Building Strong Teams
Making it Work: Church-School Leadership
Navigating a church-school relationship is not always easy. Like any relationship, it requires time, care, communication, and a willingness to learn. As stated in the National Association of Episcopal Schools’ (NAES) Principles of Good Practice for Governance in Episcopal Parish Day Schools, “Bylaws and canons set the parameters of the mission and its outcomes, but they cannot initiate a sustainable conversation between church and school. Only people can.”
Rectors and heads of parish day schools know how true this is! Rob Devlin, head school at St. George Episcopal School in San Antonio, Texas and Doreen Olseon, head of school at Saint Mark’s School in Altadena, California have forged strong working relationships with their rectors, Carri Patterson Grindon of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and Ramirez Lopez of St. George Episcopal Church. This teamwork has set the tone for the entire church-school community. We invited them share their wisdom and experience.
What makes your relationship and the church-school relationship work?
For both of these rector-head teams, it’s all about being intentional and making the time. “We have intentional and frequent meetings as rector and head,” notes Doreen Olseon of Saint Mark’s. “We meet every Tuesday. It’s a given and we really stick to it. We are always on time and always prepared with our agenda. Carri shares what’s going on in the parish and I do the same. And we always take time to catch up personally.”
Rob Devlin, head of school at St. George Episcopal School in San Antonio, echoes the same sentiment:
“Father Ram and I have worked together for nearly nine years. As with any relationship, our relationship works because we are both committed to making it work. We recognize that although we may have different thoughts and ideas and approaches, we each have a commitment to a larger goal – serving the Kingdom of God through the ministry of our Episcopal community.”
Ram adds, “I think the fact that we both share a larger vision for our work here at St George is helpful. We do think and talk in terms of the Kingdom of God and that helps us keep things in perspective. This is very important because there are many anxious voices in the community which would seek to have us focus on the needs of one group over another. I don’t differentiate between preaching on Sunday morning or during chapel. I preach Christ and him crucified and resurrected for us all. As difficult as it sometimes seems during busy times, I work very hard to recognize that my “parish” is not the “members on the church rolls” but it is the people among whom God has placed me. And I have watched Rob be just as effective among nonschool connected people on Sunday mornings because he sees himself as placed here by God. To put it more succinctly – we are on the same team, God’s, and that makes all the difference.”
What have you discovered about team building and collaborative leadership as you’ve done this work?
“We have a common mission, not only to educate young people but to educate the entire congregation,” says Doreen. “Carri not only leads us in prayer, she leads me to see her community more clearly. We respect each other and we work hard to see what’s going on in the entire church-school community.”
Rob notes, “In a way, it’s like the marriage covenant. You have to enter into the relationship with a predetermined commitment to mutual love and honor and respect. There has to be a commitment to two-way communication. This relationship has to be modeled by the parents to the children (other members of the family). Paul’s words in I Corinthians chapter 13 provide some guidance in this area.“
“When you keep things Christ centered and Kingdom of God focused,” adds Ram, “the rest takes care of itself.”
How do you work through/manage disagreements/differences in perspectives that must inevitably arise between vestry and board, parish, and school?
“It seems like things tend to go south the quickest when we let our fear and pride get a leg up on humility and Christ-centered courage and confidence,” reflects Rob. “We have to keep checking ourselves in this respect, and often it’s two steps forward and one step back. Again, an upfront commitment to and frequent reminders of the overarching goal, serving the Kingdom of God, can go a long way toward sustaining the relationship when the inevitable disagreements and differences arise.”
Ram adds, “The one thing I know does not work is feeding the beast of acrimony by engaging in back-and-forth verbal sparring. Over the years, I have learned the hard way that trying to win the point at issue is a sure way for everyone to lose. When there are disruptions in the body over issues, or when we have board members and vestry members at odds, we are open with each other about what is going on, [naming] our frustrations with each other. What has been fortunate is that we take these frustrations to each other and talk about them, counsel each other as Christian brothers and sisters and pray with and for one another and the ones causing us frustration. God has never abandoned us and we have come through times of difference stronger in many ways.”
What one practice or principle would you recommend to your peers in the same role?
Doreen and Rob agree that what’s most important is to make the relationship a priority. “I would recommend that a rector and head of school schedule weekly time together without any specific agenda. Perhaps a bible study or a book study. And I would encourage the head and rector to pray together – to pray for each other, and to pray for the community,” suggests Rob.
“In the early years we read spiritual books together,” shared Ram. “We prayed together. Prior to our building campaign we “circled” the campus (we read the “Circle Maker” by Mark Batterson) in prayer – with students, faculty and staff watching. We do more than meet about business and/or issues. We fellowship. We pray. We share our hearts. We remember that our call is to be faithful to God in our work and family lives. It is a much richer time because of this.”
“Ultimately, Carri really knows the school,” says Doreen. “She comes to every board meeting. She has made time to really get to know people at the school and, more importantly, she knows the culture. And I am a member of the parish. It’s important that we both see the parish and school in action.”
“In the end,” says Rob, “as with any strong relationship, it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of time. It requires the classic fruits of the Spirit as identified by Paul to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Ann Mellow is associate director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES). From 1995-2007 Ann was head of school at St. Luke’s School in New York City, a pre-kindergarten – grade 8 parish day school founded by The Church of Saint Luke in the Fields.
Founded in 1965, NAES is a voluntary membership organization of over 400 Episcopal schools from preschool through secondary school. NAES provides services, resources, and best practices related to Episcopal school identity, leadership and governance, and spiritual and professional development. Learn more at www.episcopalschools.org.
About St. George Episcopal School and St. George’s Episcopal Church
St. George Episcopal School (www.saintgeorgeschool.org) began in 1954 as the Pilgrim School, a preschool at Pilgrim Congregational Church in San Antonio, Texas. Over the years it expanded into an elementary school. In 1972, the school was invited to make a new home at St. George Episcopal Church (www.saintgeorgechurch.org). Today the school serves 500 students from pre-kindergarten through grade 8.
Ramiro E. Lopez Jr., rector, firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert G. Devlin, head of school, email@example.com
About Saint Mark’s School and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Saint Mark’s School (www.saint-marks.org) was founded as a preschool by St. Mark’s Episcopal Church (www.saintmarksaltadena.org), Altadena, California in 1960. Today it serves 350 students in preschool through grade 6 on a five-acre parish-school campus. The parish celebrated it centennial in 2006.
Carri Patterson Grindon, rector, firstname.lastname@example.org
Doreen S. Oleson EdD, head of school, email@example.com