“I can’t get in schools. It’s a no-go in our town.”
I have heard some form of this phrase a million times. Go to any gathering of youth workers, ask about public schools, and someone will say it.
“I’ve never had a school say no.”
I love to counter with that for two reasons.
- It’s absolutely true. I read my first youth ministry book as a senior in high school in 1993. The title was something like, How to start a ministry on a high school campus by Barry St. Clair. In that book I learned basic stuff… don’t have an agenda. And… get to know the principals, ask them how to serve. Partnering with schools really starts there. It’s actually pretty easy because all schools need partnerships to thrive at their mission.
- It counters a general distrust of the government and public education specifically among evangelicals. There, I said it. Let’s call it what it is, right? A lot of evangelicals are politically conservative. (Nothing wrong with that.) And the propaganda machine on that side of the political aisle feeds distrust and doubt that the government can do anything good. Toss in a ban on prayer in schools 50 years ago, the Scopes Monkey trial, and a collective multi-billion dollar private Christian school investment… and you’ve got yourself an anti-public school bias.
What does school partnership look like in San Diego?
We’ve been part of two churches in San Diego, both of whom have excellent on-going relationships with public schools.
Let’s address another bias. Non-Californians tend to use California as the symbol of all-things-liberal. The conservative media paints California as a nanny state, a place where liberal agendas run free, and a place where God is not welcome. Maybe there are places like that in California… just not ones I’ve ever seen? California is not more liberal or conservative than other places I’ve lived as an adult, Michigan and Illinois. It’s a state so big and so diverse that it really defies that simple definition.
At our first church in City Heights we met at a high school and consequently developed an intentional, healthy, long-term partnership. That manifested itself in a bunch of ways. Everything from church staff serving as volunteer coaches to clean-up days on campus to strong relational ties between the youth ministry and the school. That spun off to several other schools, the longest running of which is an after school tutoring program serving the large refugee population. Harbor Mid-City is an excellent example of what a small church plant can do to partner with schools.
At our current church in La Mesa similarly-styled partnerships are thriving. We can help 2-3 schools significantly. The main difference a large church has is economy of scale. When 1500 people decide to help teachers get school supplies for their classrooms, everyone pitching in something small can have a massive impact. Or if you recognize teachers on a Sunday it feels bigger and more significant.
Earlier this summer I got exposed to a great partnership between Journey and La Mesa Middle. (Where Megan goes) This particular relationship was created and flows out of the middle school ministry. Over several years of serving without agenda a lot of trust has built up. They know we are there because we love students.
Brian and I sat down with the school’s principal and counselor and were asked, “How can you help us build a better relationship with parents?” Working together we came up with a simple, once-per-month fall program where the church will provide content that matches teaches values of the school. Seriously, that’s something completely within the strengths of Journey… creating safe environments, offering something cheap and fun, and teaching. It’s a win-win-win for everyone. (More on Wildcat Nights coming this fall.)
First Steps for Starting a School Partnership
I’ve done this long enough to know that schools really do want help. And, as long as you can establish trust that you aren’t there to evangelize… (See this piece in the New York Times) partnerships are really easy to form.
So how do you get started? Here are some first steps.
- People assessment. Who do you already have at your church who is part of a school near the church? A teacher? A counselor? An administrator?
- Student assessment. Where do most of the kids in your church who live nearby go?
- Needs assessment. Schedule a meeting with the principal and ask the simple question: What do you need? Then make a list of needs.
- Start small. In that same meeting, identify a safe starting point. You want to meet a practical need of the school but you don’t want to bite off more than you can chew. One that seems impossible to a school but is easy for a church? Provide all the volunteers and supplies for a game night. Seriously, your kids and youth ministry can pull this off.
- Build relationships, not a task list. Make an effort to build some relationships. That means more than inviting people to church. Instead, you’re going to need to show up in their life, on their turf. Maybe that’s the PTA? Maybe that’s a school board meeting? Maybe that’s just bringing coffee for the staff once a month and hanging out to talk?