That profoundly significant question was asked to a dozen men and women who lead churches in our community. Today NEMO gathered in the library at Tucker High School to dialogue about church-school partnerships.
We had a panel of three community leaders talking about church-school partnerships they are leading. Elaine Shreve from Mountain West Church of God inspired us with the way Back to School Blessing lavishes resources on local teachers and lifts countless students up to God in prayer, Woody Bowen from SOZO New Covenant Fellowship shared about the amazing things happening at Tucker High through the RISE mentoring program, and Ginger Holland from First Baptist Tucker wowed us with the amazing difference being made through the literacy program called Young Scholars.
Principal Jackson even dropped by to share his heart to see the community and the churches pouring into creative initiatives with the school.
There was also a presentation on the book Educating All God's Children by Nicole Baker Fulgham. The book highlights the “academic achievement gap” that exists between low-income students and their middle/upper class counterparts. Fulgham describes the gap, discusses reasons for it, and invites Christians and their churches to participate in closing it. The author briefly covers the history of public schools and churches, outlines a biblical framework for our responsibility to be engaged, and offers practical advice for how to get involved. The books is full of stories from in-the-field experience of practitioners across the country.
I have prodigious notes from the meeting on the things I learned and was inspired by. Three things, in particular, stand out and warrant repeating.
Lesson One: Keep Your Eyes on Student Achievement
Mrs. Shreve and her church do more than just about any other church I know of in terms of providing supplies for local teachers/students/classrooms. Knowing that makes her comment about donating pencils to students all the more significant. School supplies are great, but if we are not investing in public schools at a level that alters the educational trajectory of students, then we are merely involved in charity and not transformational ministry. In the book Fulgham tells churches to "keep an eye on student achievement." Giving things away in one thing, but a partnership with a school that fosters educational develop is something else all together...and something much, much better!
Lesson Two: Leave Your Agenda at the Door
Churches that want to get involved in schools are often hindered by simply not knowing what to do or by only doing things they have seen other churches do (i.e. backpack drives). Mr. Bowen was not alone on the panel when he talked about coming alongside school leaders and letting those leaders lead. Healthy partnerships do not begin with the grand vision of pastors. They begin with humble community members who come to the school leaders to stand WITH them. It is not about doing TO or FOR. It is about standing WITH. That is why Fulgham tells such great stories in the book about churches willing to "leave their agenda at the door" to cultivate an authentic relationship, which leads to our final point...
Lesson Three: Build Authentic, Trusting Relationships
You may already be in a position where you can jump on board with existing healthy ministries like the ones described here. If so, join in! No need to start your own thing!
However, you may be reading this and saying, "Where do I begin? I have no connections to the schools in my community?"
If that is you, then the best advice the panelists, the Principal, and the book have is to focus on building authentic, trusting relationships. Don't start with meeting needs, creating programs, donating things, etc. Start by getting to know teachers and administrators. Get to know their story. Listen to their heart. Let them lead you.
There are SO many more things that I gained from this conversation today. All I can say is read the book, get in touch with community leaders working with schools, or email me. There is a profound wealth of biblical evidence that says that standing with our local schools is not just an opportunity but a responsibility for local churches.