Ray Tiller

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Has your Christian school drifted away from what you want it to be?

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But here's the thinking behind it!

I see a lot of Christian school boards who worry about whether their school is continuing to maintain and develop its Christian purpose and character.  Sometimes fuelling this anxiety is a tension and confusion that arises with a change of principal or board members binging differing perceptions and emphases regarding the various priorities of running a Christian school. The net result can be both:

•    A loss of some or many of the core priorities of the original Christian mission, and

•    A “war” between board members and leaders who perceive themselves as “progressive” and those who perceive themselves as maintaining the “DNA” of the original Christian mission and vision of the school.

Deciding on what a school’s character should look like in the midst of changing cultures and the latest demands of government-developed standards and accountability can be complicated.  But perhaps we can learn something from George Marsden’s “The Soul of the American University – from Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief” in which he traces 100 years or so of development of (originally) Christian universities and identifies the apparent changes to their Christian orientation. Marsden identifies several stages" through which such universities have gradually shifted from a clearly focussed Christian orientation to one that rejects the relevance and influence of Christian faith.

Observing the development of Christian schools in Australia over the last 40 years and using the idea of Marsden’s “stages”, in the Reflective Evaluation Tool, I have developed a list of shifts in observable Christian school characteristics.  In describing these shifts, I have not assumed that every characteristic in Stage 1 is better than everything at Stage 2,3, 4, or 5.  The descriptions in the table are rather an attempt to identify some characteristics that we see evolving in Christian schools over time.  My goal is to help school boards and leaders to think through the trends they see in their own schools and to decide which trends should be encouraged and which ones should be strategically modified or reversed.

My view is that the core mission of Christian schooling provides the “plumb-line” by which Christian schools should evaluate the desirability (or otherwise) of the trends of the changes they observe.  At risk of generalizing too much, I think that, throughout Australia and New Zealand, the common foundational features of Christian school mission are:

1.    Developing students’ relationship with God and embracing biblical truth and values – the highest priority in education is to ensure that young people are drawn to lifelong faith in God and living life in His ways.

2.    Excellence in educational offerings – ensuring that we offer competent and comprehensive education to all students.

3.    Preparing young people to bring a transforming influence to their community – systematically preparing young people to embrace God’s ways in all aspects of personal and community life, and to assertively bring the transforming influence of God’s grace and truth to our societies and nations.

How to use this table as a reflective tool:

The purpose of this Reflective Evaluation Tool is to provide boards and school leaders with a structured self-reflective tool to help you identify the changing characteristics of your school.   To do the reflection, read the descriptors for each stage in the table and think about to what degree each statement describes the CURRENT situation of your school, then rate your level of agreement with each identifying statement for each stage (1 = strong disagreement …. 5 = strong agreement).   When you have completed each “stage”, average your scores for the stage.  The average score for each stage will give an indication of which stage you feel your school is up to.  (Eg: A score of 3.9 indicates that your school is significantly showing the characteristics of this stage.)  Click here to download the Reflective Evaluation Tool.

What is the use of these ratings?

In looking at your ratings, you may feel that your school is where you want it to be, and that the changes are ones that are desirable.  On the other hand, if you identify items that are of concern, they should form a basis for discussion by board, leaders and the school community, and they may require subsequent strategic action.

Need some professional help?

Christian school boards and leaders who need some assistance with the process of identifying development needs and planning strategic development could consider the Equipping Christian Schools  “Review and re-commissioning" program or "Mission-Vision-Strategy Development" program

Reference Notes:

1.    This material was developed from ideas presented in a conference session titled “Christian school ‘Stages’” by Daniel R. Vander Ark. (2000 Christian schools conference,  Highfields, UK)

2.    People interested in pursuing this thinking further might be interested in the following resources:

•    Benne , Robert – “Quality with Soul – How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions”, Eerdmas, 2001.  Amazon summary:  This book demonstrates that, despite much evidence to the contrary, there are still Christian colleges and universities of high academic quality that have also kept their religious heritages publicly relevant. Respected scholar Robert Benne explores how six schools from six different religious traditions (Calvin College, Wheaton College, St. Olaf College, Valparaiso University, Baylor University, and the University of Notre Dame) have maintained "quality with soul". These constructive case studies examine the vision, ethos, and personnel policies of each school, showing how 'and why' its religious foundation remains strong.

•    Burtchael, J T – “The Dying of the Light – The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches”, Eerdmas, 2001.  Amazon summary: James Tunstead Burtchaell, who has extensive experience in American higher education as both a teacher and an administrator, provides case studies of seventeen prominent colleges and universities with diverse ecclesial origins - Congregational, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, and Evangelical. Using published and archival sources as well as firsthand interaction with each institution he covers, Burtchaell narrates how each school's religious identity eventually became first uncomfortable and then expendable, and he analyzes the processes that eroded the bonds between school and church.

•    Marsden G M – “The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief”, Oxford, USA, 1996.  Amazon Summary:  Only a century ago, almost all state universities held compulsory chapel services, and some required Sunday church attendance as well. In fact, state-sponsored chapel services were commonplace until the World War II era, and as late as the 1950s, it was not unusual for leading schools to refer to themselves as "Christian" institutions. Today, the once pervasive influence of religion in the intellectual and cultural life of America's preeminent colleges and universities has all but vanished. In “The Soul of the American University”, Marsden explores how, and why, these dramatic changes occurred.

Ray was the first Principal that I had the privilege of working under within the private Christian school system. Ray’s leadership and teaching regarding Christian Worldview in education was life changing for me personally...

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