One of the advantages of leading a Christian school while also contributing to Christian schooling through The Center for the Advancement of Christian Education (CACE) is the frequency of my encounters with the extraordinary opportunities students experience through distinctive, Christ-centered education. In addition to being known for their comprehensive, Biblical integration, many Christian schools are becoming broadly recognized for the high quality of their curricular and co-curricular programs and overall student performance. Even as the undertows of post-Christian culture become more formidable, favorable circumstances exist for great Christian schools to flourish.
On the flip side, accompanying the growing esteem for Christian schools is a sharpening criticism when stories of inappropriate adult or student behavior become known outside of the school community. We often attribute this to secular culture’s bias against faith-based communities. There is danger, however, in assigning all the responsibility for this leap to judgement to those outside Christian schooling itself. I am too quick to blame the challenges I face on those I perceive are underservedly forcing difficult things onto me. It is so easy to blame people and groups like the media that seem to have a greater penchant for sensationalism than real journalism. The more introspective I become the more I am stunned by how easily I can convince myself in the face of disagreement or public criticism that I am always the victim of someone else’s harsh judgement or narrow-minded misunderstanding. In reality, I am more often a victim of my own pride and selfish ambition.
Let’s consider further the flip side of the coin that is our pursuit of excellence and high quality Christian education. Before I go on, please know that I am a firm believer that Christian schools need to be excellent. We are stewards of the priceless gifts that are the children of God. We are responsible to promote and facilitate growth in our students and are acting as servants of God, in support of the home and the church, to train young people to be reconcilers, engaged in God’s plan to make all things new (2 Corinthians 5:17-21, Revelation 21:5-7). Our students should be represented in every field of study and every vocation. The work they do now, and will do in the future, matters towards the advancement of God’s Kingdom and the education they receive in our schools should be worthy of their high, God-given, calling.
As we endeavor to pursue excellence in our Christian schools, we must be equally committed to integrating, in our programs and practice, the truth that in Adam all sin and exchange the truth of God (we are created to glorify our Creator) for a lie, (life is about me, the creature, and my glory, rather than the glory of the Creator). Because there are individual and corporate implications of sin’s curse on the whole creation, our Christian schools will regularly have to address actions of students and adults that tarnish the testimony of Christ and the intended testimony of our schools. The whole reason we need Christian schooling is because we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. But God, in his infinite mercy and grace pursues us, redeems us, sanctifies us and restores us until one day when Jesus will return and make all things new (Ephesians 2:1-10). We need Christ-centered learning communities because we daily forget the present and future blessings of the personal and communal, redemptive story of God’s steadfast love of sinners in Christ.
My concern is that in defense of our hard work to grow, improve and bear witness to Christ, the excellent results and outcomes of that work too often become idols for our glory. We want so badly to be taken seriously, to have our schools recognized for the quality of our inputs and outputs and to glorify God. But then, when confronted with the not so neat and pretty reality that our organizations, administrations, faculties, parents and students are not free from error and sin, we defensively renounce the action in ways that appear to be more about arrogantly saving our reputation than testifying to the power of the Gospel that is central to our mission. In this dangerous spiral, the world sees us disavow inappropriate actions and distance ourselves from the people who commit them rather than acknowledging the reality that “this happens in Christian schools too.” That acknowledgement doesn’t minimize the seriousness of the issue or cover up the problem but instead allows us to vulnerably face the truth; that sin is real and present in our communities, that there are significant consequences of our sin that hurts others, discredits our reputations and dishonors the testimony of Christ, and that we all desperately need Jesus.
Please don’t hear me say we shouldn’t have standards for conduct or that we shouldn’t consider the impact of our testimony on the school itself and the cause of Christ. In Christ, we can and should diligently and intentionally build school cultures that love and support each other while setting appropriately high standards for our work and engagement with each other and the world around us. Consequences are necessary and there are times when separation from the school is necessary and appropriate. I am not suggesting we lower expectations but that we acknowledge, maybe even include in our marketing, how often we fail to meet them. It is possible to diligently pursue excellence AND model Paul’s repeated reminder that God’s redeeming love is deserving of FULL acceptance and that it is ABSOLUTELY trustworthy to save sinners, among whom WE are the foremost (1 Timothy 1:15-16). My prayer is that the world around us that is not confident of the Gospel’s trustworthiness will see us openly own our weakness and sin in the embrace and complete security of Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension and trust the power of Christ that equips us to grow, day-by-day, in Him.
I will admit, I fear the days I have to publicly acknowledge the truth that “this happens at my Christian school too”. I fear the internal and external reactions and the strong criticism I will most certainly experience. I also fear the hurt that the offending action and my response will cause and the consequences that will follow for all involved. The central hub that binds together each individual fear is the risk of individual and corporate vulnerability. It is a fundamental unwillingness or incapacity to allow people to see the mess our sin creates. In those moments, by God’s grace, I pray that I can put the Gospel between the reputation of the school and the action of a fallen community member and let the distance be closed by the redeeming love of God in Christ more so than by the high standards we set, the great programs we offer and the excellent results we achieve.
Chad Dirkse has served in Christian education for 25 years in roles that include, math and science teacher, coach, athletic director, principal, head of school and board member. He is currently the President of Chattanooga Christian School where he serves more 1,100 students and 130 faculty and staff. Prior to his current position he served as the Superintendent at Westminster Christian School in Elgin, Illinois. Chad has an undergraduate degree in education from Covenant College and and MBA with a specialization in school leadership from LeTourneau University. Chad speaks regularly to groups about the school sustainability and the importance of consistency in the process and content of Christian schooling.