The glossy, full-color brochure describes it as a place 'where a spiritual focus and academic excellence join hands.' As people familiar with Christian education know, mottoes can be one thing, the day-to-day, year-to-year life of a school, another.
Welcoming its first 150 students into grades five through eleven in fall 1968, Greater Atlanta Christian School is now a K3 through 12th-grade institution with a student population of 1,550. GACS was recognized in 1999 as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education.
Top administrator of GACS is president David Fincher. Starting as faculty member in 1972, Fincher moved into top leadership in 1998.
'I’m a preacher’s kid,' Fincher said, explaining he grew up from Louisville to the nation’s capital while spending most of his early years in Kentucky. Fincher is also an elder at the Campus Church of Christ, whose 1,400 members worship in a building adjacent to the GACS campus.
A graduate of Harding University with a doctorate from the University of Georgia, Fincher is active in educational organizations including the Southern Association of Independent Schools and the Council for American Private Education.
Fincher tags the buildings and grounds of GACS’ expansive 74-acre campus in Norcross, Ga., at just under $50 million.
But what happens to the young minds and souls behind the brick and concrete and atop the grassy playing fields? Fincher shares his vision of Christian elementary and secondary education and of GACS in particular.
How do you define Christian education?
It’s an education that exalts Jesus and teaches people to look to Jesus and his word. Our job is less to tell them what to think than how to think with Jesus’ spirit and word at the center of their lives.
The presence of Christ in our curriculum is what we’re about. We’re going to present every family to Jesus and his word. For students to have Christ in their lives, that’s what wins. Our former president, Jesse Long, used to say, 'we are not a brainwashing organization.' His idea was to teach students how to dig in the word.
My job is to give kids the skills and the knowledge of Christ so they can deal with where the church is 50 years from now.
Some educators see Christian values at odds with the free pursuit of knowledge. What conflicts do you see between promoting values and striving for academic excellence?
There is a perceived conflict, I think because of secular thinking. The Great Creator is the great epitome of all excellence. I support a community of empowerers. The great educator points his students to the truth. How can you be good without God? How good can an education be, if the ethics of the Great Teacher are absent from it?
Christian education will always be in question in some academic circles. If others choose to look down on our approach, so be it. Will we ever make everybody happy? No.
'Excellence' seems an important concept for you. How does a Christian school become truly great, in your estimation?
Everything Jesus did was excellent. God has been teaching us to turn this place over to him. We have been getting out of his way. With egos not allowed, with no kingmakers and kingbreakers, amazing things can happen.
Pragmatically, we wanted a world where superb teachers could come and feel good they are taking care of their families. The Greater Atlanta Christian board made a commitment years ago that they would always pay our teachers at the State of Georgia scale.
How does GACS, a school affiliated with churches of Christ, approach having a student body not exclusively from that tradition?
About 30 percent of our students are from churches of Christ. Atlanta is not a stronghold of churches of Christ nationally. The area has some 5,000 to 7,000 members. A large number of evangelical groups use us. Our students include Baptists, Presbyterians, and those from community churches. We also have Catholics.
Racially, GACS is 7 percent African American, 6 percent Asian, 1 percent Hispanic, and the rest Anglo.
We view our work as metropolitan and international. In post-modern times, I want our school to minister to post-modern families.
Many Christian schools and universities have gone through troubled periods. An example is David Lipscomb University, rescued earlier in its history by the financial generosity of benefactor A.M. Burton. What have been some of GACS’ most challenging moments?
We went through tight times in the 1970s. People gave everything from their personal incomes to their jewelry boxes. But the school never missed a paycheck.
The school underwent some spiritually dark days as well. The balance sheet was looking pretty good. But we began to ask, 'Is this as good as it gets?' God had to break us from some pride and self-sufficiency.
We were disturbed by what we didn’t see happening in our children’s lives. At a faculty retreat, it became clear that we’d been too concerned about what people think. We realized we wanted this school to radically belong to the Lord. We prayed to ask God’s forgiveness, and for sin to come to the surface.
This resulted in a metamorphosis. We hired a chaplain to be a spiritual counselor. We changed our schedule, giving up time in the classroom for small groups. Some of these are grief-recovery groups, for example. The purpose of all this, to point kids to Jesus.
Our chapels took on a radically contemporary look beginning in the mid-nineties. It dawned on us, if we’re going to reach students, we better reach them with drama, with music, and with messages that tapped their souls and their generation.
The service component was another factor. We have mission days, one in the fall, one in the spring. We give up class time for students to be actively serving.
As president of a successful Christian primary and secondary school, what is your vision of leadership?
God has chosen leaders for the school who don’t think they have all the answers. Everything centers around our mission, itself a take-off on scripture: 'To Help Each Student Grow As Jesus Did, In Wisdom, In Stature, And In Favor With God and Man.'
Our vision has not been heirarchical, rather, to get great people and then empower them. Power is not a limited commodity. Power only multiplies when you’re not the king anymore.
I have told the faculty, 'you have made the great things happen.' For example, teacher Dwight Love dreamed of a powerful math school. We are now one of the top two or three in the Southeast. We have a professional mentoring program that came about as our faculty wondered how to help new and transitioning teachers. It is completely teacher-controlled and teacher-dreamed.
We want participation on part of the faculty. Additionally, the GACS board has shown wisdom, insight, support, and trust. God is continually raising up people with a great idea.
If a community starting a Christian school came to you for help, what advice would you offer?
Concretely, search for a wise board of trustees with the flexibility to cope with the changes within the next 20 years. The community will be statistically different in 2020.
Fundamentally, I would encourage them to clarify their agenda as Christ first, not institution first. Everything that is Christ’s will be excellent.