Identifying and Tending a School’s Tasks
by Marlene Lund (March / April 2005 — Volume 21, Number 2)
A Lutheran school can serve as an effective arm of its congregation’s outreach to the community. Running a school successfully requires the support and partnership of congregation, pastor, administrator, and staff.
In the ELCA today, almost one out of every five congregations supports some type of day school. ELCA congregations own and operate 160 elementary schools, 14 high schools, and 1,750 early-childhood education centers involving more than 225,000 students and their families and 20,000 teachers, administrators, and staff. Since 1999,more than 600 congregations have expressed interest in opening schools or centers resulting in an average of 55 new schools each year. In 2003, congregations established 37 early-childhood centers, expanded nine centers to elementary schools, and created four new elementary schools.1
The first Lutheran schools were established by Henry Melchior Muehlenberg in Pennsylvania in 1742. When churches were “planted,” schools were opened so that the faith could be passed on from generation to generation. The trend of establishing Lutheran day schools continued well into the 1960s, particularly with the Missouri Synod and Wisconsin Synod. The ELCA has only recently begun to embrace the idea of Lutheran schooling for children and teens.
|Among the strategic directions for the ELCA are assisting churches to grow in evangelical outreach to our communities and bringing forth wise and courageous leaders whose vocations serve God’s mission in a pluralistic world. Churches with Lutheran schools and centers have the opportunity to fulfill both strategies.|
The most important question that needs to be answered when thinking of opening a school or center is: What is the mission of the school going to be, and how does that mission fit into the mission of the church? Indeed, that question must continue to be asked on a yearly basis after the school or center has been established. All too often when schools have been operating for years and the original planners are gone, the mission becomes cloudy, and support for the school can become less than enthusiastic.
In Matthew 19:14 Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and don’t try to stop them! People who are like these children belong to God’s kingdom.” Then he blessed them. In the early part of the twentieth century, the family and the church were mainstays in the development of the child. Extended families often remained nearby to raise the children and to impart the faith. Today, family structures have changed, the media exert a tremendous and often negative influence on children, and many families live as isolated units. The families in our communities continue to diversify ethnically, racially, and culturally with different education levels, income levels, and language backgrounds.
Among the strategic directions for the ELCA are assisting churches to grow in evangelical outreach to our communities and bringing forth wise and courageous leaders whose vocations serve God’s mission in a pluralistic world. Churches with Lutheran schools and centers have the opportunity to fulfill both strategies.
|Lutheran schools and centers are among the most inclusive institutions in the ELCA.|
Children in early-childhood centers spend anywhere from a few hours a week to twelve hours a day in day care. They enter our centers from a few months old up through five years of age. Elementary and high-school children spend a minimum of six hours a day in school with some extending the day far beyond that. Families come from Lutheran churches, other Christian churches, other religious faith groups, or no faith group at all. Congregations have numerous opportunities through their schools and centers to reach out to their communities with a message of gospel-based hope. The opportunities to teach our children to be productive and caring members of society are tremendous.
The opportunity for our churches to reflect the ethnic and cultural diversities of their communities by reaching out through their schools is tangible; indeed, Lutheran schools and centers are among the most inclusive institutions of the ELCA.
In addition to these realities, it is also true that operating a Lutheran school or center is difficult and time-consuming work with challenges that can sometimes seem insurmountable.
The steps to establishing and maintaining successful schools and centers are dependent on relationships.
First, the relationship between the ministries of the church and the school must be clear and deliberate. The purpose of a Lutheran school is not to bring new members into the church, although it is often a wonderful byproduct of the school ministry. The purpose of the school is not to raise money to offset the congregational budget, although schools and centers often contribute to the budget of the church. The purpose of the school or center is to promote the spiritual formation of children while providing a strong academic education in a caring setting.
With the mission of the school or center clearly stated, the members of the congregation must view the ministry of the school as part of their ministry to the community and must be involved on a regular basis. Involvement might include attendance at school functions, monetary support, inviting school families to attend church functions and worship, public and private prayer for the staff and families, volunteering in classrooms, or organizing intergenerational events. The congregation is charged with providing clear governance for the school with written policies and expectations.
Conversely, the school staff must see themselves as part of the mission outreach of the congregation, inviting the church members to participate in school programs, publicizing church activities in their newsletters to parents, and completing service projects for the elderly or infirm of the congregation. It is helpful when the staff is made up at least partially of members of the congregation, but if it is not, the staff needs to support church activities by being present at school worship Sundays, community events, and so on.
In my thirty years of working with Lutheran schools, I know how fragile this relationship can be, especially as the staff, pastor, or congregation membership changes. Issues of financial support, space allocation, or responsibilities can become stumbling blocks to this joint ministry. Communication and a constant review of the mission are key to keeping the relationship strong as changes occur. Staffing the center with committed Christians willing to share their faith with the children is a must. Calling a pastor who has a clear understanding of Lutheran schools or who is willing to embrace this ministry is also a must.
Second, the relationship between the pastor and the staff and parents is critical. The pastor is the spiritual head of the school and therefore pastor to the school families and staff. He or she is a critical person in reaching out to families who are seeking a church connection. He or she is important in interpreting the Lutheran understanding of theology to staff members from other faith traditions. The pastor is present on a regular basis in the classrooms and knows the children by name. He or she greets parents whenever possible as they drop off or pick up their children, assists in planning for and leading worship and Bible study, and participates in planned staff devotions.
The staff is viewed as part of the whole ministry team, with regularly scheduled times to meet and pray together. Conversely, the staff invites and welcomes the pastor into their classrooms. The staff prays for and supports the pastor as head of the ministry team. The pastor and administrator respect and understand their unique roles and boundaries. This relationship, as with all relationships, needs to be nurtured through respect, communication, and interfacing with each other.
As mainline churches continue to struggle with their futures, Lutheran school and early-childhood centers can be open doorways into their communities. Families with no or little church history are looking for connections. When Jesus went out into the streets he first fed, healed, and ministered to the community. We can take this example and extend it to our church schools. Our schools become the outreach arm of the congregation to the community by providing quality, Christ-centered education to children and families in need. This is an opportunity our church cannot afford to miss.
1. Information from the Division of Higher Education and Schools of the ELCA, Chicago, Illinois.
Marlene Lund, an associate in ministry, is called to be the Executive Director of the Lutheran Schools Association in New York. She has served in various capacities in Lutheran schools since 1974.