Symbiosis in Church and School

Interview with Seth Pierce and Craig Mattson

Pastor Cliff Keith sits down with Pastor Seth Pierce and Principal Craig Mattson to find out more about how Puyallup Seventh-day Adventist Church and Northwest Christian school share the same facilities. Watch the video, "A Visit to Puyallup" here.


CK:     Craig, tell me about your experience as a principal and various schools you’ve been at.

CM:    I have been here as Principal at Northwest Christian for five years.  Before that I was the principal at Tulsa Adventist Academy in Oklahoma.  And before that I was at Andrews University doing post-graduate work.  So that’s about nine years as principal, and this is by far the most fun I’ve ever had.  This is the best school and the best job I’ve ever had.

CK:     And Seth.  Tell us about your pastoral experience and where you’ve been.

SP:      I graduated Union College in 2003, and then my wife and I pastored in Wichita, Kansas for two and a half years before heading to Andrews University to do our Masters degrees, and then came out and pastored about three and a half years in the Omaha area in a three-church district.  And then took a call almost six years ago to pastor the Puyallup church.  And I have just enjoyed this community and the school.  It’s been a real blessing to our family.

CK:     So, as far as experience as principal and pastor, you’re both pretty similar in your exposure to what your professions are.

CM:    We were actually at Andrews together at the same time.

SP:      We hung out, yeah, that was pretty cool.


CK:     So can you tell me some figures for enrollment of the actual school?

CM:    We have about 140 in the K-8 program, and we have another 50 in the preschool, so about 190 kids.

CK:     And for church attendance?

SP:      Church attendance is always flux.  We average over 300 per week.  I mean, we’ll have gusts up to close to 400, certainly.  And again, in the summer, on a bright sunny Sabbath morning when the mountains are calling, we may have 280, 290.  But usually between three and four hundred, with our highest Sabbath approaching five hundred in the fall for homecoming.

CK:     So I’m hearing 190 kids, 300 to 500 church attendance, and compared to the population of the town, what are we looking at here?

SP:      About seventy thousand, yeah.

Mission School

CK:     Tell me about the non-Adventist to Adventist student ratio you have in the school here.

CM:    We’re about 50/50 between the community students and Adventist students.  That’s in our K-8 program.  We also run an early childhood program, and I would say we’re probably more like 80 percent non-Adventist in the early childhood program, that’s the 3- and 4-year-olds.

CK:     Does the preschool and kindergarten help build enrollment for the K-8?

CM:    I would say in the last two, two to three years, we’ve retained about sixty percent of the students that go through preschool/pre-K into the K-8 program.  Which is really good because everybody has to pay for preschool and pre-K, no matter where you go.  But once you hit kindergarten, public schools look pretty good to a lot of families because there’s no tuition payment associated with them.

SP:      Yeah, and what we find is closer to 100 percent of the Adventists will be retained from preschool/pre-K. So that throws some analysis onto those ratios.  But there’s still a lot of community parents that choose to keep their kids here for kindergarten, first, all the way through.  We graduated some kids last night, and a couple of them were preschool/pre-K kids that went all the way through eighth grade.

CM:     It’s not only an academic feeder, it also helps the budget. There were a couple of years going back, predating me, where it actually helped balance the school and the K-8 program.  But it’s also a very mission-oriented feeder.  Students have come to us from the community and we’ve had entire families baptized because of their experience with Northwest Christian School. 


School as Feeder for the Church

CK:     Do you believe that the school has contributed to the growth of the church?

SP:      Yes.  I think in a couple ways.  I think through the community connections people end up at our worship service. We’ve had people become baptized because they were impressed with the experience their kids had.  Also, when people are moving or graduating from college or entering a stage of life where they have kids, and they’re looking for a church family with a vibrant school and a vibrant children’s program.  We end up seeing a lot of young families and young adults come to Puyallup.

Community Students

CK:     Craig, tell me some practical steps you all are doing to reach the community that’s resulted in so many non-Adventists attending.

CM:    I have taken it upon myself to try and become a very recognizable figure in the community.  And the vehicle to get me there was the Chamber of Commerce. I go to all the luncheons and events. If there’s a community event we try and make sure that the school’s there.  We’ve had the Chamber of Commerce turn to us, when the U.S. Open came to town, and they were short on buses.  And they said, “Well, we know you guys have a bus.  Can we rent it to you for a week?”  I said, “Sure.  Can we put our logo on the side of it?”  “Yeah, sure, no problem.”  So, you know, we actually ended up being a resource not only for our students, our church, but also for the community.

Beyond that, we make deals with radio stations to try and get some airtime, we try to get published in the newspapers when we’ve got something cool happening at the school.

When I started doing this, people would say, “Northwest Christian School.  I’ve never heard of that. Well, we’ve been here for 60 years.  Now when I go to these community events they’re saying to each other “Let me introduce you to this guy from Northwest Christian School.  Yeah, it’s right over here on Shaw Road.” You go from being a little bit invisible, because nobody knows about you, to actually being something.


CK:     Now, Seth, I heard you last night describe something called a homecoming event. what is that, and how does it bridge the two ministries together?

SP:      It all started probably my first year here when we had some students from our music program involved in the worship service. I noticed a lot of parents of our non-Adventist constituents were coming.  Two years later we firmed up that idea and turned it into a homecoming Sabbath. We invited our kids to really be involved in the worship service; Music, scripture reading, offering call, children’s story, all those sorts of things. That first year our attendance jumped from the usual attendance of 300 to 500 that morning. It was packed.  This will be our third year doing it and we still have almost standing room only.


Bridging Events

CK:     Can you briefly describe any other bridging events that you organize to connect the school and the church together?

CM:    Our calendar is littered with them. On the school side, we have an international food festival that also serves as our registration night.  We have the church come and volunteer to help run the booths, and cook the food.  On the first day of school, one of the coolest things happens. All the church leadership including deacons and elders, will give away free grab bags and welcome parents, and welcome kids into the school, and just overwhelm them with their first impression. 

SP:      As a pastor I don’t want to overreach and be too overtly evangelistic and create an awkward moment for community members.  But we really want to find as many intentional ways to connect with them, including the big welcome. People out there high-fiving kids, giving stuff away.  We gave away two Kindle Fires on behalf of the church to a new student and a returning student. So, trying to find as many little things as possible to let the community members know there is a church and we care about you, we’re praying for you, and we want to build a relationship with you.


History of the Church/School

CK:     So tell us a bit about the history of the church and school.  How did you all merge into one facility? 

CM:    This was something that actually predates both me and Pastor Seth. There’s been a school on this site for sixty years.  The school, about ten years ago, was becoming unfit for human habitation.  The sewer would back up into the gym.

SP:      Couldn’t drink the water.

CM:    The water ran brown out of the taps.  The school was full.  And there was really no room to grow and expand.  So when five conjoining acres came up for sale, the Puyallup Seventh-day Adventist Church decided to buy it.  They put their church structure up for sale and used the proceeds from the sale of the church to cast a new vision for education and for church/school cooperation.  So here we are in Northwest Christian School and the Puyallup Seventh-day Adventist Church; same facility, same structure.  And ten years on, it’s working really well.


CK:     And with the combined church and school in one, tell me a little bit about how you feel it enhances your ministry of presence together as a team. 

SP:      I think obviously just being in proximity.  You know we’re in each other’s business all the time.  But I think we have a good symbiotic relationship between our staff and our volunteers.   Classrooms become Sabbath school rooms on the weekend.  We try to make sure that we promote each other’s events appropriately, so we can appeal to people in the community and our school constituents as well as our church members.  And it’s a source of pride for the church to be able to have that kind of a relationship.  And we have the shared facility, shared programming, and then we have been in the practice about once a month to get our executive staff to sit down together.  We just troubleshoot,  by asking questions such as‘how’s it going?’ ‘Are things working?’  ‘What’s not working?’  We make sure that we’re not stepping on each other’s toes, and we’re getting along.

CM:    There’s also a deep respect for boundaries.  Seth and his team are in charge of the church.  Me and my team, we’re in charge of the school.  But within those boundaries there’s a lot of transparency.  Those joint admin meetings are really critical.  Like, “you know what?  We’ve got storage issues.  We don’t like your junk in our area.  You don’t like our junk in your area.  How do we solve it?”

But having those constructive, honest conversations does wonders for the way that we work together in that symbiotic relationship.

SP:      Sometimes it ends up being every other month. Some months it gets busy, and we just can’t get there. But the idea is, we try our very best.  Even if it’s on the fly. Even if I have to stop in his office, which is right next to mine, and to say, “Hey, Craig, can I have five minutes, ten minutes,” or he does the same to me.  

Shared Calendar

CK:     How are you able to make sure you’re on the same page as far as the event planning, and as far as knowing who’s doing what when, and what ministries are going on in this facility?

SP:      I think Puyallup church is rare in the sense that we plan a year out.  We don’t fly by the seat of our pants.  The school plans their year as well. We do something in November we call “war room,” where we sit down and we plan formally the calendar for the next year.  And so we make sure that our events don’t overlap with the school and really try to work ahead so we’re not caught off guard.  And of course, things always happen, because that’s life, but we are really intentional with how we plan.

CM:    And the school does the same thing.  We plan a year out.  We know where our events are going to fall. All of our staff have access to Google calendar. We train ourselves and train our staff to reference that calendar on a daily basis.  I as a principal know, “hey, there’s a church event this weekend, I don’t think volleyball’s going to work.”

CK:     Have you ever found that planning so far in advance has been a restriction to possibly good things that could have happened?

SP:      I’ve actually found it more freeing, because you are able to stay in tune with world events, and the Spirit and everything else, when you’re not stressed out about what you’re going to preach, and what should we do this weekend. So it frees up mental space throughout the year to really be aware of what’s happening.

CM:    And I would say for the school side, that, it’s really critical for a lot of our professional parents who have vacation time that they have to put in for six months in advance or something like that, to know exactly what’s happening next April.  That’s a real service that we do for our parents, our community, and obviously it works very well between church and school to stay on the same page.

Conflict Resolution

CK:     Can take a moment to think of a conflict that occurred between the church and the school that wasn’t so easily solved by one of you just being as flexible as you can?

SP:      I think sometimes there may be issues like student aid, or a miscommunication about fundraising, or how should the treasurer process the donations, but it never gets to a point where it’s butting heads.  It’s much more of a clarification issue.  And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t high-stress situations like storage issues, or the building expansion, but it never gets personal.   

CM:    And I think it really comes with the nature of what we’re trying to do here. I think human nature likes to build things. And when we’re in a church that’s half complete, and a school that’s half complete, we are all on the same page in terms of vision and mission. So when the high-stress situations come along, it’s not him creating it or me creating it.  It might be a funding issue.  It might be a community issue with a parent or a church member that has a different opinion.  So as a leadership team, you know, with this open communication, we bear that stress together.  Because we’re all pulling in the same direction.  And it’s just a matter of how are we going to get there.

SP:      And as long as you’re on the same page, you invest in those interpersonal relationships, and you’ve got a shared vision, you’re prepared for conflict.  It doesn’t shock us when it shows up.  Because we’re in the same boat we want to move in the same direction.  So it’s more of the logistics or the circumstances that might create conflict, not a personal thing between staff or team members.  It’s just life. 

Cost Savings

CK:     How much financially are you saving by being in one facility versus two different facilities?

CM:    We do a 70/30 split of all basic utilities.  While the school is in session, the school takes on 70 percent of the burden.  And then during the summer months, that 70/30 ratio flips and the church takes on 70 percent of the burden. 

CK:     Are there any other types of expenses saved in the unity of the facilities aside from overhead as well?

SP:      That’s a good question and that’s a little bit complex in the sense that there is a mortgage payment for the building (which is $19,000-plus) that the church bears. And then our goal initially for the student fund or student aid this year is $25,000. So it’s pretty substantial.  And it can be a challenge at times.

CM:    But one of the blessings is that when the school runs well and the finances are on point, when we come to the end of the year we can actually make end-of-the-year donations back into the church.  And in my five years it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that we’ve probably given almost a hundred thousand dollars back into the church, either for capital improvements or for debt reduction.

SP:      For me as a pastor, having talked to colleagues and been to other Adventist schools, that is a phenomenal testimony that you actually have an Adventist school that is in the black and being able to donate a substantial amount of money back to the church.  That usually never happens.

CK:     Right, I’m smiling on my face, because I’m like, are you serious?  The school is giving money back to the church?

CM/SP:  Yeah, right, yeah.

Single Constituent School vs Multi Constituent

CK:     Can you compare being here as a principal with one constituent church, versus other schools where you perhaps had multiple constituent churches?

CM:    You know, I’ve really reorganized my thinking on constituencies.  Because most schools in our Adventist system want to bring in as many churches as possible because there’s dollars attached to that. I’m not against that model.  But when you find something like what we have in Puyallup, when you find a church that is as healthy as it is, as active as it is, and as professionally thinking as it is, it works really well. I’ll be very honest, my first year here as principal, I saw about six other churches that are very geographically close.  And my question was, why aren’t we going after them to join the constituency?

            But what I discovered is the model that’s been working the best is that these other little area churches will cooperate and fund their own kids to come to Northwest Christian School.  They’ll pay the difference between the constituent and non-constituent rate.  They just focus on their kids. That leaves Northwest Christian School to a very large and professional community to run, and I think it really works well for us here.  There’s a lot of Adventist schools out there that need four or five constituent churches on the boat to make things work. But there’s also churches like this that are a little bit bigger, that are going it alone, and they’re making it work too.  So, you know, there is no one right or wrong solution. 

We are proactive with other churches.   Our music program performs in a lot of the other churches.  We have pastors from other churches that come for chapel. I invite every pastor in the area to share with the kids. I would say that our relationships are just as healthy with most of our other local churches as they are with Puyallup, but it’s a different relationship.  Here it’s administrative. 

Unfinished Business

CK:     So here we’re sitting in this, this building that is somewhat incomplete in its construction.  So where are we at here?  What is this place?

CM:    This is your sanctuary, buddy.

SP:      So, when this facility was under construction, the initial idea was, “we’re going to build the school, and then as funds come we’re going to build the church.”

CM:    It was 2008, and the economy tanked.

SP:      So, due to all kinds of things, city ordinances, the recession that hit; it sort of train wrecked things a little bit.  Now the school’s complete, but the church for the last eight years has been meeting in what we call the sanctuarium.

CM:    It’s the gym.

SP:      It’s the gym. We’ve done some debt reduction and we have done some fund raising very successfully to build phase 2, which is going to be our kitchen and cafeteria, which is going to go in this summer.  So it’s exciting.  And this is phase 3 that we’re sitting in.  This is the Performing Arts Center/Sanctuary for the church.  This church has waited a long time for this.  We are doing the best we can to be faithful stewards and not go into any more debt, take care of the debt that we have, while using venues like the school auction to fund raise, and courting other donors who want to invest and finish the project.  So we are sitting where the sanctuary will be.

CK:     So even your calling it the sanctuary, I’m hearing that there’s some teamwork between the school and the church in paying this off, correct?

CM:    Oh, absolutely.

SP:      Yes.

CK:     Fantastic.  Very good, very good.  All right.  And I appreciate your time in sitting down with me and being able to process how your ministry works together in this unique opportunity.  So thank you for your time.