Written by Dr. Steve Whitaker, Head of School

In August I will begin my 15th year of service at The First Academy. In 2003, we packed our bags and left our home in Kentucky to begin a new journey in Florida. My parents weren’t happy. They were our neighbors, and we were taking their precious grandchildren 1,000 miles away. Amanda was nine, Stephen was six, and Caleb was a one-year-old. Many tears were shed.

We moved our family to Orlando for one reason and one reason alone. We believed God was calling us to serve this community so His name would be lifted high. He said, “Follow me,” and we obeyed. When the blessings came, we rejoiced. When the challenges arose, we gave thanks. When the critics sought to divide and destroy, we prayed for healing and unity.

Those who understand church history and study God’s Word carefully realize that Christ-followers don’t have the promise of daily comfort, the guarantee of smooth sailing, or the assurance of blue skies. Scripture teaches us that some of the greatest triumphs come as a result of great adversity. Just as the 2016-17 school year has been challenging in many ways, I have also seen the hand of God at work redeeming and restoring as only He can do. This year more than 50 students made first-time professions of faith in Jesus Christ. That’s why we press on each day.

What God expects of those who follow Him is childlike faith and willing obedience. When we trust our Heavenly Father, believe the Truth of the Gospel, and set our course to live for Him no matter the cost, we find tremendous satisfaction. The result of our pursuit of God is a journey we call spiritual formation. Seeing lives changed and character formed into the likeness of Christ is our highest calling as an institution. It always has been and it always will be.

This week I asked several teachers, leaders, and alumni to highlight some of the most important steps we have taken in recent years that they believe have led to the strengthening of our commitment to spiritual formation at The First Academy. As we prepare for our 15th year together, I selected 15 items from a lengthy list that reminds us of the importance of keeping “First Things First” at TFA (Matthew 6:33). Perhaps we will share the extended list in a later issue of this publication.

  1. Ephesians 6:4 commands fathers to raise their children “through the training and instruction of the Lord.” Because of this truth, we began equipping dads through monthly Bible studies and prayer gatherings on campus.
  2. James 5:16 tells us that “the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective.” This scripture led us to begin a weekly leadership prayer gathering that meets in my office every Monday morning, and it led us to create a prayer team to lift up our seniors to the Heavenly Father throughout their final year at TFA.
  3. Daniel 1:20 reveals that “In all matters of wisdom and understanding, that the king enquired of them, he found them (Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah) to be 10 times better than all the magicians and astrologers that were in all his realm.” The senior thesis program was designed to challenge and test students with respect to their faith so they could be like Daniel and his friends as they prepare for college and careers.
  4. Proverbs 11:14 reminds us that in the “multitude of counselors there is safety.” To that end, TFA provides unlimited access to RightNow Media to every student, teacher, and parent. This is the largest collection of multimedia resources for Bible study, Christian teaching, and family resources available anywhere.
  5. Psalm 139:23-24 says, “Search me on God and know my heart, try me and know my ways.” In the spirit of self-reflection, we began the process of conducting an annual spiritual formation audit that helps us target areas for growth and identifies areas of strength upon which to build.
  6. I Timothy 5:17 tells us that “Those who lead our churches are worthy of double honor.” Several years ago we launched a school-wide Pastor Appreciation Emphasis that continues to this day. We provide notes of encouragement, generous gifts, and do acts of kindness to bless our pastors.
  7. Proverbs 22:9 says, “Those with generous hands will be blessed because they share with those in need.” Since 2003 our annual need-based tuition assistance amount has tripled, and hundreds of families have been able to attend TFA because of this provision.
  8. Romans 10:14-15 tells us the “feet of those who share the Good News are beautiful.” Several years ago I invited the school community to join me on a Family Mission Trip to the Dominican Republic, and many took me up on the offer. Since then we have seen hundreds of parents and children in the poverty-stricken community of Cielo blessed by the “beautiful feet” of those who shared the Gospel.
  9. II Timothy 2:2 commands those of us who are believers to “entrust the Truth of God’s Word to faithful men who will, in turn, share it with others.” The process of Christian discipleship is what led me to believe that we needed to create two positions at TFA dedicated to Spiritual Formation and Christian Leadership. Haley Malone leads our ministry to young women and Kyle Barrett leads our ministry to young men.
  10. Matthew 28:19 calls us to “Make disciples of all nations.” Five years ago I was approached about the opportunity to enroll international students at TFA. Today we are blessed to have students from China who attend class each day and are discipled by Keith Manning, a former missionary to China who teaches Bible and Mandarin in the Upper School.
  11. John 8:32 says “You will know the Truth and it will set you free.” Several years ago a friend from Focus on the Family introduced me to The Truth Project. It quickly became our roadmap for Biblical Worldview Integration in the classrooms. All faculty and staff are required to complete TTP training following their hiring.
  12. I Corinthians 12:12-13 reminds us that “Just as we have one body with many parts, so it is with the Church.” During a visit to a school in Ohio, I was captivated by their “House System,” which was structured to serve as a vehicle for building Christian community among students. Several years later, we have now introduced this concept at TFA and are working each year to improve the design, implementation, and outcomes in our Upper School as we bolster Christian community.
  13. Matthew 20:28 calls us to follow the example of Jesus who “came to serve rather than to be served.” This summer we will transition our on-campus Wednesday Workdays service opportunities to an outward focus. Kyle Barrett, Director of Spiritual Formation, has worked with community-based ministries throughout Central Florida to create opportunities for families to serve together this summer at these locations rather than at TFA.
  14. Deuteronomy 6:7 tells us to teach our children about God “when we walk with them, when we lie down and night, and when we wake up in the morning.” This speaks to the importance of discipleship and spiritual formation. Several years ago I began reading and studying this concept and found a framework that we have now adopted at TFA. It’s the process we have started using and will more fully develop with students to reach the heart, teach the head, equip the hands, and influence the habits of children using God’s Word and the influence of Christian teachers and coaches in their lives.
  15. Psalm 20:7 says, “Some trust in horses and some trust in chariots, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” The clear focus on trusting God as we began the school year was providential. In the midst of trying times and terrific times, our trust remained in Him.

When our journey at The First Academy began in 2003, Tricia and I understood there would be challenges. Enrollment had dropped precipitously over a three-year period prior to our arrival. The relationship with the church was strained. Financially, the school was facing difficulty and there was no clear path forward. There were some big problems, but we knew we served a God who moved mountains, parted waters and made the blind see.

We believed Deuteronomy 31:8: “The Lord goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

We were thoroughly convinced that Luke 1:37 was meant for us. It says, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Most importantly, for the last 14 years, we have held fast to II Corinthians 12:9-10, which says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

I’ve never been more confident in my belief that God is at work in the life of The First Academy. As we wrap up another school year and look forward to many more together, I end with the words of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 3:20-21: “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory to all generations, forever and ever. Amen”