Building a Healthy Preschool Director-Pastor Relationship
by Melvin M. Kieschnick (July / August 2000 • Volume 16 • Number 4)
Wanting to build healthy relationships between pastors and the church's preschool directors, this author asked directors "What do you want from your pastor?"
Congregations of the ELCA do ministry through more than 2,000 early childhood education centers (preschools) serving some 250,000 children and their families. It has been my privilege to visit many of these centers and to meet with hundreds of directors of this ministry. These directors, together with their staffs, represent a vital ministry to children, their families, the community, and the world.
"What do you want from your pastor?" is a question I've often asked directors. Or, I have worded it this way, "What are the signs of a healthy relationship between a director and the pastor?" The following is a summary of their comments. (Note: I also asked similar questions of pastors; their answers may be summarized in another article.)
Recognizing One's Partner
1. Acknowledge me as a professional partner in ministry. An overwhelming number of early childhood directors in Lutheran congregations identify their work as "ministry." The focus of this ministry and even the mission of the center varies greatly.
The three most commonly identified mission elements are: (1) a care for children (which is age appropriate, safe, quality, and loving) and support for their families; (2) the sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ with our children and their families, and inviting into our congregational community those who have no church home; and (3) service to our community by reaching out to and nurturing our youngest, most valuable, and vulnerable citizens.
Regardless of which of the three mission dimensions are foremost, directors see their work as professional ministry. They get upset when they are regarded as baby sitters or persons who couldn't make it professionally in the "real" world and have settled for working with young children.
Most upsetting of all is when the pastor or congregants see the preschool (or day care or nursery center) primarily as a source of funds to run or keep the church alive. Nothing (nothing!) upsets a director more than to be seen by her pastor as someone operating a "cash cow" for the congregation, whether that cash is described as rent, tithing, profit sharing, or any other euphemism.
"Be my partner in this ministry, not my boss" is what the directors stress. This ministry needs the unique gifts and support of both pastor and director. Centers do not need pastoral micro-management of fees collection, facilities management, or family relations.
Yet directors earnestly seek pastoral partnership. They respect their pastors' unique expertise, role, and counsel.
2. Be there! When thinking of their pastors, many preschool directors affirm Woody Allen's profound insight that 50 percent of success is just showing up. One of the most valued behaviors of a pastor is her visibility in the preschool.
Directors love it when the pastor comes to the school and chats with staff, kids, and parents. The pastor's presence at special events, programs, and parties is always appreciated, especially when the pastor is not only up-front but also makes an extra effort to converse with the parents and other guests. Their request of their pastor is, "Please show up."
Sometimes "being there" is more private than public. Directors face significant challenges daily. These range from upset parents to inadequate assistants to hard-to-manage youngsters to unexpected visits from city health inspectors. On those days the director who can go to the pastor and talk it all outand who knows such conversations are possible — is a director who says, "I love my pastor."
Organization charts showing lines of responsibility and accountability for the early childhood education ministry differ greatly from congregation to congregation. Regardless of which board, committee, or council supervises the preschool, the director looks to the pastor as a principal advocate who will be there for the director when decisions about the program are made.
"I know that my pastor has access to decision making in the church. Decisions may well affect my ministry, but I am not officially a part of the decision-making group. That's when I depend on the advocacy of my pastor. It's a wonderful feeling to know that he or she will be there for me," directors have said to me.
3. Let's be clear on and agree about turf issues. Sometimes "turf issues" refer to actual physical turf. Can preschool rooms be used for Sunday School? Who gets priority to the kitchen? Can we expand the preschool into the parlor where the sewing circle makes quilts for Lutheran World Relief? Should we heat the whole sanctuary just for a 20-minute preschool chapel gathering?
More often, however, turf issues relate to organizational structure, goals, responsibility, ownership, daily operations, decisions about enrollment, and other concerns.
I have yet to find a director who does not acknowledge that the pastor is the spiritual leader of the congregation and all its ministries. Some can even quote the model ELCA constitution for congregations: "The pastor shall supervise all schools of this congregation."
Some directors occasionally have "too strong" a sense that this is my school and my ministry. This is especially true when one individual actually began the ministry, usually promising that "it won't cost the congregation anything." The ministry grows and a shift has to occur from it being "my" ministry to the "congregation's" ministry.
Insightful directors acknowledge that pastors have to be concerned about all the ministries and all members of the congregation.
"I really respect my pastor and the pastor respects me," says a director. "The pastor lets me operate the preschool once our policies have been approved by the appropriate church board, and I would not presume to try to tell him how to carry out pastoral duties."
"And, oh yes, I just remembered, in public I always call him by his title and name and he identifies me by my surname, Ms. Paint."
4. Be my pastor. "Be my pastor even though you're not my pastor" is how one Methodist director of a Lutheran preschool stated it. She was echoing a common request.
Directors look to the pastor for personal spiritual direction. They want the pastor to hear their joys and confessions, to pray with them and to occasionally lead worship for them.
"Be my pastor in helping us put together the 'religion' curriculum," is a concern I've often heard. The type and extent of formal religious content and expression vary greatly in Lutheran preschool operations. Yet almost every director with whom I've spoken welcomes pastoral input into the process.
Some keep it very general, just attempting to instill a sense of trust or awe. Others get quite specific with Bible stories, songs, and drama. Worship may range from simple talks to teaching even young children about the liturgy, church festivals, and rituals. In every case, the pastor is seen as a valuable resource.
Many teachers and assistants do not come from the Lutheran tradition. They look to the pastor for what Lutherans teach and how Lutherans do things. Some centers have Bible study, staff or center worship experience, Jesus time, chapel, and religious pageants. Always the pastor's sensitive and knowledgeable input is welcome.
Often preschoolers and their families face situations calling for pastoral counseling and support. The director tells the pastor about the need. When the pastor responds with a pastoral visit, consultation, prayer, or telephone call, wholistic ministry occurs and the unique mission of a Lutheran preschool program is enhanced. The director, too, is affirmed and pastor-director ties are strengthened.
"Pastor, pastor!" the children holler, wrapping their arms around the pastor's legs.
"That's my pastor!' yells the preschooler as she spies her pastor in the grocery. The child likely worships in a Catholic church (or none at all), but the pastor of the church operating her preschool is the one she identifies as "my pastor."
Pastors and directors must, of course, know when to be in-role and when to de-role. Yet, wherever there are harmonious and satisfying school-congregation relations and wherever the school is effective as a ministry of the congregation, one knows that the director will proudly and thankfully point to the pastor and proclaim, "You're my pastor and I'm grateful."
Melvin M. Kieschnick served Lutheran schools nationally and internationally for 40 years. An associate in ministry, Kieschnick is now retired and serves part-time for Wheat Ridge Ministries.
ELCA, ELEA, Wheat Ridge Resources
- The ELCA has a starter kit for any congregation interested in beginning a school program, from Early Childhood Centers through the 12th grade. Call Angela Ross at 800-638-3522 (ext. 2857), e-mail her at email@example.com, or write to ELCA, Division for Higher Education and Schools, 8765 W. Higgins Road, Chicago, IL 60631.
- For more information about ELCA schools and Early Childhood Centers, visit their web site at www.elca.org/dhes/schools.
- The Evangelical Lutheran Education Association (ELEA) has two resources to strengthen the relationship between church and school and to help boards and committees relate to the ministry of the school.
- They are "Ministry of the CongregationA Self Study of Ministry and Relationships" and "Resources for Boards and Committees."
- To obtain these ELEA resources, call 800-500-7644, e-mail ELEAnational@cs.com, or write to Gayle Tenny, ELEA, Director for Resources, PMB #202, 2625 Colley Ave, Suite #3, Everett, WA 98201.
- Wheat Ridge Ministries is in the process of establishing an interactive web page dealing with team ministry among pastors, principals, and directors. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.