Steps Toward Recovery and Growth in a Christian School

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6, NRSV

By the grace of God, Midwestern Christian Academy will open for students in the 2022-23 school term on August 29. Long before then, its teachers and staff will being work to get things ready for students to arrive. There will be a few changes on our campus when students come back, which is really not that far off in the future:

  • The gym renovation is about 95% complete. Students started using it in April. The front doors to the sidewalk on Cicero Ave. still need to be installed, and some interior work needs to be finished, like the addition of a window in the PE and Athletic office.
  • Middle school students in grades 6, 7 and 8 will once again be located in the classroom suite upstairs in the church educational building.
  • We will have two double-class grades for the first time in a long time. Both first grade and third grade will have two sections instead of just one.
  • There will be some changes in the art room, including a tile floor and some moveable tables.
  • We will have a volleyball team once again, and hopefully, a couple of basketball teams.
  • Enrollment is anticipated to be back over the 200 mark for the first time in five years.

God has blessed MCA and has brought it through what has been a long and extended valley that has included two years of getting through a viral pandemic and navigating through all of the complications that involved, including making our campus a safe and sanitary environment for our students and staff. We have also navigated through a season of conflict that included reclaiming the school’s mission and purpose in order to continue to provide a ministry to the students and families in Northwest Chicago who seek us out to provide a distinctively Christian education for their students.

The past 25 years have been a time of uncertainty and change among America’s Christian schools. Evangelical Christian churches and denominations, from whom the children of members make up the largest constituency in Christian schools, have experienced a decline in membership and attendance, 18% since the 2010 census. The decline has been most noticeable as the millennial generation, who make up the majority of parents with school-aged children at this point, seems to be missing from many local congregations. As a result, the enrollment in Christian schools in America is also declining, as is the number of schools.

There is no simple answer to the questions about why this is happening, and no simple solution to the problem, since each school’s story is different when it comes to factors that affect enrollment. The first Christian school in which I ever taught was at its enrollment peak in 1983 when I walked through the door, but did not survive the demographic changes in its neighborhood, or the availability of charter school education and by 2001, when enrollment couldn’t sustain a minimum budget, and closed after more than 50 years of operation. It’s closure left the southeast side of the city of Houston, Texas without a Christian school alternative. The sponsoring church, to make ends meet, sold the elementary and middle school buildings to a charter school which renovated them and is still using them.

Christian schools provide a very strong Biblical foundation to their students. I often hear parents comment that their elementary-age child knows more about the Bible than they do. Even though Evangelical Christian schools have, for the most part, been independent of church or denominational sponsorship, they have visibly undergirded and supported the ministry of local churches by providing leaders who are committed and equipped to lead, who understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ with spiritual gifts, called to service in his church and are ready and willing to serve. Sending out generations of well-trained, well-equipped, highly motivated servants of Christ’s church is not something that suits the enemy one bit. And so he finds ways to limit the effectiveness of the Christian discipleship provided by a Christian school.

There’s No Book to be Written Here

MCA is the second Christian school where I’ve served as lead administrator that has recovered from something that had the potential to close the school and stop its ministry. But there’s no human wisdom, no “exprerience,” no set of “seven steps to success in Christian school ministry” that can be credited with the recovery. In both cases, the common thread is that a group of people who loved the school, whose children benefitted from attending it, who were able to hold on to the vision, mission and purpose through difficult times, prayed for it. And God answered the prayers.

The plans which are laid out must be discerned from answered prayer. That passage from Proverbs is not just ancient wisdom, it’s inspired scripture. In both cases, the first step did not involve “doing something” to change any circumstances. It involved waiting on the Lord to provide the direction about which way to go. In both cases, healing from hurt had to happen. Sometimes, God doesn’t move, not because we haven’t asked him to, but because there’s something that needs to be moved out of the way first.

There’s a wealth of healing to be found in the first 12 verses of Matthew’s gospel. That passage is now known as the “Beatitudes”, or as a Sunday school teacher of mine once put it, the “be-attitudes.” And I’m sure he borrowed that from someone else. So there’s that. And then, that inspired scripture from Proverbs says, “Trust in the Lord”. Be God’s people. Trust in the Lord. Is that too simple, sometimes, for us to understand?

Just prior to Matthew’s recording of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went through a series of temptations that have an awful lot to do with interpreting the context of what he was about to preach. He was tempted to test his own spiritual power to fix problems from a completely human perspective. Everything with which he was tempted, had he not resisted, would have demonstrated a lack of confidence in God’s ability to carry out his will and would have resulted in upsetting his plan to redeem humanity. Jesus, of course, knew this, but that didn’t make the temptation any less real. For us, though, that’s where our trust in him comes in. He moves in his way and his time and if we interfere with that, we won’t see his desired result.

The book has already been written, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Common Grace and Common Sense

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other: just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the father through him. Colossians 3:12-17, NRSV

When there is a unity of spirit, when healing has happened and there’s a renewed commitment, there are some things that we know need to be done from past experience and from the wisdom and knowledge that has been gathered collectively among those who have made a commitment to the school. Everyone brings a different set of spiritual gifts and talents, the latter of which includes experience and education, with which they are equipped for their ministry calling.

We are stewards of resources, make decisions about how best to apply them to meet our needs, evaluate the effectiveness of our expected outcomes and plan for improvements based on the knowledge we have from various sources, including experience, college or university training, and observation of circumstances, reactions and results from other similar experience. I guess that’s what might be called common sense, though it does not operate independently of our focus on faith in Christ.

Some Christian schools experience what is commonly called “mission drift,” meaning that in all of the details of operating a school, the focus moves to the point where there are problems, difficulties, or where the complaints seem to be more frequent and of higher volume. Even though our school is a Christian community, that doesn’t guarantee the absence of selfish ambition among the community members. Loud complaints, ongoing, nagging problems, or selfish ambition can cause distractions away from the mission and purpose of the school. And in some of the research that has been done when it comes to school closure points to mission drift, rather than scarcity of resources.

There were multiple factors involved in the closure of the Christian school where I first taught, and that I mentioned earlier. The school was in a neighborhood that was transitioning. The original homeowners raised families and then retired, many of them remaining in the neighborhood, causing the population of school-aged children to drop. Then, as they began to pass away, many of the homes were purchased by investors who used them for rental income, creating a more transient community with less spendable income for private, Christian school. The number of families connected to local churches declined. The radius from which students commuted to school widened.

As the school’s sponsoring church declined in membership, and the median age increased, few families with children in the school were left, and the school became less of a ministry extension of the church, and more of a tenant on the sprawling property, a necessary nuisance in order to maintain facilities and pay utility bills, so they grew more distant from the school. The board, made up of church members, eventually lost sight of the original mission and purpose of the school. At about the same time, charter schools in the immediate neighborhood were booming, and since many of the families in the school were there because it was an alternative to the public school, not because it was Christian, they moved their children because charter schools are “free”. The church’s main reason for keeping their school going was the income it generated for building maintenance and they lost sight of their original vision from 1949 when they started the school, that was focused on Christ. Ironically, the church leased the middle school and elementary school buildings to a charter school.

While declining enrollment is often cited as the reason for school closures, board conflict, high staff turnover, inability to retain administrative leadership, intrusions of non-Christian agendas or factions, demographic changes and lack of resources can all contribute to enrollment decline. Keeping the focus on Christ is the key to keeping any ministry, including a Christian school, prosperous and growing.

We Can’t Control Circumstances, But We Know God is Always in Control

When MCA was founded in 1956, the neighborhood around the school, from where it attracted most of its students, was much different than it is now. The fact that the school still exists, relatively intact, and has a student body that reflects the population in its neighborhood is a testimony to the prayer and faithful commitment of those who have invested their lives in its ministry. It is also a testimony to the fact that God still thinks the inner city of Northwest Chicago still needs a Christian school and that should challenge our stewardship of it.

Among Christian schools belonging to ACSI, MCA has one of the highest percentages of students from diverse ethnic, language and racial backgrounds. More than 60 different Christian churches are represented in our student body, including many churches where the worship is in a language other than English on a Sunday morning, and many small congregations where the student who attends MCA might be the only member of their children’s or youth group in the church. And yet, for 180 days out of the year, our students come together under the banner of unity in Christ, and it works. It works because of God’s presence and our focus on the gospel of Christ.

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