Rectors and Episcopal Schools: It’s a Wonderful Life

We hope we’re preaching to the choir, and that our colleagues are energized by their leadership of parishes that support schools, but we also know that some clergy feel frustrated, even discouraged by the complexities of church/school relationships. It’s important to mention right off the bat that both of us are not only “school” people, but also “parish” people. Along the ministerial path that has led us to NAES, each of us has been the rector of a parish that sponsored an educational program—in Peter’s case, an ECE program that he helped establish, in Jonathan’s, a preschool-grade 5 program that expanded into middle school (P-8) during his tenure. Both of us have also served parishes that did not support schools, but, frankly, we had more fun when we were with students every day of the week and not just on Sundays.

We offer these reflections to support our sisters and brothers who serve as rectors of parishes that support Episcopal schools or early childhood programs. If you are the vicar of a mission that sustains a school, this pamphlet is for you too, and comes to you with the same esteem and deep appreciation for your hard work and dedication that goes out to rectors. All of you are making a bigger difference that you can imagine, and we salute you and thank you for it.

Have a heart for children.

If you don’t enjoy being around other people’s children, you aren’t going to enjoy being the rector of a parish with a school. It’s as simple as that. There is noise—good noise and bad noise, but noise—along with a pretty constant string of minor inconveniences and complexities every day that school is in session. It’s part of the deal, but it isn’t always easy to deal with. Jonathan well remembers the day that a sixth grader fainted due to post flu syndrome, a mentally ill man was removed from the preschool play yard and remanded for observation, and a mom went into premature labor during pickup. In all three situations, the same EMTs appeared for care and support. During the last episode, one of the team turned to Jonathan and said “Reverend, just what the heck kind of place are you running here?” In the end, it’s all about people, and usually about young people who get sick and have to go home, eat and play together, cry, learn, fight with their best friends, and live in a caring community. When you are working with and in the midst of children, kindness, patience, flexibility, willingness to pitch in and help, and a good sense of humor all go to make the days rewarding and, when the inevitable challenges arise, much more bearable.

It is unfortunate but true that some rector search processes for parishes with schools do not accurately convey the full dimensions of the church/school partnership in the parish profile, the interview process, or the site visits for finalist candidates. While we all need to work hard to lessen the possibility of such miscommunications, any priest interested in heading a parish that sponsors a school must assume that children, and the demands of their daily lives, will play a major role in his or her professional life, search process or no search process, should that position be offered and accepted. Clergy who have agreed to serve such a parish and then act as if the school isn’t there and the students do not exist, or who more or less permanently withdraw into their offices “because of all the racket,” aren’t doing themselves, the parish, or the students and their families any favors. They are missing out on all the wonderful opportunities to celebrate the small triumphs and the big transitions that make school such a life-filled, moving, and enjoyable place in which to be and to work.

Be a generous leader.

When rectors have been active behind the scenes, there will be moments when they will feel taken for granted or neglected. Rectors with schools may not realize it when they begin this work, but they have been called to one of the most vital forms of servant leadership in the Episcopal Church.

One of the facts of life for rectors in an Episcopal parish day school or early child program setting is that other leaders in the system will often be more visible and will receive more attention at certain times than the rector. One of the classic rubs comes at Christmas, when the school faculty and staff are often given many more tokens of esteem than the parish clergy. Events at the end of the school year, especially graduations, often result in a bright spotlight shining on just about everybody but the rector, including that associate priest who is also the much beloved school chaplain.

The head of school is a peer of the rector’s, sometimes also an employee, depending on the parish bylaws, but always a peer first. She or he has a complex and demanding position that requires much. The head deserves and needs the rector’s wholehearted support, just as the rector deserves the head’s unqualified support. Both leaders have a very public partnership that requires ongoing attention, for it is the most visible partnership in the church/school dynamic, bar none. The board chair’s relationship with the head in a parish day school setting is also very important, but it does not carry the same degree of visibility. The fact that faculty and staff, as well as students and parents, are observing the rector and head of school as they work together each school day should be a powerful motivation to put one’s best efforts into the partnership. The rector and the head are role models par excellence.

It is often the case that the head of school earns more than the rector, because of the nature of the professional market. This can be a sore point with clergy, the cause at times of strained relationships, jealousy, and tension between the rector and head, as well as the school board and the vestry. While we want to acknowledge that it can be demanding to be realistic and gracious about such arrangements, it is important to point out that Episcopal parish clergy are not the only leaders who sometimes have to do this. Presidents of large universities may earn less than noted coaches, presidents of smaller colleges and seminary deans may pay development directors more than they themselves earn—there are many situations like this in the world of education. Working through such complexities is one of the demands of leadership, not an excuse for bitterness or competitive behavior.

In sum, rectors, wardens, and vestries must remember that heads of school are placed under uniquely demanding expectations by their boards and constituencies as they administer complex systems funded by contractually-derived revenues, unlike the parish’s voluntary governance structure and revenue stream. In other words, rectors have tenure, school heads do not.

Enjoy being part of a team—and stay on the team.

Helping others do their best and working together to foster collegiality, good communication, and the avoidance of unilateral actions is essential in the parish day school setting. Time and energy need to go into joint planning, calendar formation, and regular participation in staff meetings. The rector needs to show time and again that she or he considers these activities important and backs up an expectation of participation by others with participation of his or her own.

Some ordained leaders are more comfortable acting unilaterally, in a strong CEO-type role, then informing others of their decisions and the implications brought about for them by the leader’s actions. Parishes with schools may not be the most comfortable places for such clergy, any more than a parish day school is a good setting for a head of school who prefers acting in the same manner. No matter how inclined a rector or a head may be toward role-centeredness in the conduct of specific church or school matters within their own purview, they will not be effective in the partnership unless they are truly willing to be partners. No matter how much hierarchical language and attitude are still present in the Church’s culture and form part of its actual structure, the fact remains that ordained parish ministry in relation to Episcopal schools is much more about partnership than it is about role. What you are able to accomplish with other people is more important than who you are. If that sometimes produces discomfort or tension, it is a healthy tension, one that can save clergy from over-identifying themselves with their roles and losing sight of their own deeper selves.

Stay on the church-school team by observing good boundaries. As rector, you will make a major contribution if you consistently uphold the authority of the head of school, and do not allow yourself to be drawn into triangulated relationships in the name of “pastoral” ministry. If parents or parishioners come to you with complaints about the school or the head and ask you to keep such information “confidential” because you are their pastor or simply because you are ordained, politely but firmly decline to participate. As the president of the vestry and through your role on the school board as rector, you have a considerable fiduciary responsibility that co-exists with your pastoral duties. You cannot compromise the governance of the parish and school because someone appeals to their sense of your role as pastor in order to manipulate you into doing what they want. Information or statements about the school that the rector has received from third parties cannot be withheld from the head of school under any circumstances.

In terms of other boundary-related matters, it is also important for the rector to avoid being drawn into issues related to the school’s admissions process involving individual students or families, whether they are parishioners or not. If such conversations do take place, no matter how careful a rector is not to comment on the status of an admission decision, hopeful parents will often misconstrue a rector’s communication. The same holds true for conversations about the school’s discipline policy, process, and practices. In any and all such situations, rectors must abide by their formal roles as dictated by the particular church and school’s bylaws, policies, history, and culture.

All these observations serve to express the urgent hope that rectors will seek to cultivate appropriate influence in the church/school dynamic, rather than to misuse their power or authority.

Manage your time carefully.

Schools run on a tighter weekday schedule than do parishes. Rectors of churches with schools are impacted by this schedule, no matter how much or how little they participate directly in the day to day life and activities of the school. One of the most important lessons that experience has taught us: Don’t take on more than you can handle. One of the very laudable reactions clergy typically have when they enter a parish with a school is to agree enthusiastically to ongoing responsibilities in the school: e.g. teaching classes, or going on field trips, or leading school worship on a regular basis. This all is wonderful, but what happens when the inevitable pastoral emergency arises, and forces the rector to be absent from a school commitment? If he or she has asked to be taken at their word, faculty and staff will expect them to be present. It is important to participate in school life, but it must be done on a realistic and sustainable basis. Rather than backing away from a number of duties taken on in the first flush of the entry process, it is preferable for rectors gradually to add more responsibilities and activities as time goes on. It is also important for rectors to manage their personal schedules so that they are able to attend school board meetings and relevant committee meetings. If rectors are consistently absent from these gatherings, how much credibility will they have if they really need to interact with other leaders, especially at a moment of stress?

Put your emphasis on a ministry of presence.

No matter how many specific responsibilities the rector carries in the life of the school, the ministry of presence comes first. It is more important to spend time learning students’ names and their correct pronunciation and then matching those names to faces than to take on specific projects that impact a small number of students. It is important to make the time to attend a school sports event, or a play, a concert, or an occasional parent gathering. It is as deeply meaningful to students when rectors attend school worship and sit in the congregation with them as when they officiate, perhaps more so. Caring interactions with school families, knowing Mom and Dad’s name as well as their student’s name, all takes time and effort, but it makes a huge difference. Adults as well as students have a great desire to be known as well as to know, and so rectors set the tone for the church/school culture by reaching out, greeting, recognizing, and moving into relationships that are not necessarily “pastoral” in the traditional sense, but establish an interest in the well being of students and school families as a priority of the church as well as the school it sponsors.

Final thoughts.

A friend of Peter’s is the rector of a parish with a school. He once remarked that the burdens of his ministry with the school, while very real, paled in comparison to the joys and dynamism of such a rich and broad ministry. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The highs are higher and the lows are lower when you spend a good part of each day with students and their families.” We couldn’t agree more.

The Rev. Peter G. Cheney was the executive director of NAES from July 1998 through June 2007. The Rev. Jonathan T. Glass was, at the time of his death in 2004, associate executive director of NAES.