November 2017
Vision and Planning

Making Episcopal Identity Strategic

A colleague of mine in the school world tells me about an exercise she likes to do with a group of admissions people from a wide variety of schools as they gather together. She asks each member of the group to make a list of the things they believe make their schools truly special – hardly a difficult task for those whose job is to communicate the particular uniqueness of their schools.

Once each person has assembled a list, she has people call out, at random, one distinguishing feature of their particular school that appears on that list. When someone in the assembled group has mentioned a characteristic that is on anyone else’s list, that characteristic must be crossed out. After several rounds of this, many of the most common attributes – diverse, welcoming, close faculty-student relationships, commitment to excellence – have been crossed out on virtually everyone’s list.

The characteristics that remain – after rounds of hearing all of the things these schools claim as distinguishing but are also identified by other schools – are at the heart, she maintains, of what makes each school unique. What is left of the list, after the most common and generic characteristics of a school have been shared, tells the real story of our school’s identity.

What is Episcopal identity?

When, in the context of school or church, we talk about Episcopal identity, we will often describe that identity in ways that other schools or churches, beyond the Episcopal orbit, could very well use to describe themselves. To be Episcopal surely means to be diverse and inclusive, to be welcoming, to being committed to serving the community. Lots of peer institutions would likely see themselves mirrored in these attributes, and, to be sure, form the core of their reasons for being. But those alone will not distinguish us. We need to take a look at the attributes that remain on our lists well after the others have been called out. Those remaining may well be the key to our uniqueness, our true Episcopal identity.

Sometimes we do strategic planning in order to keep up with the competition, and our plan may well turn out to look and sound like a great many other plans. At other times we undertake strategic planning in order to express our hope to be something that we are clearly not at the moment, thus risking the possibility that the institution described in the plan has little in common with the one we know and love. Alternatively, we can build upon our true forms of uniqueness, beyond the generic attributes. That is the best option, I would maintain, for forging a connection through this planning process between who we are and what we want to be in the future.

Episcopal identity not only happens to be one the key distinguishing traits of our schools, but a valued ingredient in building a vision of the future. I would like to share with you four ways that this identity gives shape to the strategic plans that many of our schools develop.

1. Episcopal identity is the basis for launching such a plan in the first place. In its recently completed (2016) strategic plan, St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, CA grounds all of its strategic goals in its identity as an Episcopal school. Above all, it proudly states that the school community is called to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being” (from our Baptismal Covenant). Like so many other Episcopal schools, St. Margaret’s prides itself on being a diverse community, and its Episcopal identity calls it to “integrate religion and spiritual formation into the curriculum and the life of the school community.” Before any visions for the future are shared, this grounding is delineated and forms the basis for what lies ahead.

2. Strengthening Episcopal identity as a specific strategic goal. Episcopal Academy, in Newtown Square, PA, identified Episcopal identity as the number one strategic goal for its plan, unveiled in 2010. In the preface to this strategic goal, the school explained, “We are The Episcopal Academy, and we enthusiastically embrace and honor all that means.” Basic to their view of Episcopal identity was a respect of all faiths, a “religious openness,” as the plan articulates. At the same time, “we practice our religious traditions every day, and we welcome and expect participation by all.” It reaffirmed that all members of the community will attend chapel and students will engage with the religion curriculum. The four specific initiatives listed under this goal were:

  • To represent our religious foundations in our written communication;
  • To commit to chapel services that are based in the Book of Common Prayer and that are respectful of our pluralistic community
  • To review and potentially expand course offerings in religion;
  • To include character education at every level of the curriculum.

As the plan explained, “At the Episcopal Academy, we value deeply our traditions without getting stuck in them.”

3. Communicating Episcopal identity. There is no greater need among our Episcopal schools than to find language that can capture the unique value that an Episcopal education brings. St. Stephen and St. Agnes School, in Alexandria,, VA, identified in its 2016 plan this need as a major strategic goal. Its Episcopal foundation and commitment to goodness as well as knowledge, provide the core of its identity; they “guide us as we celebrate and share our message.”
Under this goal, the school identified three specific initiatives:

  • Translate this identity into a clear marketing plan;
  • Highlight and leverage our Episcopal identity as an integral part of who we are and what we do;
  • Translate its tag line, “knowledge as well as goodness,” into an effective message that conveyed their core values and sense of wellness for students.

In its marketing as well as communications, the school saw Episcopal identity as an asset, not a liability.

4. Episcopal identity as a standard of excellence. In its 2012 strategic plan, the Episcopal School of Dallas, TX devoted a strategic goal to its Episcopal identity, emphasizing that the school’s “continued excellence as a premier independent school is rooted in the tradition of worship, servant leadership, inclusion, and religious formation” (those being the school’s four pillars of Episcopal identity). Included under this goal were initiatives for the development of clear talking points for the articulation of Episcopal identity; increased training for student leaders of the Vestry, Community Service, and Student Government; and the formation of a Religious Life Learning Team.

These four pillars, “woven together are the core principles that distinguish Episcopal schools from other faith-based schools.” They form the basis not only for the school’s uniqueness, but also form the standard of excellence by which the school judges itself.

As with many Episcopal schools, these four institutions see Episcopal identity as a precious asset, worth preserving, developing, clarifying, and proudly communicating both internally and externally. Beyond what every school (or church, for that matter) may say about itself, this foundation may well serve as its unique niche, and also serve as one of the key guideposts and strategies for looking toward the future.

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D., executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES), began his tenure on July 1, 2007. Prior to his work with NAES, Mr. Heischman was College Chaplain at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut for four years. He was head of the upper school and assistant headmaster of St. Albans School, Washington, DC from 1994 through 2003. From 1987 to 1994 he was executive director of the Council for Religion in Independent Schools (CRIS), now the Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education (CSEE). He served as chaplain and then assistant headmaster of Trinity School, New York, New York from 1979 until 1987. He began his ordained ministry in 1976 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Englewood, New Jersey.


This article is part of the November 2017 Vestry Papers issue on Vision and Planning