Vital Signs of a Healthy Parish-School Relationship

I am often asked what I find to be the most telling signs of a healthy or not-so-healthy relationship between a parish and a school. Likewise, I have been asked what I look for when I am invited in to a situation where a parish and school are assessing the quality of their relationship, both as respective entities as well as partners in a joint ministry.

There are no secrets to the answers I would give; we talk quite frequently and openly at NAES about some of the components of a healthy parish-school relationship. Still, it might be helpful to list them here under the guise of “vital signs,” those indicators that, collectively, point to a healthy relationship or, when not present, can be symptoms of a fragile relationship currently at risk.

Let me list six of them—hardly comprehensive, but ones I find myself coming back to time after time.

1. How do the parish and school talk about each other?
Often I will hear one or both of the entities talk about each other in distant, non-personal terms. Words such as “they”, “he”, or “she” predominate in the conversation—pronouns replacing names—and the manner in which the parish and/or school talk about the “other” can be a sure sign that they indeed regard the other as “the other.” This is often a sign of competition between parish and school, a reflection of difficult experiences in the past, and certainly a lack of understanding of what “the other’s” true mission really is.

2. Do the leaders of both entities—vestry/school board, rector/head—talk to each other?
This seems to be such an obvious need, but I am amazed at how frequently it is absent, particularly in situations where the relationship is tense or frayed. If these respective groups or individuals are not talking to each other in periodic, structured ways, then there is either trouble or the potential for real trouble. So, too, the quality of “how” each talks about the other is frequently connected to whether or not there is talk “to” or “with” at all.

3. How fluent are the parish and school in their understanding of what makes a school Episcopal?
It is remarkable how often the leaders of a parish-school community are not comfortable talking about the Episcopal identity of the school. When one or the other is “tongue-tied” about the basics of what makes a school Episcopal, how easy it is to assume that the school is not doing what it should be (ie., not enough Episcopalians in the school) or that the parish is being intrusive (ie., wanting us to be something we are not). A familiar, working understanding of the distinctive nature of an Episcopal school—how it is like a parish, how it is different from a parish—is crucial to making this relationship work, just as it is crucial for any type of relationship—institutional or interpersonal—to work.

4. What is the parish expecting from the school, and what is the school expecting from a parish?
School X wants the parish out of its business—“keep out” may be the sign it may really want to hang out for the parish to read—while parish X lives with the constant suspicion that the school is drifting away from its Episcopal identity. These, I would venture to say, are usually signs that unspoken expectations have not been met, as well as a reflection of the hurt one entity feels over the other not meeting up to what it expected from the relationship.

Perhaps the parish has been disappointed that not enough school families have come over the join the parish. Or the school is disappointed that not many families in the parish have been financially supportive of the school. The disappointment may be understandable, but were the expectations ever articulated and understood by both entities?

5. What are the signs of what I would call “overlapping presences” in the relationship?
Is the head of school a presence at vestry meetings, does the rector ever appear in the hallways of the school? How are vestry members invited in to the life of the school? Do school choral groups ever sing in church? Are there efforts to do collaborative activities? It is telling how often, when there is a dysfunctional relationship, one entity feels like second class citizens in the environs of the other. I am amazed in particularly difficult relationships how often both entities feel like second class citizens at the same time.

Much of the health of a parish-school relationship can be attributed to the degree to which one entity is a regular, welcomed presence in the life of the other.

6. How does one handle the other in search processes?
As so many of our institutions undergo a transition in leadership at any given point—be it a change of the head of school or a change of rector—the search process is a telling time that reflects the current quality of the relationship.

How often I have heard rectors speak of how little was said about the school in the search process that preceded their calling: involvement with the school was said to be “no big deal” in the life of the rector. Similarly, heads of school often tell a similar story: the amount of time needed to be committed to parish matters was described by the search committee as minimal. Both groups look back on such search experiences and know now how untrue they were. Frequently, this is also a sign that a search has taken place in a parish or a school without appropriate representation from the other entity.

What is striking to me, even in highly difficult and bruised parish-school relationships, is how similar the nature of the conversation a parish has about the school is mirrored in what the school says about the parish. There is a common hurt, a strange togetherness built upon disappointment, if you will, between them, even in their alienation from each other. That may speak to the failures that have occurred, but also to the hope that each once had for the other. That is a hope that can be, in most cases, recovered.

Like our work with students, so much of the tending to the relationship between a parish and school is preparational. It is work spent on the future—be it helping to avoid long-term risk or working at a mutual ministry that can only be cultivated over time.

The small things matter, as small things when not tended to have a way of growing into large situations over which we do not feel much control.

As much as I have concluded about these “vital signs,” I am also curious: what would you, the reader, point to as some of the sure signs of a healthy relationship between a parish and a school?