Back to school, back to church

New school year start times vary across America. Some begin before Labor Day, and others start after this holiday.

Photo by Bill Pike

The first Sunday after Labor Day, often signals the start of a new church year.

Photo by Bill Pike

From a variety of angles, schools and churches share some similarities.

For example, the COVID-19 pandemic was an unexpected disruption. It created multiple levels of tension. School and church leaders often found themselves in impossible conflicts with parents and congregations.

In schools, the imperfect switch from in person instruction to virtual learning resulted in students falling behind academically and socially. It will take schools and students years to recover from this lost instruction.

With churches, a similar struggle evolved from the pandemic. In trying to protect their congregations, some churches alienated members with stringent protocols. Enforcing these health protections pushed some churchgoers to leave their church.

More similarities between schools and churches are seen in the areas of: human sexuality, finances, safety, and public opinion.

Even before the pandemic, schools and churches often found themselves on public display. Quite honestly, public perceptions can make decision making by school and church leaders a no win situation.

So what must school and church leaders do in order to regain ground lost from the pandemic?

A good starting point for school and church leaders is investing in the time to listen.

Whether they are right or wrong, communities and congregations want to be heard. Leaders who fail to take the time to listen will find framing the teamwork needed for future change difficult.

Schools and churches in their communication must always be honest and transparent, especially when plans go wrong. Telling the truth is an opportunity to rebuild trust.

In their communities, schools and churches must become better at conveying their stories of success even in difficult situations. Not sharing stories of success is a missed opportunity to build relationships.

Sadly, safety continues to be a concern for schools and churches. Both are too familiar with shooting tragedies. These tragedies are birthed in their communities. How might churches and schools collaborate to improve safety in both environments?

Also linked to safety is the physical condition of school and church buildings. Neglected or delayed maintenance only creates more problems in providing conducive environments.

Churches and schools require sustained financial support to stay open. Over the last several years, studies of church data from the Pew Research Center have documented the decline in church attendance. Shrinking attendance impacts the giving capacity of congregations.

For school systems securing their fair share of tax revenues can be a challenge. This is especially a concern when the needs of the community are significant at all levels of operation.

Neither churches nor schools are immune from challenges related to human sexuality.

For churches, some denominations have split over doctrines and policies related to human sexuality. These differences create stress and division. In the end, these divisions hurt people and contradict the premise that churches are supposed to be grounded in “love” for all.

Sometimes lawsuits related to human sexuality rights have required school systems to adjust policy manuals and student codes of conduct. These by law changes can also impact the physical facilities of a school and require special training for school staff.

In the August 2022 edition of the North Carolina based Our State magazine, I read an interesting story about chef, Rob Clement.

Mr. Clement makes the point from his early work in restaurants about the ability to be “adaptable.” And he carries that further by emphasizing the importance of the “pivot.” Mr. Clement states: “In a restaurant kitchen, every minute is a pivot, I don’t know how not to pivot.”(Our State, p.116)

As schools and churches work to recover ground from the pandemic, they need to ask these internal questions: “Are we adaptable, and can we pivot?”

If schools and churches can’t adapt and pivot, that leads to another question: are their traditional models of leadership and operation outdated?

Having worked in public schools and a church, I sense both are capable of pivoting and adapting, but implementing real systemic change can be a challenge. Sadly for churches, change is difficult.

As schools and churches fully reopen, I believe their ability to regain lost pandemic ground will depend upon their willingness to learn more about how to adapt and pivot.

Our communities still need schools and churches.

However, if schools and churches expect to be a vital part of our future, their leaders and their communities must not fear change.

Fearing change reduces the ability to adapt and pivot.

If a chef can adapt and pivot in the kitchen of a restaurant, then our schools and churches must be capable of the same flexibility.

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