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Posted on Feb 1, 2015

Purposeful Schools

Purposeful Schools

by Ed Noot, SCSBC Executive Director ◊

Rohintin Mistry’s landmark novel, A Fine Balance, tells the story of four strangers thrust together who struggle to establish interpersonal equilibrium in the midst of social and political upheaval. The novel tells a compelling tale of survival in the midst of unspeakable hardship.

Christian schools also need to seek the fine balance, sometimes in the midst of hardship. This delicate equilibrium can be elusive. Our schools need to find balance in:

  • the desire for extensive educational programs/facilities and the need to keep tuition affordable
  • the desire for academic excellence and the need to care for and serve all of God’s children
  • the acquisition of skills and the fostering of imagination
  • competition and cooperation
  • Ministry curriculum and the biblical narrative
  • efficient governance and community orientation
  • covenantal faithfulness and evangelical opportunities
  • the list could go on …

We seek equilibrium, but schools are fraught with points of tension and ambiguity. Ambiguity is inevitable. In fact, as Parker Palmer says, it is desirable and necessary if we are to flourish.

We embrace ambiguity not because we are confused or indecisive, but because we understand the inadequacy of our concepts to embrace the vastness of great things.1

Notwithstanding Palmer’s profound observation on ambiguity, at times organizational ambiguity can make us feel like we are “building the bridge as we walk on it.”2. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty, frustration and even fear or resentment.

One way to find our equilibrium is to be clear in our purpose. Most, if not all, of our schools have mission statements that outline our purpose, but do they in fact help us achieve balance?

If you took a quick look through the historical archives of your school, you would likely find that your school began and operated for several years, perhaps for several decades, without a defined mission statement. Mission statements became popular in the business world during the 1970s and 80s. They were seen as a key way to identify and articulate organizational purpose and vision. Non-profit organizations also saw the value in mission statements, and many SCSBC school boards set to work developing and adopting a first ever mission statement for their school.

The exercise was useful. It forced us to move from a set of loosely held, and perhaps poorly defined, assumptions about organizational purpose and value to a formal and public statement that articulated our mission and vision. Developing these mission statements brought people in our communities together to articulate the purpose of our schools. The exercise itself provided rich discussion and dialogue and forced us to ask some hard questions about the nature of our communities. Whom do we serve? What do we teach? What is our primary purpose? How does it make a difference?

Mission statements were developed with enthusiasm and have served a useful purpose in our schools, but the reality is that in some cases they are underutilized or left on the shelf to collect dust. In other cases they are profound and truthful, but too unwieldy to create a sense of organizational relevance and urgency or to help us achieve the equilibrium we need.

Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Advantage3 cites the importance of creating organizational clarity. Lencioni contends that many organizational mission statements are a “convoluted, jargony and all-encompassing declaration of intent” that “have neither inspired people to change the world nor provided them with an accurate description of what an organization actually does.” Nevertheless, Lencioni advocates that a key component of creating organizational clarity is to articulate the why of an organization’s existence. I believe the mission statement can be a useful tool to achieve clarity in this area.

Perhaps it is time to conduct a self-check on our mission statement. Do our staff members and board members know it? Is it succinct, relevant and easy to remember? Does it articulate the core reasons for our existence? It is referenced in our decision making and policy development?

One of our staff members recently visited a Christian school system in Indonesia. In his short visit he was impressed time and time again by how living the school’s mission statement was. The statement was:

  • clearly articulated
  • known, understood and referenced by all community stakeholders
  • the foundation for school programs, policies and decisions

The mission statement in this school created clarity, which Lencioni would view as a pillar of organizational health. Recently some of our schools, in an effort to revitalize their mission statement, have developed a more accessible mission articulation called a tagline. Taglines are shorter, more punchy and relevant, and more easily remembered by members of the community.

How does your school mission statement measure up? Perhaps a fresh look can make it come alive and become the foundational guide that it was always meant to be.

Footnotes:

  1. Palmer, Parker. The Courage to Teach. Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, 1998.
  2. Quinn, Robert. Building the Bridge As You Walk On It: A Guide for Leading Change. Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, 2004.
  3. Lencioni, Patrick. The Advantage. Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers, 2012.

 

Mission-Statement-Chart

adapted from a chart originally published on nonprofithub.org

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