Although churches and schools differ in many ways, both institutions benefit when their members feel a sense of belonging, support, and loyalty.
The reverend and I were at the coffee shop, sharing backgrounds and philosophies and getting to know each other. He didn't look like a reverend, at least not to my mind. He was fairly young, wearing jeans, a turtleneck sweater, and a ski vest. I wore my requisite tie and a sports coat. We were meeting at my request, not for spiritual guidance but because I was curious about how he went about creating a sense of community in his church.
I often drove by his church on Sunday mornings and was struck by the crowded parking lot. I've read about dwindling church attendance, but that wasn't the case there. Most of the parishioners I saw entering or leaving the church were young, often with small children in tow. "What's going on?" I wondered. So I invited the reverend to meet me over coffee.
I believe people work and learn best in a community. Sure, there are times for quiet contemplation, and many people need "alone time" for reflection. (I do.) But many significant problems are more likely to be solved when people come together and collaborate. Peter Senge is often quoted as saying, "Collaboration is vital to sustain what we call profound or really deep change, because without it, organizations are just overwhelmed by the forces of the status quo." We credit Jonas Salk with finding the cure for polio and Thomas Edison with inventing the light bulb, but they were part of research laboratories; even if they were the smartest person in the room, they were part of a learning community and gained from working with and learning from others. This is Roland Barth's idea of collegiality.
A community offers safety, comfort, and trust to its members. Each individual feels ownership of the organization and its mission. In a community, people are not merely consumers who use a service or employees who provide skills; rather, they belong to the organization and work to make it better.
In a place of worship, a sense of community leads to participation and members supporting one another. In a school, it results in everyone coming together to solve problems and to help one another grow. Although churches and schools differ in many ways, both institutions benefit when their members feel a sense of belonging, support, and loyalty. So although the reverend is concerned with liturgy and sermons and I'm focused on student achievement and faculty meetings, we're both thinking about how we can build a sense of community to make our institutions stronger.
"We want to be sure that people have a way to connect with us," the reverend told me. Services are offered at different times to make it easier for families to attend. The church is about to open a second site to accommodate larger numbers and to reach into another neighborhood. But the Sunday service is only one option for engaging members. Reading groups, a bowling league, parent get-togethers, and classes to learn new skills are all offered.
Space in which people can come together in a casual way is also important, he said. "The vestibules weren't big in churches built in the early 1900s," he said, "and it makes it harder for people to congregate. Churches being built today have far more space for this."
His comments caused me to think a lot about my school. It's in an old building, and I try to create places for people to come together and build relationships. In our front hall, there's a foyer with a couch, some big soft chairs, and a sign that says, "Parents, have a cup of coffee and linger with us." Whether or not parents actually stop for coffee, the message is clear. They often tell me that this is their school, too. I wonder what can be done to make our faculty lounge more inviting and what other spaces I could create to help the faculty feel a sense of community.
We don't have a faculty bowling league, but I've offered after-school classes in pottery and yoga for our teachers. I was part of the pottery class, and the discussions were fun and intense (and much better than my not-so-circular pot). We have summer faculty book groups, too, but we need not wait for summer. Maybe I'll find an article or two for a morning discussion group. I'm thinking about offering an after-school juggling class to staff members. That would certainly engender laughter and fun, important parts of community.
Most, I recognize that a sense of community won't develop without effort. The pace at which we all work makes it difficult to find time for the interaction that creates the relationships that lead to community. As one small but important step, then, I'm going to ensure that each meeting of a dozen or more begins with a few minutes for people to chat in small groups about their successes.
Sometimes it can be difficult for teachers who do wonderful things with their students to take the time to learn with and from their peers. Because I want them to understand my goal and work with me to achieve it, I'm going to ask the faculty what community-building efforts they'd like to see. Then next fall, I'm going to plan another coffee with the reverend so I can see what's working well for him.
Thomas R. Hoerr is head of school at the New City School, 5209 Waterman Ave., St. Louis, MO 63108. He is the author of The Art of School Leadership (ASCD, 2005) and School Leadership for the Future (NAIS Press, 2008).
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