The 2015 publication, “Mission Drift’ by Greer and Horst, painted a sad picture of Christian organisations that had not stayed true to their founding vision. Included in the book were a number of prominent faith-based organisations including educational institutions such as Harvard University. What can be done to ensure that this is not going to be the fate of the modern Christian school movement in Australia?
The modern Christian school movement was to a large extent set up in the 1970’s, primarily by evangelical Christian churches for their congregations. The school was established as a ministry of the local church. Whilst this is a wonderful model in theory, getting this relationship right has been problematic for many of these schools. Yet I believe getting this relationship right is the best remedy in ensuring that Greer and Horst’s, ‘mission drift’ doesn’t occur in Christian schools.
In my experience over the last 25 years working within this model both as both Middle Manager, Principal and Board member, I have noticed some common ‘symptoms’ that usually result in a fractured relationship.
One common symptom I have observed where this church/school relationship is not respectful and cooperative, is a high turnover of Principals. This can seriously influence the educational outcomes of a Christian school as well as it’s credibility to the school’s clientele. The bottom-line effects can be a decline in enrolments and a loss of reputation in the community, thus the Kingdom of God in that locality suffers. In addition or alternatively, local church leadership can also be impacted when these upheavals occur.
Whilst there are other symptoms including (but not limited to) a lack of trust, gossiping culture, lack of community confidence, lack of integration of shared events and experiences – I believe the high turnover of leadership tends to have the most devasting impacts upon school growth and our Kingdom mission.
So what are some simple practical steps that can be regularly practised so that the Kingdom of God and the subsequent entities are not the losers when tensions arise?
Acknowledge that tensions will occur
Firstly we need to acknowledge that tensions will arise. Schools are schools and churches are churches and although they may share common geography and declare the same Kingdom vision, the day to day operations are different. Like any relationship, corporate or individual, communication is a key in ensuring the little things don’t turn into forest fires.
Create a culture of communication which enhances a common Kingdom vision
Both entities also need to have this Kingdom vision, in that their sole overriding goal is to extend the Kingdom of God, not individual organisational agendas.
Ensure that there is the level of separation required legislatively and operationally
Whilst both church and school hopefully share this same vision, there must of necessity be a certain separation of both entities. Governments in Australia fund private schools not churches. For the Christian school movement in Australia this is a great blessing and allows for affordable Christian education to be delivered. Any financial arrangements between church and school must be legal, fair and transparent. Any deviation from this, as well as potentially breaching the law, is a deviation from the very Kingdom values we are trying to promote. In addition, the Principal will be accountable on a daily basis, to literally scores of pieces of legislation that will not be applicable to the church. The church must recognise this as a distinct reality and support the due diligence and governance processes required of the school.
Ensure you have common members on both Boards
In order to facilitate this, church/school organisations need to establish clearly separate Boards with common members across both Boards in order to maintain unity. In most situations, the Senior Pastor, if not the Board chair, will also sit on the school board. The challenge that the Pastor faces in addition to other common members of both boards, is that when they are in the school board space, it is a legal requirement to operate in the best interests of the school. The hope is that there will not arise situations where a clash of interests occurs, but it is naïve to assume that this will never occur.
Publicly honour and affirm the other party and be visible within the ‘other’ environment
Finally, each entity should continually publicly affirm the other and the leadership within each should make themselves visible to the members of the other entity, not in an overbearing or managing style, but in a manner that indicates a desire to support the other. There should be no secret agendas and above all else, all stakeholders must keep in focus that the overall goal of both church and school is the extension of the Kingdom of God.
I am not inferring that a Christian school not attached to a church cannot be a genuine influence for the Kingdom and be effective in delivering quality Christian education. If Board vision, policy and membership are overseen correctly and maintained, then there will not be a problem. However, over time the possibility that a school will remain mission true will be enhanced if a respectful and effective link can be maintained with both the ‘parent’ church and other local churches.
Written by Hector Costello
5 steps to minimise the risk of Church/School Schism.
- Acknowledge that tensions will occur
- Create a culture of communication which enhances a common Kingdom vision
- Ensure that there is the level of separation required legislatively and operationally
- Common members on both Boards
- Publicly honour and affirm the other party and be visible within the ‘other’ environment
We can help!
Healthy Board/executive relationships in a school are vital to the ongoing growth and success of the school. Within the Christian school movement many join Boards with little or no experience, and therefore little understanding of the difference between governance and management.
We conduct practical training sessions that will enable those who serve on school Boards gain an understanding of the role of the Board in maintaining a productive relationship with the Principal and executive staff.