One of the major challenges facing the Christian school movement is the wave of Baby Boomer school leaders who will retire within the next few years, and the Gen-X and Millennial leaders who will need to take their places. “Finishing well” is an important emphasis in Scripture (Philippians 1:6, 3:14; Galatians 6:9; Hebrews 12:1), and there are steps that near-retirement leaders can take to prepare their school for a positive transition in leadership.
Along those lines, I interviewed a recently retired head of school about her insights and what it means to “finish well” as a Christian school leader. Barbara Williams recently retired from Lehigh Christian Academy, a K–8 school in Pennsylvania. She was hired in 1981 as an elementary teacher by the founding head of school, who later mentored her as she became the assistant principal and then succeeded him as head of school in 1989.
LS: How and when did you start thinking about “finishing well”?
BW: I was there 34 years, so in many ways that school was my baby. I had developed the programs, I had developed so much in that school and seen it grow from a very small school to a good thriving school. But as you get older you suddenly start thinking about going on to something else eventually, and whether the mission of the school is going to be in good hands. I started thinking about it about ten years before I actually retired. I looked ahead and thought, “You know what? I’m not going to be able to be here forever.” And being as committed as I was to the mission of our school, I knew that for the mission to keep going, someone was going to have to succeed me. I always said to God, “I want You to make me aware of the right time. Just make it clear to me when is it time for me to hand over the reins.” Some people see it as a threat and don’t want to give it up. I didn’t want to be like that. I wanted to be open to God showing me the time. Eighteen months before I actually retired, it was a snow day, and I was at home in my quiet time before the Lord. That was when I realized the time was right.
LS: How did you go about identifying a possible head of school successor?
BW: You can go external or internal. Because I was mentored internally, I was predisposed to that. I thought back to the founder and former head of school and how he talked to me and identified me and brought me along. I remember him talking to me over and over again about the mission, and staying true to the mission. I looked back at the example of Christ, who chose people out to come close to Him, to develop them as leaders. I literally just started thinking and praying about the faculty that I had. One person came to mind immediately. She was a graduate of our school, had kids in our school, and was teaching in our school. I knew she believed in our mission, what we were all about, and could articulate it. I started saying, “Lord, what can I do?” I started by giving her leadership roles to see how it would go. I started praying and giving her opportunities to lead. She was a teacher in the middle school, and she got a head teacher position, so she basically ran the middle school for the next five years.
LS: What were the specific qualities you were seeking in a future school leader?
BW: I was looking for someone who was a learner, who was always striving to be better at what they were doing, who sought out the best educational practices. And they have to work well with other people. You watch them as they interact with their peers, with other people in the organization, and how they handle conflict. Of course, someone who is committed to the Lord and the mission. And who has the ability to be a self-starter and is willing to take responsibility for things. It has to be that kind of personality that isn’t afraid to take a stand and lead.
LS: How did you approach her about being mentored?
BW: First I told her to pray about it. She was reluctant at first, just like I had been. She came back and said she thought she’d like to go into Christian school leadership. She and I had a conversation where I said, “I want you to think about this: that if God is calling you to leadership here or someplace else, you’ve got to be convinced that God is calling you to this because it’s not easy.” Soon afterward she entered a principal certificate program, so she committed to the credential part of it, which I think is important.
LS: How did you go about mentoring her?
BW: Part of her program required a formal mentor for her internship. So, it became formal and official. I gave her the curriculum to review and she redid a lot of things. She started PLCs [professional learning communities], and through the two years of that program I gave her more and more. During that time, I also brought her into difficult situations and gave her the opportunity to think through and work through things. The last year of her program we hired her full-time as an administrator, doing curriculum work. She ran all of the faculty meetings and PD that year, with my help. The last 18–24 months I just gradually put her out there, out front, to get used to leading the staff. She sat in on all of my parent meetings, and became part of the administrative team.
LS: What did things look like from the school board side?
BW: The board didn’t know an official date of retirement, but they knew I was mentoring a successor. I took the chairman of the board into confidence almost from beginning when I identified her, and I said I am trying to encourage her into leadership whether at our school or not, because she has the gift and passion. Eighteen months out from my retirement, I went to the board and gave them the date. Then I went through a head of school succession planning process with them. We identified the needs of the school, and what that person would look like and what qualities we were looking for in the next school leader. We went through the strategic initiatives, and discussed what the next five to ten years would look like. The school board and I worked on succession planning for six months before we announced that I was leaving.
LS: What did you and the board learn about succession planning from that process?
BW: The big thing is you can’t wait until you’re six months away from retirement. You want to put your school in a position to move forward should anything happen—should God call the head of school away, or they get sick, or retire, or should they decide to move on. There has to be a process in place. The succession plan should consider the school’s strategic initiatives and where you want the school to be. I talk with Christian schools all the time that are looking for a new leader to replace someone who is just about to leave, and they think they are in a good position because they are doing a search. But you’re missing the point of what you should be doing ahead of time. Because if you do a search, someone could sound really good, but you haven’t figured out what skill set is needed to move the school forward. Really, 18 months to two years before the leader steps down is ideal. There’s a lot of aging leadership in the Christian school movement. There are a lot of people getting to that point who should be thinking about this process. You don’t want the mission to die. You don’t want things to fall apart.
LS: What did the hiring process for your successor look like?
I was open to it being the future leader I was training, or to someone coming in from the outside. I wanted to let God take care of who would be selected. I was trying to encourage her into leadership, whether at our school or not, because she had the gift and the passion. She knew that she was being trained for leadership and that it didn’t mean that it was necessarily at our school. She went through the formal process to apply for the position, including all of the interviews with the different constituents. The school board also pursued an external search and interviewed several people. It came down to two people, and she was chosen.
LS: So you officially retired in 2016, but you continued your mentoring relationship this past year. What did that look like?
BW: We had regular meetings and met twice a month. She kept a notebook, and we’d go through her goals for the next year. She had my cell phone number, and I always took her calls. She would call or text probably three to four times per week in the beginning. That was part of what I learned to do, to always be available. A new leader can benefit greatly having a mentor to talk to, to ask advice of, and to have someone affirm you and say, “Yes, go for it. You’re doing exactly the right thing.” It helps give you confidence. I’m sure the advice needed will be less and less as time goes on.
LS: What advice would you have for heads of Christian schools who are approaching retirement?
BW: I would say to them, if at all possible, give your school time to go through a succession process with you. Because I think time is essential. Even if they think they’re ten years away from retirement, they need to be thinking through what that process looks like and how they and the school are going to prepare for it. If the leader is there for quite a while, and then they hire someone quickly, they could be gone in one or two years because they haven’t thought through what the school really needs. So, find out about succession planning and plan for it.
LS: Why do you think succession planning isn’t as common as it could be in Christian schools?
BW: I think a lot of people get nervous or worried or scared about succession planning. They feel threatened somehow, that “if I do this, then they’re going to replace me.” It’s almost like making a will. That’s not the way to look at it. The way to look at it is investing in other people and helping other people grow, whether that’s teacher-leaders in the classroom or someone who takes their place. If you’re a leader, you always need to be thinking ahead to who’s going to be behind you. It’s important for us to understand that we need to do whatever we can to help those who come after us, whether it’s to be the next leader at the school or the best teacher they can be, because teachers are leaders. So you’re developing that leadership in the classroom. If you recognize someone has gifts of leadership, whether it’s going to be at your school or not, you need to help develop that. That’s what somebody did for me, and I wanted to pass that along to somebody else.
LS: What are the risks of not finishing well?
BW: Without a strong leader, the people and the school will perish. Without a leader, the vision dies. I’ve seen it too often that without the school thinking through what are the qualities of a good leader, what are the qualities that our school in particular needs, then the school loses its identify. And I’ve seen schools close because they can’t keep it going. I fear for the mission of our Christian schools if we don’t invest in a younger generation. They always say Christianity is one generation from extinction. Christian schools are one generation away from having the type of leader who will not be invested in the mission and vision and not continue to exist as they have in the past. It takes planning to finish well. You can’t just say, “God will provide.” Well, yes, God will provide, but He also wants us to plan and to understand what we’re all about. I think we’re at a crossroads in the Christian school movement. I think we’ve got to invest in the younger generation. We’ve got to invest in leadership, because leadership is crucial to the future of our schools and their success.
[Editor’s Note: Next week’s blog post, “Beginning Well,” considers succession planning from the perspective of the incoming school leader.]
About the Authors
Barbara Williams has served in Christian school education for more than 34 years. She taught in the classroom for 8 years at two different schools, then served in administration as principal and then head of school for 28 years. In addition to her work as a school administrator, Barbara has been active as an educational leader. She frequently presents at educators’ conventions and served as secretary, vice president, and president of the Mid Atlantic Christian Schools Association. She also was honored as the Primary Administrator of the Year for 2016 by the Pennsylvania Association of the Council for American Private Education (CAPE). In past years Barbara has served on the ACSI National Accreditation Commission and on the Middle States Advisory Committee. She currently serves on the ACSI Northeast Regional Accreditation Commission. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.
Dr. Lynn Swaner is the Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer at ACSI, where she leads initiatives and develops strategies to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Prior to joining ACSI she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. Dr. Swaner serves as a Cardus Senior Fellow and is the lead editor of the books MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, co-author of Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, and editor of the ACSI blog. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.