For Pastor Noah L. Washington, “a wonderful field of evangelism” sits in plain view of his church, right across the parking lot.
It’s Columbus Adventist Academy, the school his congregation, Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church, started about 15 years ago. Part of the Allegheny West Conference, the academy has more than 150 students enrolled, most of whom are not Adventist — and several not Christian.
“There are people right in our backyard that we don’t have to look for,” said Washington, who is in his second year as lead pastor at Ephesus. “God has given us a wonderful opportunity.”
This evangelistic spirit is echoed in the slogan of the school — “educating for eternity” — which takes pride in preparing students for long-term academic success as well as for meeting Jesus. It is not unusual for teachers to bring their students to church with them every Sabbath. In turn, Washington is a near-daily presence in school hallways, providing moral support and, when necessary, more tangible assistance, including coaching basketball teams in the lower grades. He and other area pastors give chapel, help discipline and counsel students, faithfully attend school board meetings and even string up Christmas lights.
“Whatever we’ve asked [pastors] to do at the school, they do. I have yet to have one say, ‘No, that’s not my thing,’” said Brenda Arthurs, who has served as principal of the K–8 school for eight years. “They’re just very supportive all around with the students….We consider ourselves a family, and they’re part of that.”
Washington’s regular visits and availability also provide the kids another male role model, as the school’s staff are mostly women. It’s a responsibility he takes seriously, particularly when it comes to connecting with the African-American boys and young men at the academy.
“I try to go over there to provide support and care for the teachers as well as the students,” said Washington, whose son will enter fifth grade at the academy this fall. “I'm trying to bridge the gap, so to speak, and provide a stronger connection with the church and school.”
The effort is mutual. The academy informs parents of church activities and programs and contributes to its outreach endeavors. Last year, for example, the two teamed up to collect bottled water for the residents of Flint, Michigan, in response to the city’s water crisis. Students have helped with homeless ministries, made cards for members who are sick and handed out fliers promoting church revivals, Arthurs said, in addition to participating in worship services. Ephesus also hosts a Columbus Adventist Academy Day featuring students throughout the Sabbath program.
The hiring of teachers from other Adventist churches has strengthened bonds with those congregations, said Belvia Jackson, whose daughter and son are academy students. When the school has special evening programs that coincide with Wednesday prayer meetings, the churches will cancel their gatherings “to support the school,” said Jackson, who attends Ephesus.
Beyond encouraging students to participate in outreach activities, academy staff reinforce the church’s teachings and mission in everyday ways throughout the year. That includes intentionally praying — with students before tests, with parents before teacher conferences and with both before meetings in the principal’s office — regardless of their religion, Arthurs said.
“Our mission is the mission of the Seventh-day Adventist Church...to steer their hearts toward Jesus,” she said. “We don’t do everything perfect by any means, but we do try to put God in everything we do.”
To Jackson, the very idea of the school bolsters the church’s mission.
“It’s the church that decided to start the school,” she said, “so just the concept of it providing Christian education for our young people…is supportive of the church mission.”
Members at Ephesus drove the launch of Columbus Adventist Academy in the early 2000s. Different church schools had existed over the years, recalled Arthurs, who was born and raised in Columbus and attended one of them. “The church has always been for Christian education,” she said.
Columbus Adventist Academy initially started in the church building, Jackson said, and eventually moved to its own facility as it grew. Today, the church campus also houses a preschool. Belief in the academy’s importance remains strong among members, Washington said, which contributes to its success.
Leadership matters, too, Arthurs said, pointing to the pastors in the area whose children, grandchildren and other relatives have attended the school over the years. “When you have a pastor who’s for Christian education, that’s half your battle,” she said. “Ephesus has been blessed to have pastors who are for Christian education, who believe in it, who believe there should be a school, who believe the children should have the best they can have.”
She views that constant support, as well as Ohio’s school voucher program, known as EdChoice, as factors that contribute to the school’s success. While the academy receives students from several other Adventist churches, a number of kids are from different denominations and religions, including some Muslim families. Many, including Adventists, benefit from the state program’s assistance in covering the cost of tuition.
The school’s religious diversity provides opportunities for witnessing, Jackson said, and exposes her children to people outside the Adventist bubble. The ongoing presence of other community students is also “a testimony” for the academy, as families have their pick of charter schools in the area, she said.
Indeed, “these families keep choosing Columbus Adventist Academy, and they’re telling other families, ‘Send your children there,’ Washington said. “From that I can deduce that they feel that the environment is warm; they know they’re children are going to learn; they know it’s a safe environment; they know they’ll learn about God.”
Word of mouth and referrals have been a boon to enrollment for the past five years, Arthurs said. Although the school firmly aligns itself with the Adventist mission, she and her staff recognize the nature of their student body. Therefore, during pastor appreciation month in October, the academy invites area pastors of all denominations, encouraging students to bring theirs to a school-hosted brunch. And when students decide to commit their lives to Jesus, staff visit their home church to see their baptism.
“We’re happy that they give their little hearts to God, and we say the Holy Spirit is going to take care of the rest,” Arthurs said.
The academy’s growth has presented a dilemma for the school and the church: the need for more space. The school board has been exploring ways to address the issue, which the church board will consider before putting the final decision to the congregation in a business session, Washington said. Discussing church finances can cause apprehension and tension, he said, and challenges likely lie ahead as they determine the best step forward. Yet he hopes to guide the congregation toward a shared vision to help ease the way.
In the meantime, he aims to focus even more on how the academy and church work together to achieve their goals. “We’re really moving in the right direction,” Washington said. “My prayer is this fall we’ll be more intentional.”