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The Parish Day School: Sustaining a Complex Organism

The Rev. Jonathan T. Glass
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Last Updated: Oct 2, 2018, 14:10 PM
Date Posted: Mar 23, 2012, 09:48 AM

In our work with parish day schools, NAES staff and consultants are frequently asked if church and school relationships are “better” or “worse” today than in the past. It is difficult to answer that question in a quantified manner. This much can be said. Church and school partnerships are relationally based and lived out through human personalities. As such, they are both deeply meaningful and inherently fragile. It is also the case that church and parish day school missions and ministries are often carried out in radically different contexts from the original ones at the time of their founding. The question that presents itself is this: can the complexity of personal, professional, and institutional relationships be sustained? I believe that it can, but it is not going to be easy.

Establishing Priorities

The way individuals, especially individual leaders, relate to one another creates the atmosphere in which everything else happens between church and school. This simply cannot be overstated. Bylaws and canons set the parameters of the mission and its outcomes, but they cannot initiate a sustainable conversation between church and school. Only people can. My heart sinks when I am part of a conversation that opens with the words: “The canons say…” or “The bylaws call for…” Of course, leaders must understand the actual content of the governing documents. Anecdote, often rather than actual knowledge, informs or colors conversations.

I have often been surprised to discover that many church and school leaders do not understand the reasons for and nature of their very incorporation. Is it better for a parish day school to share incorporation with its congregation or to be separately incorporated? Separate incorporation can be a way to get business done more effectively in some cases. In others, it will not be helpful. The act of separate incorporation never solves problems in the church-school relationship. A change in the incorporation model never removes the obligation for church and school to stay in relationship and to deepen that relationship. You’re in it together, however you are governed.

Leaders Strengthening Institutions

The relationship between rector and head sets the tone, but a strong working relationship between these two leaders has to go beyond itself and include the vestry and school board, along with strong general communications, otherwise it remains focused in two leaders and does not strengthen the institutions themselves. An exemplary relationship between head and rector that is not so extended can actually weaken church and school in the long run, especially if one or both leaves. The special role of the board chair in the context of the church-school relationship also needs attention. While the board chair has less visibility in the parish day school setting than in independent or diocesan schools, given the high profile of both rector and head, his or her leadership is indispensable to the health of the church-school partnership. Particularly at times of leadership transition, this is also true of the senior warden.

Ongoing Challenges to Self-Awareness

In the years immediately before and after the Second World War, a new and very different kind of Episcopal school began to appear, first in the west and southwest, then in the southeast and the mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. In contrast to the familiar Episcopal schools of the era that were independent in governance, middle/secondary in grade range, single sex, and boarding programs, these newer schools were sponsored by parishes, were primarily elementary programs, and were coeducational. They defined themselves as “day schools, ”that is to say, not boarding schools. They were the “un-Episcopal” schools of that time. Their growth has been phenomenal, but little research has been undertaken about their history and development, and current parish day school leaders often do not understand a great deal about their origins and history in contrast to independent Episcopal schools. These latter schools have typically maintained more extensive archives, commissioned research and writing to be done about themselves as individual schools and individual school leaders, and promoted institutional memory through alumni and fund raising activities. While many parish day schools are now following the models established earlier by independent Episcopal schools in this regard, some trends have been institutionalized and will be difficult to overcome:

  • Relatively few Episcopalians understand the extent of the parish day school movement and its importance to the denomination.
  • Relatively few independent school leaders, Episcopal and non-Episcopal alike, understand the distinctive features, particularly in regard to governance, of parish day schools.
  • Clergy are often unprepared through training or formation to take up leadership roles in the parish day school setting.
  • Parish day schools often do not understand their own origins, history, and patterns of development and response to change. They can feel isolated, “neither fish nor fowl” in the larger ecclesiastical and educational communities.

The Parish Day School Movement: Then and Now

It is essential that we understand some of the differences between the “then” of the originating features of church and school culture, governance, and function and the “now” of what are often radically altered circumstances in the present day. Without a better understanding of these transformations, potential tensions between church and school arising through the differences in the ways each acts out their mission will be misunderstood and difficult to resolve.

  • At the time of their establishment, most churches and schools were in rough equivalence in regard to the size and scope of their programs. Today, many schools have outstripped parishes in terms of budget size, personnel, and the diversity of their constituencies, especially in regard to religious diversity. At the same time, some schools have not grown successfully, and their ongoing dependence on congregations has posed many problems. Significant disparities in these areas increase the potential for misunderstanding and conflict.
  • Over the years, Episcopal parish day schools have come to resemble Episcopal and non-Episcopal independent schools more closely than Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Adventist “parochial” schools. Competitive admissions, professionalized administrative and governance functions, and a variety of constituencies can accelerate drifting apart, real or perceived, of church and school.
  • Differences between the head of school’s and the rector’s compensation packages have increased significantly in many settings. The compensation ranges for school heads have increased dramatically in comparison to those of rectors and vicars, with rare exceptions.
  • Expectations and responsiveness in schools are conditioned by contractual relationships maintained through mandatory tuition payments, while in churches they are conditioned by voluntary relationships maintained through voluntary pledge agreements and other financial gifts. School and church revenue streams are increasingly different, and school and church budgets are different as well. Vestries and boards need to learn about each others’ finances, how each plans fiscally, and where the financial challenges lie for each. Shared and allocated expenses and any salary transfers need regular review and mutual discussion and determination.
  • School governance has tended to alter over the years from informality to greater formality. What is the governing culture of the school? What is the church’s governing culture? Parishes often had greater institutional formality and structure than their schools at the beginning of the relationship; now the reverse is often the case.
  • Leadership transition is an ongoing challenge. While it is focused in the rector, head, board chair, and wardens, changes in vestry and board membership are often continual, have great significance for the health of the partnership, and need more attention through the recruitment, orientation, and continuing education processes. 
  • Risk management issues for churches and schools have expanded greatly, as have areas requiring compliance with federal, state, and local legislation and guidelines for schools and parishes with schools. Insurance matters have grown increasingly complex in recent years, with changes in many underwriting policies for schools. 
  • Increased security and restricted access during school hours to space shared by church and school or located on church property is a serious matter that must be talked through by church and school.
  • Some matters of school governance and church/school relationship are raised by the increasingly complex demands of the accreditation process which, in many parts of the United States, is becoming both more regionalized in its administration and more exacting in its expectations. 
  • Increasing religious diversity in their constituencies has challenged schools to examine and articulate Episcopal identity more intentionally. Until quite recently, parishes have tended to explore their identity with less formality, but many previous assumptions about what it means to be an Episcopal church or an Episcopalian may need further examination in the near future. 

Sustaining the Complexity—and Thriving

In a people/personality based organism—church and school—whose various structures, parameters, definitions, and self understandings have changed considerably over the years, it can be hard to determine what areas to review first and how to prioritize change. Here are some ways to begin to go forward.

  • Accept the reality and the validity of the relationship. Recognize that this relationship, with all of its rewards and all of its complexities, is not going away. It cannot be minimized or compartmentalized. It is a lot of work for everyone, but it is worth every bit of effort, because it directly benefits children and carries the educational ministry of the Episcopal Church forward in life-changing ways. 
  • Recognize the special, sacrificial ministries of church and school leaders. Rectors of parishes with schools have more on their plates than their colleagues without schools. Heads of parish day schools have more levels of reporting, communication and accountability than their colleagues in independent schools. Board chairs and wardens in parish day school settings deserve special support and thanks as well.
  • Talk and learn together. Regular, scheduled dialogue between key leaders is essential, but so is regular conversation and education between full boards and vestries.
  • Understand how you are organized, governed, and administered. Particular attention needs to go to education about foundational documents (e.g. bylaws, strategic plan, etc.). If they need greater internal coherence or clarity, amend them before talking about any larger changes.
  • Plan. Plan. Plan. If your school is used to multiple year plans, make sure you are implementing your current plan and get ready for the next planning cycle. If multiple year planning is new to you, work up to it with several years of effective, well-implemented annual planning. Coordinate school and church planning cycles and documents.
  • Develop a proactive approach to leadership transition. Orientation for new vestry members and school board members is essential, not only about the entity they are overseeing, but, most importantly, the partner in the equation. Involvement of church and school in each other’s executive search processes is most important.
  • Strengthen communication. Tell the story of the relationship, its outcomes, and its significance to church and school constituencies, the larger church, especially clergy colleagues and lay leaders, and other members of the education community, especially independent school associations, accrediting bodies, and external consultants.
  • Examine and analyze the Episcopal identity of the school and also of the sponsoring congregation. The experience of the school in working with diverse constituencies can help the congregation begin to understand its own diversities and complexities more fully and accurately. People come to Episcopal churches from a staggering variety of backgrounds and traditions. What does it mean in the 21st Century to be an Episcopalian?

The Rev. Jonathan T. Glass was associate executive director of NAES.