The 2019 Global Christian School Leadership Summit (GCSLS) drew over 1,100 Christian education leaders from North America and across the world. Attendees were asked in the post-event survey, “What do you think is the number one priority that Christian schools need to tackle right away?” Their top response was enrollment and sustainability.
This finding is far from surprising. Market challenges to the Christian school sector have been felt and well-documented in recent years, such as the changing faith profile of parents, in which the number of self-identified Christians is shrinking, and the proliferation of school options like public charter schools and online academies (Barna and ACSI 2017). These trends are occurring against a much larger backdrop of societal transformation. For example, a confluence of changes—such as rapid technological innovation, shifts in family structure, growing secularism, and increasing the learning needs of students—have impacted schools of all types.
In Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory, Tod Bolsinger (2015) recounts the journey of Lewis and Clark through the Louisiana Purchase in these terms: “[They] were about to go off the map and into unchartered territory…What lay before them was nothing like what was behind them. There were no experts, no maps, no ‘best practices’ and no sure guides who could lead them safely and successfully” (27). Bolsinger makes the case that most challenges facing today’s organizations are similar, because they are “adaptive” in nature—meaning they “go beyond the technical solutions of resident experts or best practices, or even the organization’s current knowledge. They arise when the world around us has changed but we continue to live on the successes of the past” (19). These adaptive changes were well underway before COVID-19 disrupted the education sector, along with every other sphere of society around the world, in early 2020. Nonetheless, COVID-19 is likely to accelerate and deepen schools’ need to take significant steps toward rethinking and reimagining their financial models.
Ensuring the School’s Mission Continues Into the Future
The world in which the majority of Christian schools were founded—in the second half of the 20th century—no longer exists. The models on which Christian schools were built (tuition-driven, loyalty-based, brick-and-mortar) are often no longer suited to the market, cultural, and societal realities of today. But what is needed is far from a quick fix—more than tweaking a practice or process here or there. Paradoxically, for Christian education to be sustained into the future, the way Christian education looks and functions—the underlying models by which schools operate—must change. Sustainability is not finding a way to continue current practices into the future, as much as we might wish it. Rather, sustainability means ensuring the school’s mission continues into the future, which likely will require that schools look very different from the past or today.
Multiyear Research Project
ACSI has received grant funding to begin a new multiyear research project to identify and share data on promising financial models for Christian education. These adaptive financial models include things like new delivery systems enabled by technology, mergers and acquisitions, cost and resource sharing, entrepreneurship, boutique programs, school choice, wrap-around programs, church and community partnerships, and charter networks. There is much to learn from visiting and studying schools that are developing these models, including the process of transitioning to these models from a more traditional one. This is because schools will need as much imagination to figure out how to “get off the map” as they will to envision where they’ll go once off it. Thus it is essential to understand from outliers not just the what, but also the how, of developing and launching future-facing models.
Catalyst for Change
ACSI’s project, which will be co-published in 2021 with Cardus Education, will utilize proven case study protocols to study these outliers and will also host dialogues, engage external expertise, facilitate networking, sponsor experimentation, and disseminate findings. This research project is designed to be a successful catalyst for change that would not only increase the number of schools developing such models, but also connect them together so that insights, learning, and encouragement can be shared among them—with the goal of catalyzing the growth of sustainable financial models for Christian education.
Questions about this upcoming project? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barna Group and the Association of Christian Schools International. 2017. Multiple choice: How parents sort education options in a changing market. Colorado Springs, CO: ACSI; Ventura, CA: Barna Group.
Bolsinger, T. 2015. Canoeing the mountains: Christian leadership in unchartered territory. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
In Christ Communications. 2019. Landmark summit survey reveals encouraging signs for Christian school movement as leaders commit to innovate. 22 March 2019 press release.
About the Author
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 email@example.com.