Below is the text of the Rev. Daniel R. Heischman’s address to the assemby at the Business Meeting Breakfast during Biennial Conference 2008, Saturday, November 8, in Tampa, Florida.
“A church school is a community where you don’t have to back off when you get to the tough questions.”
William S. Wade, No Strings Attached (Sewanne TN 2008)
In his recently published collection of school sermons, Bill Wade refers to the time when he and his chaplain, Bude Van Dyke, attended a conference and heard those words. And whether we prefer to refer to our schools as Episcopal schools, Christian schools, or church schools, and whether or not we make that reference in a loud and bold voice, or a soft and timid one, I think the point of is clear: our schools, by virtue of their Episcopal identity, are places that are free to be courageous when it comes to the tough questions.
At NAES, our stock and trade is the question of Episcopal identity, and it is the one thing that our schools most ask of us. It permeates our publications, the monthly Network, is an issue that perpetually comes up in the various conferences we hold, and comes across in the telephone conversations we so frequently have with schoolpeople around the country. It is clearly one of those tough questions, and it is being asked increasingly by our schools, as they seek to balance inclusion and diversity with a clear understanding of the core of that school’s tradition.
When asked to help with these questions, we do not supply easy answers. We are not a “one size fits all” association! Our goal is to work with schools to help them best understand and follow their mission as schools connected to the Episcopal tradition. Whether it be a preschool, a boarding school, an independent day school, or something “in-between” or all of the above, we feel a courageous question demands a courageous response, in the form of working with specific situations, unique needs, and distinctive missions.
As I have completed my first year as Executive Director, and have been blessed with an abundance of good wishes, support, and positive feedback regarding the importance of NAES in the lives of our schools, I feel extraordinarily privileged to have experienced the immense variety of our schools throughout the country. In one way or another, whether I have been asked to do a program at a school, or simply found myself passing through, I have been able to visit about seventy five schools since I began this job (and therein lies a tremendous tribute to our staff at NAES—they keep things going while I do the ambassadorial part of things!). Again and again, I have felt a sense of how just important it is for our individual schools to feel part of a larger network, be it in the eagerness I sense when a school talks about its respective programs, shows off the campus, or be asks for models out there of how best a given school deal with a recurring issue. At times I have found myself wanting to respond, “Here, this is what you should do,” or, “I have just the model for you,” or, “This is what you should do,” or, “I know what you should do with this space,” or, “Episcopal identity means precisely this.” But tough questions do not rest easily with easy answers; they require, they deserve equally deep and probing answers, or in some cases no direct answer at all (we all know how good Jesus was at fielding such questions!).
In the realm of the tough questions and tough answers, I share today with you five areas that mean much to me as we go about doing our work as an association, providing as best we can a sense of community and common purpose among a strikingly diverse group of schools.
First, the work of interpretation. NAES stands at what you might call the intersection of the church and the school worlds. Accordingly, we spend a lot of time interpreting the one to the other. Our office location alone, in the Episcopal Church Center in New York City, puts us in a place where we are always interfacing with the church, holding up the voice and presence of schools in the way in which the church views itself as church. But this work of interpretation goes far beyond the confines of 815 Second Avenue. The need for not only our church but our seminaries to understand the importance of school ministry, and by implication the importance of schools in the ministry of the church, calls us to be a visible and attentive presence in those places where there is positive movement. Accordingly, I am so pleased that, here at Biennial, there is a substantial presence of faculty and administrators from Virginia Theological Seminary—including Dean Ian Markham—and it has been my great honor to be a part of the teaching faculty for the Doctor of Ministry in Educational Leadership there. Likewise, the bold new venture of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale—ELM—Educational Leadership and Ministry, a certificate program within the M.Div. program there—is ably represented at this Biennial by its Director, Tony Jarvis, Episcopal priest and former Headmaster of Roxbury Latin School in Boston. These individuals honor us with their presence here at Biennial, but they also speak to what I believe is a growing sense in our church and seminaries that school ministry is not only a legitimate avenue of ministry, it is one of the most exciting.
We continue to pursue this activity of interpretation, being suspect at times, of course, of being too closely aligned with one or the other. It is a tough but important place to be.
Second, the work of collaboration. Crucial to the future success and flourishing of NAES, I believe, is its ability to work collaboratively with a wide variety of institutions and associations. I am blessed with a wonderfully collegial relationship with Connie Wootton, at SAES, and David Streight’s presence here at the Biennial is in part testimony to just how important our relationship with the Council for Spiritual and Ethical Education is—once again this year our chaplain and teacher of religion conference will be held in collaboration with CSEE. Furthermore, George Andrews will be sharing with you later in this meeting the good news of the establishment of an NAES endowment, and this could not have been possible without the tremendous help we received and I believe the deepening collaborative relationship we have with our neighbors on the next floor down at 815, the Episcopal Church Foundation. Whether our work be with local or regional Episcopal school groups, independent school associations, or dioceses, we will and should be looking out for ways in which we can work alongside others, hopefully in doing so modeling what we seek to instill in our students—awareness of the gifts of others and the blessings we discover when we work together.
Third, the hard work of justice and equity. This year we have begun to focus intentionally and intensively on one of the new and major initiatives of our strategic plan, helping our schools get their arms around what it means to be a more inclusive community. In part, that is what Ann Mellow, our new Assistant Director for Program Development, is helping to bring along. (And what a pleasure it is to have her with us on staff). Our hope is to be descriptive in our focusing attention on the building of a just and equitable society—what lies at the heart of Jesus’ picture of the Kingdom of God—in that we seek to share stories from schools of how they have made strides to be more inclusive. Be it in the curriculum, in outreach, in collaborative programs with local agencies or public schools, in individual undertakings of courage and compassion, now you have the chance to share some of the good news of how your schools have made progress. At a time when our church is beset with internal division, our schools can lead the way in helping our church, our school communities, begin to look outward again, with stories of how individual schools, individuals in schools, have made a difference. We need your stories of good news: we know they are there, and we want very much to share them with the membership and beyond/
Fourth, the work of the web. In the past years, NAES has accomplished much in the area of improving our website, as well as moving many of our services and resources onto that website. Under David Schnabel’s fine direction, we have completed the transfer of all of our resources and articles from Network during Peter Cheney’s tenure to the web (and all of you know just how substantial the treasury of wisdom and practical help during Peter’s time turned out to be); we have added a Press Room, as well as a section of News From Our Members—here again, folks, is your opportunity to share your success stories and milestones with us. In January we shall commence offering list serves for members, including threaded archives, as well as the opportunity for NAES leaders to pose tough questions to our membership, allowing our members to respond (what some might call blogs, but we like to think of it as blogs without the excess!). All of these are tremendously exciting ventures, but they are not designed to replace the person-to-person contact that is so important to us, be it in our conferences, our visits to schools, or the requests for advice or information via the telephone that come into our office each day. The options available to us through the web make the person to person contact all the more, not less, essential.
Finally, the work of leadership. In a short while you will hear about the endowment fund we are establishing for leadership development. It is one among many of the ways we see equipping present and future leaders of Episcopal schools to be the spiritual leaders of their school communitities, as our principles of good practice would put it. Many of you may not necessarily see yourselves in the role of being the spiritual leader, but at the very least the question of Episcopal identity usually falls in your lap before anyone else. That is why, if for no other reason, we have to be looking constantly at the ways in which we can better serve our school leaders. That is the rationale behind our decision, last year, to hold an annual retreat for school heads, and we will again be offering that program in February. It is the rationale behind why we are working on foundation grants that will help us establish a program of workshops for both school heads new to Episcopal schools as well as those who aspire, in the future, to be heads of Episcopal schools. It is the reason why we brought Parker Palmer to this Biennial, to address the internal life of the leader. The tough questions of Episcopal schools—either generated by the leadership of the school or those things that end up on the leader’s desk—are the constant companion of Episcopal school leaders, and it is our duty and privilege to help our leadership be ready for the work of tough questions. We hope, as well, that our work of helping leaders will extend to the rectors of our parish day schools: some speculate that once a person is ordained in the Episcopal church, chances are that at least one of that person’s charges will have an Episcopal school attached to it. The work of leadership for our rectors is vital for the bridges we seek to build between church and school.
So, we have a lot to do—both those things I have mentioned as well as those things I have not mentioned. But, in the end, it is not simply a matter of what we do and how much we get done. We are in Episcopal schools, I remind you, and the emphasis is as much on who we are as what we accomplish, on being as doing. We cannot craft an agenda for this association based solely on action; we also must remind ourselves constantly, particularly in this world of too much to do, that it is who we are that makes the biggest difference.
So who are we? What do we aspire to be, both individually and collectively, both in the larger gatherings of schools as well as in our own individual schools? I think we need look no further for some guidance on this tough question than to our award winners, those we honored with the Ruth Jenkins and John Verdery awards—Gloria Snyder and Tom Clarke. In these two people we can derive much inspiration, as well as begin to understand better just who we want to be. For they are people who represent years of devoted service, people who love students (and, we need to remind ourselves, they—the students—are the reason we are in this business, the reason we gather here), people who love life, who love to laugh—both at themselves and the wonderful ironies of this world, people who as leaders have inspired many others to take on the mantle of leadership, people who embrace their work but can also maintain a healthy distance from it, people who have been moved by and stand as living symbols of the life of the Spirit, and people who have done something that our adult world needs to do more of for the emerging generations—they have inspired young people, and elicited their deep admiration. And, I dare say, they have asked, attempted to answer, and have learned to live with and even welcome, tough questions.
I think these two people give us some powerful clues to the tough answer to the tough question, “Who do we want to be?”