Lawrence G. Downing MBA Class of 1959
A Response to Dr.
Richard Osborn’s Presentation to the San Diego Adventist
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.