Nothing raises controversy faster than a discussion of church-school relationships. In many organizations, passionate people from both sides empty the bench and duke it out at the slightest provocation. Why? What is it about Christian education that engenders such strong emotions and conflict? Against such a backdrop, what is the best way to have a great church-school relationship?

Remember Why You Wanted a School

Schools take a lot of time and energy to maintain. It can be a grind. Over the years, it is easy for a church to forget why it wanted a school in the first place. As with any relationship, it’s good to look back and remember why it started.

  • Christian schools provide an excellent opportunity to reach the community for Jesus (evangelism), an important part of a church’s mission. Schools reach children under the age of 18. This is the time in life when people are most likely to accept Christ. Additionally, schools are well positioned to teach new believers the lessons Jesus taught (discipleship).
  • Christian schools not only reach children, but their parents as well. Many parents who don’t go to church still feel the need to teach their kids morality. They will bring their children to church for this, even if they won’t come for any other reason. Once the children are engaged in school, the church can speak to parents through programs and relationships.
  • Christian schools allow a church to do Kingdom work throughout the week. What a pity that most church campuses are silent six days each week! A church with a school is busy every day. It’s an obvious synergy and great stewardship of the buildings God has provided.
  • Christian schools are a self-funded ministry. When run properly, the cost of running a Christian school is covered by tuition. Don’t you wish every ministry could fund itself?
  • Church-school relationships financially strengthen both. Because a school uses church buildings during the week, it can pay part of the mortgage and upkeep costs. This frees up resources in the church’s general fund that can then go to additional ministry. Meantime the school is not paying full price for a campus that goes unused during the summer and on weekends.

Be grateful for the many good things your school brings; don’t just focus on the challenges.

How to Encourage a Great Relationship

Our school has grown from 35 students to nearly 1,000 in about fifteen years. While fast growth is a blessing, it can also tax the church-school relationship. Here are some of the practical things we’ve learned to keep our church-school relations healthy.

100% multi-use facilities: By design, every inch of our 150,000 square feet is available to both the church and school. The school gains access to the main auditorium, which is larger and better equipped than at any other school in the area. The church gains access to school classrooms and meeting venues it simply wouldn’t have otherwise. All facilities are designed and equipped with maximum flexibility of use so that everyone can use them. Intentionally designing in A LOT of storage space enables rooms to be multi-use.

An attitude of mission-minded sharing: What teacher doesn’t want a classroom that is only used by their class (and not also by the church)?  What children’s ministry or student ministry doesn’t want dedicated space? Fortunately our church and school staff members see space sharing as part of our collective mission to reach people for Jesus. It’s not to say conflicts and problems don’t happen. Rather, our staff tempers their personal desires and shares space in a spirit of grace. We’re like a big, vibrant family sharing a house together.

School leaders are church members: Our principal and vice-principals are required to be members of the church. The principal is intentional in her support of the church. Her constructive attitude filters through school leadership, teachers and staff.

The school keeps Christ as “the main thing:” School leaders highly value inviting children to accept Jesus, teaching the Bible and growing young believers in their faith. They resist pressures to make the school only about excellent academics (which they have) or to make it a “more exclusive/expensive private school.” Every prospective family that tours our school is told that their children will be challenged to follow Jesus and instructed in how to do that. The staff has weekly devotions together. School spending is modest and we work hard to keep tuition affordable. Keeping Jesus “the main thing” is, I believe, why God continues to bless Northshore Christian Academy.

The school is a ministry of the church: Because the church and school operate at different times and serve different constituencies, it is easy to begin thinking of both as separate organizations. This would be a huge mistake. We have structured our church and school as one organization. There is a school board, as there are various church boards (Finance, Facilities, etc.) However, all ultimately answer to the church elder board.

Elder participation in the school board: Currently one person serves as both our elder chairman and school board chairman. While this is not mandated in our bylaws, it goes back to a time when the church and school didn’t get along so well. Having one person in both roles naturally helped the church understand the school better (and vice-versa). This is a difficult role. We have been blessed with a board chairman who fulfills these duties evenhandedly with wisdom, patience and grace … which is the only way something like this works. Another way to promote church-school understanding would be to have one or two church elders sit on the school board and give a brief report in each elder meeting.

Northshore Christian Academy Vice Principal Mike Thornton notes the challenge of leading combined church-school operations. He says, “Schools are not churches. Churches are not schools. Because of the way we are used to running churches and schools, conflicts are unavoidable, a little like combining a car wash and a dog groomer; both clean but in different ways. The church board and the senior pastor must support having a Christian school on the church site or it will be impossible to negotiate a satisfactory relationship. The school staff must be supportive of the overall mission of the church and must contribute time and talent to various church activities.”

Executive team structure: The structure of our executive team also contributes to relational health. The team consists of our senior pastor, school principal, executive pastor, finance director and senior associate pastor. This is the forum where tough church-school relationship issues can be worked out. Our senior pastor carefully fosters a cooperative, respectful and professional atmosphere to discuss church-school challenges. Executive team members have enough safety and enough relational capital to make frank conversations possible. We follow the guidance of Ephesians 4:3 “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Senior Pastor Ken Long believes communication is critical. He says, “There were breakdowns in communication all over the place when I came. The way we addressed this was to bring the key parties to the table regularly. We call this our executive team. This seems to have precluded most issues because of regular communication.”

Get to know each other: It’s easy for church and school workers to become so busy doing our tasks that we forget about each other. We are constantly trying to find things that create relationship between church and school people. Our pastors are invited to visit each school classroom twice a year. There are monthly joint devotions between the church and school staffs. Senior school leaders participate in church staff meetings and leadership training sessions. Church staff and members are invited to join in the school’s long-term planning sessions. School leaders join the church staff on their annual retreat. It takes a lot of effort, plus some trial-and-error, to find things that work naturally and relationally . . . but it’s worth it. When you know and care about people in both the church and the school, you naturally cheer for the success of both.

School Vice-Principal Jeff Culp believes relationship is important. He says, “I believe the overall success of this is a reflection of the quality of the relationships between the individuals among the church leadership and the academy leadership. These relationships are foundational. I see these individuals meeting together, praying together, studying scripture together, worshiping together and planning together. These are basic practices that build good relationships.”

Accept tension: There is going to be tension in any church-school relationship. Problems will occur. Relationships will be strained. Facilities and budget conflicts are inevitable. There will be tension between keeping tuition rates low and providing an excellent educational experience. School parents will always press for more school resources. We expect these tensions and view them as healthy.

Tension is not a problem to be solved but a dynamic to be managed. Andy Stanley, Pastor of North Point Community Church, says, “Great organizations always have problems and tensions but are able to leverage them to move their organization forward.” His DVD teaching on organizational tension is a great resource.

Problem solving: There are a few tools we like to use to solve problems when they inevitably arise. One is to “keep short accounts.” In advance, school and church leaders give each other permission to approach each other with problems and tensions. The idea is to have frank discussions (in love) shortly after a problem surfaces. This allows the problem to be solved and relationships to move on. It prevents each side from keeping a list of wrongs that ultimately lead to bad blood.

Another tool we use is a “pre school year” meeting. Church and school leaders meet in August to discuss (and solve) any potential challenges (facilities, finances, etc.) that could become a problem in the new school year.

When arranging facilities usage, we assign a single point person for the school and a single point person for the church. All room requests are directed to the appropriate church or school representative. Both of the representatives meet regularly to present the needs of individual organizations and resolve any conflicts. This structure ensures clear communication and reasonable dialog on shared facilities use issues.

The church publicly affirms the school and vice-versa. When people know that the leadership is aligned, it discourages dissention.

We publicly share testimonies of the good things happening at both the school and the church.

We use the executive team meetings (previously mentioned) as the place to respectfully work out the differences between the church and school.

Ministry synergies: We intentionally look for ways to integrate the best of church and school activities. School families without a church home are invited to worship at the church. School Christmas concerts are actively promoted to the church congregation as a church holiday activity. An annual joint church-school golf tournament is held. Marriage enrichment is offered to both the church and school. Church Children’s and Student Ministries include school students in programs and retreats. Mission activities are jointly coordinated. Here again, it takes intentionality and patience to work together, but it’s worth it.

Before becoming Northshore’s Executive Pastor I was cautioned about accepting a position at any church that had a school; the problems and divisiveness weren’t worth it. I was told about a famous pastor who would never allow a Christian school at his church because it distracted from ministry. It was discouraging advice … and, for me, very wrong. Walk across our church grounds any day of the week. You will see happy, healthy young people engaging in their faith and in their studies. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.