For church, school and hospital leaders in and around Dayton, Ohio, symbiosis is more than high school biology lesson. It’s the essence of their relationship, which they also describe with words like “synergy” and “interconnected.”
A quick inventory of the various ways their paths intersect underscores how tightly Spring Valley Academy, area churches and Kettering Health Network are knit together: The school’s board includes representatives from all four of its constituent churches, as well as Kettering Health Network’s former CEO and current president. The principal serves on the network’s board of directors, gives monthly school reports to the church boards and preaches sermons in each congregation. Students from the academy regularly perform during services and volunteer for church outreach ministries, and pastors are on campus daily, coaching sports teams, counseling students and supporting weeks of prayer, among other activities.
The key to their relationship, they say, is the fundamental recognition that they not only need one another to survive but mutually thrive when they collaborate.
“It’s a really healthy corner of the church in terms of the way the different institutions work together,” said Darren Wilkins, who has served as principal of the Ohio Conference’s Spring Valley Academy for the past four years. “We’re always thinking of each other.”
The presence of Kettering Health Network — one of the largest employers in the region — is a unique variable in their equation. Church and school leadership point to the network’s support as an essential ingredient to their success, providing financial resources, connections and other expertise that bolster the entire community.
The network is “very much supportive of the church and the school and sees all of our entities together as one and the same organization,” said Karl Haffner, senior pastor of Kettering Seventh-day Adventist Church, one of the academy’s constituent churches, all of which contribute financially to the school. “We work with the network under the banner of the same exact mission…and so we very much work together.”
Having a strong Adventist school in the community also benefits the network, said Frank Perez, who retired as network CEO in 2011 and chairs Spring Valley Academy’s board. “If we want a vibrant health system, if we want vibrant congregations, we must have a vibrant Adventist school….Talent would not be coming to Dayton, to our community, if we didn’t have an outstanding Adventist academy.”
Indeed, as young professionals and other workers contemplate where to go, they often not only want to know about the churches in the area but whether there is a school, said Pastor Winston Baldwin, the senior pastor of Centerville Seventh-day Adventist Church, located a few miles down the road from the academy. Recruiting Adventist families to the area can be difficult without a thriving school and good relationship between it and the churches, he said.
“As the school prospers, the church prospers, and as the church prospers, the school prospers,” said Baldwin, whose wife is a teacher at the academy. “One cannot do without the other one. We would all suffer.”
Centerville is one of the school’s constituent churches, allocating a portion of its local budget to Spring Valley Academy. While the church certainly could use those funds for other ministries, the congregation has chosen to focus on young people and the academy, which Baldwin sees as an important mission field. “That also is a good indicator of how much the church believes in the school,” he said of Centerville’s contribution, which represents over 60 percent of its local budget.
The churches’ support goes well beyond financial. At Kettering, Haffner made the academy’s vision statement — “inspiring students to know, follow and share Jesus” — the focus of a three-year sermon series. He spent a year on each element, talking about what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus, to follow Him and to share Him through evangelism. More recently, he did a series on challenges facing churches and schools alike in today’s world, with topics including technology, pornography and sexuality. Wilkins preached a sermon on politics as part of that, Haffner said.
The church has also been intentional about erasing boundary lines between their facilities, he added. Hosting school functions at Kettering and Centerville is commonplace, as is holding church small-group meetings on the academy’s campus.
That openness was evident to Orville Brissett, whose 10-year-old son will enter fifth grade at Spring Valley Academy this fall, and a powerful testimony of church support. If a budget telegraphs what’s important to a church, he said, so too does the use of its physical space.
“To make the facility open to students says a lot about how the church values young people and the school,” said Brissett, who pastors Shiloh Cincinnati. “It’s just an awesome community, spiritually and educationally. It means a lot that the drive that we take every day from Cincinnati to Centerville is producing in my child something that we can be proud of.”
The community’s shared commitment to quality Adventist education was sown decades ago. In the 1960s, a small group of physicians who had recently moved to the area saw the need to prepare for the influx of health professionals bound to flock to the new Charles F. Kettering Memorial Hospital, named for an inventor whose son and daughter-in-law had the facility built in his honor. The couple had seen and admired the Adventist approach to health care and asked the Seventh-day Adventist Church to run the hospital if they provided the funds.
The physicians “had this passion for building a really first-class school,” said Wilkins, who has served as principal of Spring Valley Academy for the past four years. That passion drove them to buy the 56-acre property south of Dayton where the school would eventually be built. A few years later, as the hospital employees they had anticipated did in fact arrive, the need to realize their vision was apparent. Spring Valley Academy officially opened in 1968, although it wasn’t quite finished: A strike had delayed construction that summer.
“When they opened up…they had plastic over the windows and doors and kerosene heaters in each classroom,” said Charlie Cobb, who moved to the area in 1967 to work at Kettering Hospital.
Cobb — whose four children and three grandchildren have attended the school — went on to a 36-year career at the school in building and grounds maintenance and, later, driving buses. He recalled plumbers coming in the evenings to help finish the building during that first year, joined by residents who painted and lent a hand however they could.
“We were blessed by the participation we had,” he said. “Some of them didn’t even have kids in school.”
“The whole story of the founding of the school…is deep in people’s memories — the sacrifice and commitment at the beginning,” Wilkins said. “The founding of the school was very much tied in with the establishment of Kettering Medical Center.”
School enrollment steadily grew as the hospital expanded, eventually becoming today’s nonprofit network of eight hospitals, over 120 outpatient facilities and Kettering College. During his tenure, Wilkins has seen the student body at Spring Valley Academy — which serves kids from prekindergarten through high school — climb from nearly 290 to 350. Enrollment for the coming year has already exceeded that and may land closer to 390, Wilkins said. He attributed some of that growth to the hospital’s renewed commitment to recruiting Adventists for medical and leadership positions over the past several years.
The school also draws students from another 10 or so area churches. Just this past school year, three Hispanic churches in the area joined that contingent, in another manifestation of the church-school-network connection.
Wilkins got to know Pastor Julio Morales, who leads the churches, a year ago and soon realized those congregations were filled with prospective students who weren’t attending his school.
Kettering CEO Fred Manchur had a similar revelation around the same time, after learning from Morales that the churches had about 65 school-aged children in their midst.
His next move? Encouraging Wilkins to find out what was necessary to get those kids into the school. After several evening meetings with church parents and a school pizza night with an overwhelming turnout, 47 students — many from low-income families that hadn’t imagined being able to afford sending their kids to the academy — enrolled in the school, Wilkins said. Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers, helped open the doors for some, while about $175,000 in scholarships from Kettering Health boosted others. The network also donated five passenger vans to the churches to facilitate transportation for the new students.
“The whole thing happened because of the relationship,” Wilkins said. “Because that relationship is so close and so good, there are all these opportunities that wouldn’t get noticed in many other places — or wouldn’t even be seen as possibilities.”
As a parent, Brissett sees the less tangible benefits of that relationship, too. The connection with Kettering Health Network and its widespread support for their school show Spring Valley students what they can become, he said. The school even has a Future Physicians of America Club.
“They’re surrounded by success,” Brissett said. “They’re surrounded by people who are making daily sacrifices for their education.”
While the relationship creates new opportunities, it also can give rise to tension. With constituent churches on the conservative and liberal ends of the spectrum, the academy can become a cultural battleground. Busy church, school and network calendars can result in competing events. And when the organizations fundraise for building projects on their respective campuses, they are often tapping the same pool of prospective donors.
Yet the strong connection they share helps them navigate these challenges, too.
“The leadership is all so much on the same team that it never devolves into real conflict….We’re not going to divide ourselves,” Wilkins said. “We’ve seen enough…[that] when we work together, we all end up benefitting.”
“In terms of the core mission, why we’re here, I don’t think there’s any tension there,” Haffner said. “We’re all quite clear on what God’s put us into this community to do, and it’s simply live and love like Jesus.”