Three years ago, the board of directors at The City School merged two schools with differing denominational roots and perceived expressions of their faith. There are dozens of small Christian schools and early childhood centers in Philadelphia, and we were presented with the opportunity to merge two schools which have been rooted, though not exclusively, in the Anabaptist and Reformed traditions. Not only did a successful merger occur, but through the process of merging we pursued deepening our commitment to Jesus. This work of God’s grace was accomplished by establishing core commitments, focusing on common mission, and moving forward in love.
In 2013, the board of directors of The City School affirmed a document outlining our core commitments to Jesus, to the city, to excellence, and to accessibility. As the document states, “These core commitments clarified how we fulfill our mission to train students’ minds, disciple their hearts and bring light to the city—one child at a time. These commitments honor our founding purpose, direct our current efforts, and establish our vision forward.”
The first commitment, to Jesus, reads as follows:
Our first commitment, to Jesus, acknowledges Jesus Christ as the Son of God, Messiah, Lord and Savior. As it is stated in Acts 4:12 (ESV), “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” We honor this commitment to Jesus by requiring every staff member and board member acknowledge Jesus as central to their personal and corporate life. This acknowledgement includes a wider statement of faith, which affirms the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
We are committed to honoring Jesus in all we do, and are particularly intentional about this in our school curriculum, personal conduct, corporate decision-making and efforts at loving each other. As Jesus states in John 13: 34–35 (ESV), “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
There are very serious ramifications to this commitment. We certainly cannot be a public charter school with this commitment under the current legislative environment. Our commitment to Jesus is rooted in a relationship to the triune God of the universe, and one that bears the fruit of the Spirit. Our commitment to Jesus is not merely a set of character values. Our commitment is rooted in the authority of Scripture, focused on Jesus, and dedicated to the service and love of others.
By affirming core commitments to excellence and accessibility, we have been able to make focused financial and academic decisions, and in so doing deepened our sense of identity and calling. By affirming our calling to pursue shalom in the city, we have been able to unify two schools into one.
The axiom is true that if we do not stand for something, we do not stand for anything. One interpretation of this could be that if we do not stand for an exclusive interpretation of Reformed or Anabaptist theology, then we do not stand for Christ. Yet, after leading within this community both before and after our merger, I do not fear this danger if, by the grace of God, we have established clear biblical commitments and live them out every day. No matter what our statement of faith might be, it is only alive in as much as it is lived out.
Focus on Common Mission
The ramifications of a school’s commitment to Jesus are broadly held across many Christian denominations, in particular those rooted in the Reformation. While it can certainly be appropriate for a school to have very definite stances on the manifold particulars of a specific denominational understanding of Scripture, it is not always necessary. The breadth and depth of our institutional context must inform the breadth and depth of our institutional theological convictions.
Because a Christian school trains the minds of children and young adults, we ought not to be necessarily definitive about debatable matters, in particular matters of ecclesiology, which can properly be deferred to the church and seminary. The Christian school, above all else, has the role of training minds—the three R’s of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Academic training is the primary calling for the Christian school. This is not the primary calling of any other Christian institution—not the church, seminary, social service agency, mission group, or anything else under the Kingdom. Except when the family chooses to take such training upon itself, academic training is the unique calling of the school.
The second calling of the Christian school is to disciple hearts—to teach a child in the way he or she should go. These callings begin with the family, who then pass a charge on to the school in loco parentis. We train hearts through biblical and research-based means toward right relationship with God and with others. How a Christian school trains the minds and disciples the hearts of its students must be rooted in Scripture and understood within its own institutional history and the context of its children.
At The City School, we deeply value our Reformed and Anabaptist heritages and honor them more deeply by building, not dividing, our school community. Our primary expression of faith has been to train students in the city excellently and in a matter accessible to families across faith, finance, and academic ability. Denominational specificity has been an important, but secondary means for the fulfillment of our mission to train minds and disciple hearts as a Christian school.
Any school is only alive in as much as people affirm and reinforce its mission. Affirmation and reinforcement happen through the service of volunteers, the generosity of financial partners, the enrollment of students by parents, and the dedication of faculty and staff. Regarding why so many people have come alongside The City School, it is my understanding—from the multiple years of conversations I have had with hundreds of people—that we receive the support we do because we provide an urban Christian education for hundreds of children in our city. It has never been communicated to me that any one individual or institution’s support is contingent on our school being exclusively tied denominationally.
I believe that by choosing this course of action—supporting a strong statement of faith and not shying away from a Reformed or Anabaptist heritage—The City School aligned itself most fully across the life of our school. Ultimately, we believed it would give us the best strategic opportunities to advance the Kingdom through excellent and accessible Christian education in the city.
Moving Forward in Love
These are delicate matters of consideration and great wisdom. It reflects the strength of our schools and communities that we can have hard conversations without threatening each other. Good teachers ask hard questions; so do good leaders. Paul’s conclusion to 1 Corinthians 13 (ESV) is, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Whatever role we choose for theology to play in our school, it is essential that we pray that we commit to the greatest of these: love. The process of the merger—involving months of relationship-building, thoughtful dialogue, and joint prayer—reflected this commitment.
This merger is but one example of how we move forward, clear about our primary means. We have honored our denominational founding without being exclusively tied to it—as both schools already had for decades. The City School expressed our core commitment to Jesus in this way—biblical, direct, focused, and bold, just like we’d hope for our students. And we continue to navigate the implications of the merger, including joint accreditation with different agencies that not only reflect the school’s unified identity, but also are forging new relationships with each other in the process.
Based on the particulars of our specific schools, we chose to move forward in love, with faith and not with fear. We believe this can honorably be the most appropriate role of theology within the life of our school, and a concrete demonstration of Jesus’ redemptive work, “so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22–23). Even three years after the merger, our joyous goal remains to be “like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2).
While not every Christian school may be faced with the opportunity to merge with another school with differing denominational roots and expression, I believe our story of God’s grace and faithfulness can offer two points of encouragement:
- We have seen firsthand that the more clearly we understand His calling on our school, the more effective we can be at living it out. Core commitments are essential to this, as is understanding our missional focus as a school. Having a firm sense of both will yield the confidence required for bold service to Jesus, whatever that might entail for a given school.
- As an outgrowth of these commitments and mission, Jesus will call us to move forward in demonstrative love. Regardless of context, this will prompt Christian schools to seek ways to work together in unity across a broad spectrum of collaboration opportunities. Not only is this biblical, but it is also beneficial, as Christian schools face challenging economic and social conditions that can be more adequately addressed by and through unity.
It has been my great honor and privilege to strengthen the identity of The City School and to advance the mission of the school and Christ’s kingdom through it. Above all, we are profoundly grateful for the opportunity to deepen our commitment to Jesus.
How can you respond to this post?
- Spend some time reviewing the core commitments and mission of your school, and prayerfully reflect on whether you have a clear sense of God’s unique calling on your school within your own community context.
- In light of that calling, consider the ways in which your school can partner—whether in small or big ways—with other Christian schools with similar missions, to further the work of the Kingdom.
About the Author
Jake Becker began serving as Head of School at The City School in 2011, where he first became involved as a parent. Jake currently serves as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and Eastern University. Jake lives in Germantown with his wife Jessica and their two children, Caleb and Maggie. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.