To say the past 18 months have been challenging for school leaders would be a gargantuan understatement. Perhaps for the first time in my career, every school leader I know would agree. The divisive triad of COVID, racial conflict, and political polarization settled on our nation and in our churches and schools. The triad has conspired to sear our collective conscience. Many of us have lost friends and loved ones; we have either lost jobs ourselves or had friends who did. And, we have experienced temptation toward frustration, anxiety, and depression as we have all faced attacks from our own people over masking, whether and under what conditions our schools would be open, or whether they should be open. We’ve been called too progressive and woke (whatever that means), too conservative and out of touch (whatever that means), sometimes by the same people in the same week, and been subjected to countless spiritual litmus tests based upon our politics by folks who have hopelessly conjoined the two. We’re all pretty tired.
Yet, despite an intensely challenging year, one for the record books, I perceive God’s hand at work now in the lives of my brothers and sisters in school leadership, and in the Christian schooling movement, more than perhaps at any point in recent memory. This is an exciting season to be in Christian schooling, even if in a bungee-jumping, thrilling-yet-terrifying kind of way.
James 1 exhorts us to “consider it all joy, brothers, when you encounter various trials, for the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And, let perseverance have its perfect result: that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The joy that James exhorts us toward isn’t joy in the trials and suffering; he’s not calling us to long for pain. The joy is in the perfection, the development of godly character that trials bring. In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers says that perseverance is different than endurance. Perseverance “is endurance combined with absolute assurance that what we are looking for is going to happen…perseverance is our supreme effort of refusing to believe that our hero is going to be conquered.”
Through this perseverance, I’ve admired how I’ve seen God mold and grow my school leader friends around the country who have confided in me over this trying season. By His grace, God has made most of us both harder and softer.
I have seen us become harder in lots of good ways. We are more resilient, and stronger. Whereas, small things may have set us back for days on end in the past, they no longer do. We take them in stride and move forward. Facing disease, death, and turmoil that haven’t really been a part of our recent collective cultural experience, yet pressing through all to provide a powerful, incarnational, life-giving education for our students, day after day, has strengthened us in good ways. Like ocean waves, absorbing the blows, yet moving ever forward, it has been awe-inspiring to watch our leaders and schools at work.
We have also become more flexible, more agile, and able to change plans or make adjustments quickly. Converting to virtual learning practically overnight, planning for scenarios that never actually happened, ordering and installing COVID prevention equipment we never actually used, and constantly changing governmental recommendations made obsolete two days later have rendered us more innovative and creative, forcing us to make do with what is on hand, like the Apollo 13 engineers making a life-saving filter from sweat socks and duct tape. We’ve developed a strong resolve to move forward. We developed a growth mindset, and became a “people of try”— willing to experiment with new things.
At the same time, we’ve also become softer where necessary. Struggling through trials together as school families deepened our trust within our faculties and staff, and our love for each other. Because we find ourselves crying out to the Lord more often on behalf of others, we have become far more intentional in our prayers. Intentionality in prayer has heightened our awareness and sensitivity to others’ needs, and we’ve become more willing to look around us. Seeing our friends caring for each other and persevering has increased our respect and appreciation for each other. Increased trust and respect have made us more willing to have hard discussions, and to be more transparent with each other, at least within the walls of our schools.
As our worlds have spun beyond our control (or, really, the illusion of control—we never actually had it), we have found ourselves in a state of deeper reliance on the Lord. In trying to manage tremendous amounts of stress, we’ve engaged more deeply with the spiritual disciplines, which have led us into a deeper understanding that God is Lord, and we are not. Given this realization, we take ourselves less seriously, and we’re more grateful when we realize we’re not promised tomorrow.
I believe all these trials are preparing us for a season of both tremendous challenge and unprecedented possibility for Christian education. Our ability to conduct Christian school is increasingly under fire from agendas of those who completely misunderstand our peculiarity, particularly with regard to the biblical sexual ethos, but other cultural and social issues, as well. The growing secularization of American culture threatens Christian schools’ continued economic viability and relevance in American culture, and our ability to continue as a prophetic voice.
At the same time, as standardized test scores among COVID-stricken public schools throughout the country dropped precipitously from 2019 to 2021, corresponding scores in many Christian schools that were able to stay open saw no decrease and, in many cases, increased across age levels and categories. In the wake of COVID, the agility and relative strength with which private and Christian schools responded to challenges like virtual learning and scenario planning have brought these schools into the limelight in a way they were not before. Special EANS funding for non-public education, expanded inquiry from the public into what’s actually happening in these schools, what are they doing right, has resulted in increased enrollment in many of these schools across the country, schools where enrollment declines had been the recent trend. Families who have learned they can work anywhere are moving across the country for the very reason that their children can attend Christian schools in communities they value. These phenomena are creating opportunities for our schools to directly influence our culture now, and to influence it indirectly by sending out a future generation of Christ followers who, given the current state of education, may simply be better educated and equipped than their peers, much like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego before them.
ACSI must be positioned and prepared to meet these challenges and opportunities by advancing the fiscal, cultural, and academic health of Christian schools through initiatives like the Flourishing School model and through relevant, supporting professional development programming. We should be creating greater accessibility to Christian schools, not only through advocating for and supporting school choice, but also through encouraging and equipping our schools to think more broadly about what their students ought to look like from an academically, culturally, and economically diverse standpoint. And, finally, ACSI needs to be prepared not just to promote school choice and gospel-rooted justice, but also to advocate for religious liberty and for Christian schooling in the U.S. and throughout the world, for the rights of our schools to exist and operate independently of government control (which we’ve seen a lot of this year). These are the right areas of focus, and they are the things ACSI is taking most seriously.
I’m excited for the changes I’ve seen at ACSI. When I first got on the board in 2015, schools were questioning the continuing relevance of our association. There was concern it was behind the times, out of touch, and ill-equipped to lead Christian schooling into the next decade and beyond. I’m grateful to see that Larry Taylor and his team have performed a significant turnaround in only a few short years. As a result of their efforts, and through a strong, well-executed strategic plan, ACSI is poised to be one of only a few institutions ready to lead the global Christian school movement through this season of challenge and potentiality.
Christ’s Church is the hope of the world, and healthy Christian schools are the hope of the Church. God has anointed us to lead our schools faithfully and well, and called our school communities to be His hands and feet for this time and place. I know He will use ACSI as a valuable resource to equip, encourage, and advocate for us and for Christ’s children for years to come.
About the Author
Jay Ferguson, JD, PhD, is the headmaster of Grace Community School, Tyler, Texas. He practiced law for 10 years and, in 2002, joined Grace as development director before assuming the headmaster role in 2003. He’s written extensively on Christian education and training children, including his weekly blog, JaysBlog. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.