This is one of our last installments on Incarnational ministry. If you have not yet read some of our thoughts on incarnational ministry I would encourage you to go back and see our last few posts; Jesus came to us, Fishing for students, 5 things you can count on if you choose incarnational ministry. They will help get you up to speed before you read on.
A few years back we decided to begin a relationship with the school in our township. So I called the middle school and made an appointment to speak with the principal. The day of our appointment, one of our middle school leaders and I were ushered into a conference room. Then a middle school entourage came in; the principal, followed by both vice principals, three guidance counselors and finally two interns. They all sat down, pens and notepads in hand ready to write. Then the principal looked at me and motioned with her hand as if to say “you called this meeting, it’s your agenda, so get started”. The school staff was tense, they looked as if they were bracing for what I was about to say.
Prior to our meeting, as we brainstormed out our agenda, it became obvious that the best agenda would be not to have an agenda. We listened to the advice of Reggie McNeal who we heard say “just ask ‘How can we help?’ “.
So I started the meeting by saying “We are here today because we care about students, and we know you care about the same students, so how can we help? How can we help you care about students here in the middle school?” There was a huge sigh of relief, all the school staff smiled and their posture relaxed. The tension in the room was gone.
Since that first meeting we have been building a healthy relationship with our local school. Just like any other relationship it takes time; trust is built slowly. However, today when I walk into the school I am greeted and treated as an ally. The staff is glad to see me and I am excited to be at the school.
From my experiences working with schools here in Ohio and in Pennsylvania, I have found there are a few simple ways to begin to make an impact in the local school.
- Make your agenda Service. Too often the church takes an antagonistic posture towards the school. We go to the school with an agenda and an attitude which says “this is what we want from you”. Instead we should approach the school with a humble heart that seeks to serve them and says “how can we help?”. When we ask to help we might not get answers we expect. Be prepared to hear things like “clean the parking lot, run the snack bar or chaperone a dance” and then be willing to help. There’s no point in asking if you are not willing to do what they ask. Also, the school might respond with “nothing right now”. That’s ok if that happens, remember, trust is built slowly.
- Take Initiative and Volunteer. After letting the school know you are willing to help, the next step is to take initiative and volunteer. The truth is that if you are always waiting for the school to call you, then you will always be waiting. Generally the school is not going to call, at least not for the first few years. So take initiative and volunteer to help with school events. They are always looking for help. In the last 6 months I have helped with three middle school events; a dance, a Halloween party and a dodgeball tournament. To do this, find out which parent organization or teacher committee plans events and contact them. Before you make that call, look in the mirror and remind yourself that your only agenda is to serve.
- Seek to Encourage. The school staff pour themselves into students each day. The demands placed upon them are difficult in some cases and in others overwhelming. Who is pouring into and encouraging the staff? No one. Principals, guidance counselors, teachers and administrators rarely hear affirming words. So I would suggest that you find ways to encourage, affirm and build them up. Last fall I bought $5 Starbuck gift cards for all the office staff at the middle school. I hand wrote personalized notes of encouragement and gave the gift cards with the notes to the staff. It cost me about $100 and four hours of time. A caution here: make sure you are not encouraging to make yourself look good, but simply because you care about the school staff.