I enjoy a good challenege. What do I want to accomplish? How am I going to make it happen? This is even more exciting when it moves into the realm of leadership. What do WE want to accomplish? How are WE going to make it happen? Motivating and inspiring others in the journey of life is part of my passion. I want all of us to truly live our lives with the abundance that God has promised us through His Son Jesus Christ. "I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full." (John 10: 10)
The statistical data being released about the Catholic Church in our country does not typically paint a pretty picture. Parishes are closing or merging, Catholic schools are closing or struggling to maintain viability, the number of priests serving our parishes is declining, etc. How do we turn the tide? How do we manage decline while striving for renewal?
Some would argue that there is no easy answer to such a complex question. Could it be that there is not a single definitive answer, but instead, a compilation of a multitude of factors to be addressed? The topic could certainly be discussed at length in regard to how we move forward.
Today, I simply want to look at a particular clue given in the Sacred Scriptures. What amount of our time, energy, and effort is focused on building relationships? How did Jesus interact with Peter, James, and John? What was significant about the relationship between Jesus and the woman at the well, or between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery? How did Jesus interact with those whom he healed of a particular infirmity? How did Jesus interact with Mary and Martha? What was his relationship with Lazarus? What do many of the parables demonstrate in regard to building relationships? What does it mean to have a proper wedding garment? When we hear about the banquet prepared and the fattened calf killed in the story of the prodigal son, what runs through our minds? What is communicated about the relationship between Jesus and the "good thief" hanging on the cross next to him?
My dear friends, it is important that we do things well in ministry. We organize programs, develop great music for liturgy, train hospitality ministers, recruit catechists, and on and on the list goes. These are all relevant things to have within the structures of our institutions. However, we can never forget the purpose behind having these things. It is about the people with whom we are sharing the love of Jesus Christ.
Someone recently asked me about the differences I have experienced working in the Catholic school system in St. Louis (where the archdiocese has one of the largest enrollments in the country) and Cheyenne (where the diocese has one of the lowest enrollments). The obvious difference is population. There are more people in the St. Louis metropolitan area than what we have in the whole state of Wyoming. A lack of population also correlates to a diminished access to a multitude of resources.
Given these differences, there are still many similarities. The purpose of a Catholic school is to proclaim the Kingdom of God. We educate and form students to be faithful disciples and evangelizers. It does not matter where the school is located. The perpetual mission of our Catholic schools is to make saints.
With that being said, how do we most effectively do that in our Catholic school systems? What are the necessary structures? In my opinion, it begins first and foremost with solid and effective leadership. This includes being a spiritual leader.
Different models and methodologies have been utilized to attain such success. A principal is typically the leader in many of our Catholic schools. The duties are far-reaching and can include a variety of tasks not seen in the job description. More than once I cleaned up the vomit in the hallway when a child didn't quite make it to the restroom. I did not see that listed anywhere in my principal job description. Raising money was insinuated in my description but not to the level of the actual expectations to do so. It did not take long to realize that the last category of "other duties as required" was a huge catchall phrase in the job description.
Some of the larger schools utilize a president/principal model. This allows the principal to really focus on academics and and the supervision of the faculty while the president can focus on big-picture visioning, fundraising, relationship building, marketing, etc. Other terms may be used to delineate some of these different roles. Deans may be appointed for specific responsibilities of leadership. Boarding schools will utilize terms such as Headmaster to depict the leader of the school.
Schools may choose to hire personnel for development offices, marketing departments, enrollment specialists, and so forth. The possibilities are quite lengthy, but the bottom line is that each of these departments, or more specifically the people in these positions, will need to build relationships. Raising money is made possible by building strong relationships with donors. Marketing a school and developing a solid brand takes time. A quality product must be delivered, but relationships must also be nurtured if the brand is to have longevity. Enrollment specialists strive to recruit and retain students. This is a necessary goal, but recruitment of students becomes much easier when positive relationships have been built.
The leader sets the tone to make all of this happen. Whether that is the pastor & principal, the president & principal, the headmaster & dean, or whatever other combinations you may derive, effective leadership is a necessity. This means that someone who is able to create a vision, build relationships, and communicate to all involved constituents the value of sharing that vision, will have the capability of nurturing a school environment that truly proclaims the Kingdom of God. Who wouldn't want to get on board for that endeavor?
Is any of this easy? Not really. It did not take me long to find out when I became a Catholic school principal that not everyone was going to get on board with the vision I had for the school to be an institution of excellence. Some liked it the way it was because he/she had power in a particular niche of the school. Others just did not seem to like anything. Thankfully, some embraced my vision for being a school of excellence and worked with me in an attempt to bring it to fruition.
There are many opinions about how to run a school. Getting everyone on the same page is quite the challenge. I don't like using the word "stakeholder" because it sounds like a very secular term. However, there are a multitude of stakeholders when it comes to the Catholic school.
As principal, there are two key players immediately present. Obviously, in a parish school, the pastor is the person with the canonical responsibility of this ministry. Thus, the relationship between pastor and principal is key for the vision of the school to be communicated consistently and similarly. Do the pastor and principal share the same educational philosophy? The second stakeholder is the school advisory board. Most enter into this role with a generous spirit, but dare I say, that some members of the board have their own personal agendas that they are striving to promote? How do you create a board that is cohesive and intent on guiding the school toward excellence in cooperation with the school leadership?
The next category is the faculty and staff. How does a principal build a team that strives for excellence? Thankfully, most teachers want to do a good job. Unfortunately, teachers can get worn down from the circumstances surrounding life in the classroom. Complaints from parents, a difficult principal, students with behavioral issues, or excessive demands in regard to extra-curricular responsibilities can all lead to burnout. How does a principal promote a culture of excellence if burnout and apathy are present? How does healing take place? How do you pursue excellence if mediocrity has been acceptable in the past?
Parents are one of the school's greatest assets. However, there are exceptions to this. Parents send their children to Catholic schools for a variety of reasons. I would like to think it was for an excellent CATHOLIC education. The reality is that some parents simply want a private education. I remember creating a newsletter focusing on the saints one year. It was the week when the Church celebrates the Feast of All Saints. A parent criticized me for dwelling on that particular topic. Interesting. What does the phrase "communion of saints" mean to you when you profess the Creed on Sundays at Mass? I was quite stunned by this particular complaint.
Some parents are critical of school leadership when they perceive that the school is not Catholic enough. How do you reach that fine line between being a rigorous academic institution and a very religious one at the same time? There are only a certain amount of hours in the school day to meet academic requirements in addition to all of the other activities that are typically present in our schools. Catholic identity needs to shine through all components of the school--not just during times of prayer. On the flip side, what about those parents whose primary interest is the sports program?
Let us not forget. The students themselves have certain ideas about what life at school should be like on a day-to-day basis. Does your school have a uniform? How does a leader get everyone to abide by the dress code? Yes, I know it sounds pretty simple at face value, but ask most principals who have had to deal with it and see what they say.
Finally, the parishioners have a vested interest in the school since some of their Sunday contributions are utilized to keep the ministry of the school going. How do we effectively build that relationship so the school is viewed as a vital asset rather than a financial drain to the parish? It takes a very intentional outreach to make that relationship a vital link between parishioner and school.
You probably get the picture. There are a lot of dynamics at work in the life of our Catholic schools. Navigating these choppy waters is no easy task. It takes solid leadership for our Catholic schools to thrive. Let us pray that those leaders step forth when God calls them into such a position.
I am grateful for all of the administrators, faculty members, and support staff who strive to make our Catholic schools beautiful institutions that celebrate the faith in a profound manner. Thank you also to all of the parents who entrust your children to the care of the Catholic school. Thanks also to all who give of their time, talent, and financial resources to make our Catholic schools strong. It takes all of us working together to create the best possible means of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom. May each of you be blessed abundantly for your generous heart!