It’s Back to School time across the country! Freshly washed children pose for obligatory photos by proud parents unable to believe how quickly their kids are growing. The rhythm of the school calendar affects parents, grandparents, employees and local residents. For those of us engaged in community-based ministry, schools are a natural place of connection to neighborhood families.
For me, one of the most rewarding outputs of community work is seeing how churches and schools can partner together to serve the neighborhood. I have served on the Family Engagement Parent Advisory Council and the Interfaith Leaders Coalition for the Dekalb County School District. Both of these experiences have been foundational for me in understanding all the ways these partnerships can go sideways and some best practices for how they can be most effective.
#1 Consider your language.
A key distinction for me in this work begins with the very words we use to describe our working together. Let’s partner with local schools, not adopt them. Maybe this is nitpicking, but adopting can come with the all-too-common assumption that the school needs someone to arrive and take care of it. Schools are filled with talented educators, creative resources and innovative ideas. When we adjust our language, may it lead to a deeper posture that seeks to support the school in its ideas and goals.
#2 Flip the narrative on unreturned calls and emails.
I’ve seen churches get discouraged when attempts to reach out to a school are not received warmly or are altogether ignored. The assumptions follow that the school does not need help, has some bias against faith groups, or simply does not care enough to respond.
From my experience, these narratives have never been the actual reasons. Instead, slow (or no) response is often evidence that an authentic relationship between the church and school has yet to be established. It is a sign of the work that still needs to be done.
#3 Leverage networks to build connection.
As mentioned, cold calls (or emails) often don’t work. But relationships do. I tried and tried to get a meeting with one principal because I was told how eager she was for community partnerships. What finally sparked our connection, however, was when a ministry partner who knows her personally called her and set a meeting for the three of us to talk.
My assumptions about why she never responded were false. She’s an incredible administrator and was eager to form partnerships. But she was also beyond capacity trying to run a school, and she could only trust me when someone with whom she had a relationship initiated the connection.
#4 Focus on the school’s objectives.
We know it happens. Sometimes churches reach out to schools because the church itself has a need they are trying to meet. Maybe they’ve planned a Service Day and they’ve got too many volunteers and not enough things to do. Or perhaps they’re looking to create a list of service sites for parishioners to volunteer. So they reach out to “help” the local school.
But sometimes these attempts to “serve” schools can have more to do with the needs of the church than the objectives of the school. In fact, for an overburdened staff, helping church volunteers “have something to do” can actually be a taxing request. Instead, take time to learn what the school cares about and align yourself with their agenda. Maybe your group wants to come out one Saturday and pick up trash, but they may have a crew that does that. Their real need may be one or two people coming in weekly to reshelve books in the library.
Be honest with yourself about your own needs and motives. And when you are ready to learn about and support the school’s objectives, then you are ready for real partnership.
#5 Always make the school and the students the heroes!
Once you develop relationships, understand the school’s objectives and create asset-based partnerships, you are sure (eventually) to see meaningful results. It is long-term, committed work, but the engagement is worth the effort. And the stories of success need to be told and celebrated!
When you do, though, make sure the school, administration, teachers, and the students and their families take center stage, not your ministry. This discipline can be difficult in a self-promoting, selfie-loving world, especially for organizations that rely on outside donors to see their good works and give. But your relationship with the school will deepen as you uplift their story instead of your own.
Schools are often the very heartbeat of a neighborhood. And healthy church-school partnerships can be life-giving and meaningful for all involved. If you are interested in learning more or consulting with your church about school partnerships, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d also love to hear from you! Leave a comment and share how you’ve seen church and school partnerships work well.
This article originally appeared here.