On the morning of August 2, 2017, on my way to my first consulting job, my flight had just landed in Chicago when my assistant called to tell me about an incident that had just happened at Minnehaha Academy’s Upper School, where I am principal. With just a hint of panic in her voice, she explained how she thought there was a small explosion, some broken windows, a little smoke, and some kind of a crack or hole in the building. She sounded a little confused, but certainly did not make it sound like anything too major because people were evacuating and she did not mention injuries. I think she was in shock and could not see the extent of what happened. At this point I was still unsure of what I should do in that moment.
As I continued walking toward my connecting flight and tried reaching other Minnehaha senior leaders, many friends and family started texting and calling, asking if I was okay. My cell phone battery was dying, but I finally reached our executive director of finance and operations, who had been in the building, and he told me, “It is bad—it is very bad.” He described the severity of the damage and said that some people might be missing and that several were injured. I decided at that moment I needed to get back home, and while negotiating a return flight to Minneapolis and seeing live coverage of my school on CNN, I felt as helpless as a leader could. The last thing I did before boarding the plane was put a post on my Facebook page that simply read: Please pray for Minnehaha.
I was on our campus and at the scene about three hours after that first phone call, and that is when I realized that the trajectory of our institution, and certainly my role as a principal, was going to change significantly. I can only describe the scene as surreal, shocking, and sad, especially as we waited to hear any news about those who were still missing: our beloved custodian, John, and our school’s receptionist, Ruth. We learned within a couple of hours that both were killed in what later was determined to be a major natural gas explosion that occurred while a company was moving our gas meter.
Faith and Community
While everything was happening that day, however, I felt an incredible sense of strength, hope, and courage in our community. There was a type of faith and love that can only come from the deep roots of a Christian mission that has been at the core of Minnehaha for over 100 years.
In fact, as our board of trustees chair read from Ezekiel in an emergency board meeting a couple of days after the explosion, we realized we were walking in the valley of dry bones—but, we had a Father who would lift us up and breathe life into those bones. It was just going to take a little time.
Part of me was mourning and trying to be strong for people who needed me, but another part of me was thinking about the reality of what we were facing, and what we would possibly do to have a school year. We were originally scheduled to start school on August 23, but we had no building, furniture, curriculum materials, supplies, or anything else to run a school. We literally had nothing. Without knowing where we would be, or how we would do it, we knew we had to communicate some sort of plan to our community, so in faith we set a desired start date of September 5.
What ensued in the days and weeks that followed can only be described as a miracle. God was at work in our community because many people and organizations reached out to pray for us, offer their spaces or expertise, or volunteer in various ways. Many events happened simultaneously to offer care and support, bring people together, and answer questions about the future.
In the following weeks, we started by setting up teams to deal with communication, public relations, and media. We toured potential sites, connected with a construction company and architect, and brought on a parent volunteer as project manager for furniture and logistics. We then identified a building located in a neighboring community, Mendota Heights, and the city gave us confidence to begin planning and working to obtain a variance. The building underwent construction to retrofit it as a school, and 1,200 pieces of furniture were fitted into the space. Over Labor Day weekend, over 100 workers and volunteers helped to move in and set up.
We met our goal and opened the doors to a temporary school location at 8:30 a.m. on September 5, just 35 days after the explosion. We did not lose any enrolled students during that time and, most importantly, we were able to offer an incredible testimony of God’s strength, faithfulness, and favor. Our vision the entire time was to provide an exceptional learning environment for our students because we felt they deserved it. They lost their school. For the juniors and seniors who knew they would never return to the North campus, they showed great resilience, adaptability, flexibility, and leadership. They eventually realized that it is not the building that makes the school, but the people, the mission, and our core values that make the Minnehaha Academy experience uniquely special.
This summer we look forward to moving back to our old campus and into a beautiful new building that will foster 21st-century teaching and learning, provide flexible and unique spaces for people to connect, and shed light where there was once a powerful moment of darkness.
I have had the opportunity to present and share our story and speak about the leadership lessons learned on numerous occasions. I can tell you that frequent communication, sharing vision that provides hope and clarity, building a strong team, shifting from bureaucracy to empowerment and delegation, knowing our finances, and being aware of the needs of others were absolutely critical.
However, none of this would have been possible without God’s favor, nor the hope and assurances we have through our relationship with Jesus Christ. That is the ultimate good news, and our community is not only thriving, but showing that through faith and perseverance, together we are rising. God is good.
About the Author
Jason Wenschlag is a lifelong resident of Minneapolis and has been an educator for over 22 years, including 18 in public schools as a business teacher, coach, and administrator, and four years at Minnehaha Academy as the Upper school principal. Jason has degrees in business administration, business and marketing education, and education leadership, and is currently pursuing his doctorate in organizational leadership. He is also a principal and senior consultant with the Intevation Group, and a senior consultant with the Arbor Research Group. Jason can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.