School administrators across the country are well into planning for the coming fall. Even as we look ahead, many of us, our staff, and our communities are tired. We are facing significant challenges with uncertain futures—whether related to COVID-19, persistent racial injustice and ongoing tension, concerns that are unique to our own localities, and in most cases, a combination of these and more. Many school leaders suddenly find themselves in a role they did not sign up for: the role of restorative leadership.
One of my favorite scriptures comes from 2 Kings 6. The relationship between Syria and Israel has deteriorated, and the King of Syria sends his army to destroy Dothan and kill Elisha. Early in the morning, Elisha’s servant wakes up to a city under siege. He cries out, “What shall we do!” Elisha responds, “’Do not be afraid, those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’” Elisha then prays that God would “‘please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (verses 16-17).
As with Elisha, we must now call our communities to see through eyes of faith for where and how God is at work for a promised future. Revitalizers operate in school communities that are dealing with significant crises or challenges which make the future uncertain. I have been blessed to lead three schools in the revitalization process. In my experiences I have made mistakes and learned many tough lessons. Yet, by the grace of God I have seen communities overcome challenging odds and come to life. Once stagnant or challenged communities can flourish and face a bright future. And most importantly, God will show up in remarkable ways.
As we plan for the 2022-23 school year, the current pandemic along with the events across our country these past weeks are stark reminders of the brokenness of mankind and the deep, significant challenges we are facing. There are no quick or easy solutions. Revitalizers know it takes small, little victories—accomplished with what you have on hand combined with faith in God’s power (Ephesians 3:20).
The following are six steps restorative leaders use to lead their communities forward:
1. Restore hope through vision.
Organizations are living things comprised of invested stakeholders. People are drawn to vibrant, living organizations and want to believe in the collective vision driving them forward. Rallying an organization around a shared vision is one of the most important tasks of a leader. Mission and vision are different. A mission statement articulates why an organization exists, and often remains unchanged for the lifespan of the organization. A vision statement articulates how the current members, who are stewards of a sacred trust, will accomplish the mission statement at a given point in time of the ministry’s existence. Vision enables leaders to prioritize tasks and accountability based on mission and strategic planning. A vision enables leaders to approach decisions and planning with “backwards design,” identifying desired outcomes and planning the necessary action steps. To take it one step further, a strategic plan identifies specifically what we will do to deliver the vision to stakeholders. Without vision, it becomes easy to get lost in the details, to become sidetracked, or lose focus on the strategic objective.
Strategic vision is always generated from an organization’s DNA. An organization’s DNA are those core values often established by the founders and flowing from the organizational mission. Leaders face the challenge to ensure actual behaviors reflect our aspired values or DNA. John Kotter refers to this as organizational alignment. Our DNA represents a passionate purpose flowing from the mission. Strategic vision ensures an organization’s mission relevance throughout changing times. “O Lord, please open their eyes that they may see”—as with Elisha, the work of restorative leadership is to call a community to “look up” and see what God is doing, and not to just focus on our earthly circumstances around us.
2. Listen and serve.
Take time to listen to faculty, students, parents, alumni, donors, and other key stakeholders and community members. By listening, you will gain deeper understanding of the school culture and areas of strength and weakness. In my experiences, I’ve found it important to seek out and meet with historic members of the community as well as former board members and other leaders. I have also prioritized listening to those who have been hurt by the community, as well as those who have grandiose dreams for the community. In doing so I have come to appreciate the unique story of the community—its goals, failures, and direction for future vision.
I have also intentionally sought to serve the members of my community. Serving others affirms their dignity and displays a leader’s humility and respect for community stakeholders. In listening and serving, trust is built and stakeholders are valued. Serving others takes place in simple ways: checking in on those who are hurting; assisting with a practical need like the setup or takedown of an event; offering to take a duty thus allowing staff to leave early to see family or rest; participating in a student-led club or class activity; and many other simple acts to shepherd the hearts of our people. Perhaps Andy Crouch (2016) summarized it best when he stated, “Leadership does not begin with title or position, it begins the moment you are more concerned about others’ flourishing than your own.”
3. Use the crisis to generate courage for change.
A stagnant community is the result of a resistance to change, and you can usually trace an organization’s failure to a lack of courage. The current system is perfectly designed to get the results it is currently getting. Restorative leadership calls for the senior administration and board to be united and have the courage to make the tough calls. And nothing catapults organizations into change management quicker than a crisis.
Seize the opportunity to let go and take action—let creativity and risk-taking loose; pilot new ideas and experiment with new models. Something in the old system failed, and innovation is needed to move into the future. At the same time, let go of programs and activities that are distracting from the mission and vision. These programs are often the sacred cows of individuals in an organization. It’s also time to let go of the lowest performers in your organization. Low performers can degrade your staff morale and rob families of the value proposition they were promised.
To foster innovation that leads to revitalization, reframe restraints and challenges as opportunities. Encourage openness to new ways of thinking, doing, and being together. Often the best ideas to revitalize a community are already present, represented in the fresh and new ideas of your faculty, staff, and students. Along these lines, build the team. Vibrant, healthy, and effective 21st-century Christian schools are marked by an ability to innovate and collaborate. Building an effective team requires shared vision, communication, and empowered team members. Focus less on individual kingdoms and more on the collective ideas and work that must be done to provide value to your customers. Shepherd team members to attain the richest expression of their God-given talents. Setting each team member free to utilize their talents to the fullest supercharges a team’s ability to deliver on mission.
4. Build culture.
Restorative leaders understand culture trumps strategic planning. Intentionally build the culture you want. A healthy culture is crafted and cultivated by leadership to create the fertile ground for strategic vision and planning to take root. As stated earlier, your culture should reflect your organization’s DNA.
Be aware of merging identities within the school and cultivate a culture of grace. Longstanding members of the community will have different expectations and measures of success than new members of the community. Differences in theology and political ideologies will exist. Embrace the diversity represented by school families. The concept of Imago Dei is based on the belief we are all created in the image of God (Genesis 1; Romans 8). It is critical to create a community that encompasses diversity on many levels and yet, at the same time, finds unity as all are members of the body of Christ. Diversity and unity co-exist; this is a hallmark of the Christian school community as we strive to know, better understand, love, and serve one another. A community is strengthened as we walk together in humility, brotherly love, and honor (Romans 12:10).
5. Plan to do what you can, and then leave room for a miracle.
I have learned an important and freeing principle of restorative leadership: people do not expect perfection overnight. They simply want to know they have been heard, the organization has a strategic plan, and progress is regularly being made and communicated. Usually aside from a vocal few, the majority of stakeholders are committed to the vision and simply want to see the organization is moving forward one step at a time in the right direction. Discern the low-hanging fruit in your organization and work with your team to deliver. As you implement these basic and less disruptive changes, the resulting credibility will enable you to push further. Communicate openly and regularly regarding the action steps you are taking and the reasons why other more complicated action steps may take more time.
Take a fresh look at and be ready to repurpose assets, both facilities and financial resources. Most organizations have stopped thinking about the way space is utilized and financial resources are allocated. Instead, we simply do what we did last year because that is how it has always been done. Reorganizing the use of space and dollars often signifies to an organization’s members that deeper strategizing and innovation is at work behind the scenes.
Even as you are faithful in the small things, always leave room for God to work a miracle. In my second school, we tackled low-hanging fruit and the resulting changes built momentum. And yet, every day my drive home took me by an abandoned elementary school and I would think how great it would be to acquire this space. The school was on three acres, comprised 18,000 square feet, and had been abandoned for over three years. While we implemented the smaller changes, we began to dream of utilizing this dilapidated space for a second campus—a reality far out of reach for our school. So the community began to pray. Doors began to open. After two years, the facility was acquired and over $1 million in renovations were completed (in a three-month period no less, which is a miracle story in itself). Today this campus houses over 250 early childhood students who are the future of the school.
In my current school, our admissions team set an internal target to see enrollment growth of 5% for 2020-21; this after over a decade of enrollment decline. Even as I write this blog, despite the pandemic, we have a chance of meeting this goal. While we are working hard, we recognize this would only be God’s exclamation point to the community in the midst of a challenging and most unusual year. (Will we make it? Check back with me in the fall!) In the meantime, our team is going to work tirelessly to this end and rest in the peace that God is in control and we will land where He desires us to be. I have come to expect that the miracle God has for your community will be what is necessary to break through the roof that is holding your ministry back from all God has to accomplish.
6. Cultivate joy.
Be intentional to celebrate victories together and the work God is doing in your school. Create time and platforms to gather as community and to dialogue. As a community of grace and joy, do not be afraid to engage in the difficult conversations. Transparency in leadership cultivates joy as issues are addressed and communities can collectively move forward. And remember that a biblical understanding of joy is not based on one’s circumstances. But rather joy results from Jesus Christ’s redemptive work in our lives. Romans 15:13 states, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
In closing, I encourage you to take time this summer to read the complete story in 2 Kings 6. Elisha and his servant not only survive the siege of Dothan, but the story takes amazing twists and turns with a result that surprises both the Syrians and the Israelites. In fact, it is a story only God could orchestrate. That is what God desires for your community as you take the role of the restorative leader during times of crisis and challenge.
Crouch, A. 2016. Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.
Note: This post was originally published in June 2020 and reposted in July 2022.
About the Author
Dan Steinfield was appointed head of school at Delaware County Christian School in July of 2019. Dan earned his BA in history and social studies from Messiah College and his MA in educational leadership and administration from Immaculata University and also is a 2016 Van Lunen Fellow. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.