chaplains are there in the morning to greet parents and students, play soccer and cricket with the kids at lunch time, have office hours during the day so that kids can come and talk with them about anything at all,” Mr Bennetts says. “Chaplains run Bible studies for students—and their parents. And they are there at pick-up time, talking with the parents and helping with the kids. They are fully integrated into the community. This breaks down barriers, builds relationships and trust naturally follows.”

Fourth, chaplains are part of school leadership teams. “Our chaplains aren’t just an add-on to school life; they are critical components of our school leadership teams with the principal and vice principal. That makes an enormous difference.”

Fifth, churches and schools are integrated. “We are working very hard to ensure there are no walls—administrative or cultural—between our schools and our churches,” Mr Bennetts says. “A number of our schools have churches that meet on campus. My goal is to start more campus churches because they have proven a very powerful means of reaching our school families. Even when we don’t have a church on the campus, we work very hard to integrate the nearest church with the school, and the church pastor into the life of the school. Our schools are our churches, our churches are our schools. We are one team, with one goal. This is a vital and ongoing work in progress,” he concludes. “The harvest is not when, it is now—the harvesters are not who, they are us.”


James Standish is editor of Adventist Record.