By Pastor Troy Keaton
For the past seven years, our community has been blessed to have a Christian school. Founded in 2008 by a group of eager parents and leaders, Smith Mountain Lake Christian Academy (SMLCA) has been a small but positive presence in our rural lake community in Virginia. Just prior, in February 2006, EastLake Community Church (ELCC) began with a vision to multiply believers, leaders, and churches.
These two Christian organizations were unrelated and only distantly connected until February 2015. At that time, the church’s relationship with the school became much deeper when the respective boards of SMLCA and ELCC voted unanimously to bring the school under the ministry umbrella of the church. This would mean that the church would now provide leadership, vision, and future facilities for the school. We were literally taking full responsibility for the school.
The question I often get is, “Why would you want your growing church to be connected with a Christian school?” That question is often followed with a vivid reminder of the risk involved in leading a school, and occasionally there’s even a scary anecdote thrown in for emphasis.
We are all acquainted with the “Three R’s” of education: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In this article, I will show you the “Three R’s” of why our church took leadership of a local existing Christian school: the ROUTE, the RISK, and the REWARD.
1. The ROUTE: How did we get here, and what process did we use to form this relationship?
From the church side, it began with an awareness that we have the responsibility to ensure our children are properly discipled and trained. Although this commitment has been part of the church from our inception, we realized that our efforts were inadequate during a strategic planning and prayer session in early 2014. From the school’s perspective, it was obvious that the lack of a clear, overarching vision and strong leadership were a great hindrance to the school moving forward.
Both organizations realized that the other had something that they needed. The school had a structure, student body, and existing framework for educating children with a Christian worldview. The church had vision, passion, and resources to help the school succeed.
The process involved the church board engaging a task force from Renewanation to assess the school’s strength and weaknesses and provide recommendations for this relationship. This gave us experts in the field of education, outside both organizations, to assess from top to bottom the best path forward. After four months, the church presented this at it’s annual church conference where the motion passed with a 94% approval. Shortly after, the school board voted unanimously to accept the tenets of the merger.
On the recommendation of the Renewanation Task Force, the existing school board was disbanded and a new “transition board” was put in place. The transition board included the three-member Renewanation Task Force, two members from ELCC, and two former board members of SMLCA. The existing principal of SMLCA and I, as the pastor of ELCC, also sat on the transition board as non-voting members.
The transition board worked diligently through the late winter and spring of 2015 to ensure the school was ready to launch with a fresh vision in the fall.
2. The RISK: What challenges did we face, and what risk were we taking in the process of partnering with SMLCA?
To say this was an easy process would be a dereliction of our duty to obey the ninth commandment; you know the one that deals with speaking the truth.
Forming this type of partnership involved the risk of:
The church failing to see this relationship as a part of their mission and rejecting it. This demanded a process of communication, open meetings, and discussion in order to cultivate acceptance from the church.
Assuming financial responsibility for a struggling non-profit school. The school had never been able to stabilize from a financial perspective, and we knew that with authority comes responsibility. During the transition period, the church did provide supplemental funds.
Making necessary changes that would be unpopular with the current stakeholders. This is where the most difficulty was encountered. When the task force from Renewanation assessed the culture and philosophy of the school, they discerned the cause of a stifled growth pattern, lack of financial resources, and poor culture. There was great disparity found between the day to day practice of the school’s faculty and their written statements and the church’s view on these matters. Unfortunately, many within had adapted to the dysfunction, embraced it as normal, and were therefore very resistant to change. This risk proved real as we had significant turnover in faculty following the completion of the school year. However, ensuring alignment with vision, culture, and philosophy were paramount to us from the beginning and was worth the risk and frustration of the process.
3. The REWARD: What benefits are there to the church and school through this partnership?
Although we are early in this relationship, the rewards of the diligent, thoughtful, vision-driven process are already coming to light.
We are reaping the rewards of:
Energy and momentum. The focused planning and vision has created excitement and has moved the school from a small school in the shadows to a viable and exciting educational alternative at Smith Mountain Lake.
Growth. In our church of several hundred, this process has raised awareness of the importance of teaching and training our children with a biblical worldview. Families are, for the first time, enrolling their kids in a Christian school. We are poised to set an attendance record at SMLCA for the 2015-2016 school year.
Purpose and vision. Clear vision attracts quality people. This clarity and excitement have brought to us some of the most fantastic Christian teachers, quality students, and excited donors.
Confidence. In light of our collapsing society, we are sure that in the future there will be a place in our community where God’s truths are clearly taught through high-quality education with a biblical worldview.
I am aware that time will ultimately speak to the wisdom of this relationship. However, we believe that the future of our children, our churches, and our nation are worth embarking on this journey. At ELCC, we have decided that weekday education is not separated from our calling to “train up a child in the way they should go.” It is worth our effort to ensure our children know the truth about the beautiful, complex, created world in which they live. We’ll keep you posted about this vital endeavor!
Pastor Troy Keaton has pastored for more than 20 years. In 2006, Troy planted EastLake Community Church in Moneta, Virginia and now leads a growing multi-site congregation of several hundred that has also planted several other churches. Troy and his wife, Janel, have two daughters, a son-in-law, two sons, and a brand new grandson, Carson. They reside in Hardy, VA.
This article originally appeared in The Renewanation Review® magazine. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted here by permission of Renewanation. For more information regarding Renewanation, visit renewanation.org.