An Extraordinary Talent
For Christian School Administrator: A publication of the Association of Christian Schools International
Generalizations are like weather reports; useful, but not infallible. It is generally true that the sun shines in Colorado, but during my latest round of golf the predicted sunshine gave way to angry, gray skies, nasty lightening and rather large rain drops. Strike one for Accu Weather.
As dangerous as it can be to generalize, however, there are good reasons that we do, and a fair amount of evidence to suggest that we are right most of the time. In his intriguing book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explains why that is the case. He writes, “The part of our brain that leaps to conclusions . . . is called the adaptive unconscious. . . . a kind of giant computer that quickly and quietly processes a lot of the data we need in order to keep functioning as human beings.”
In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary we are usually safe in making on-the-spot decisions. That is true unless there are hidden biases or information gaps which are likely to distort our thinking and lead to poor decisions.
With that said I’m going to offer a generalization. I do so knowing that I bring certain personal experiences and biases to the table. I do so, however, believing that in this case my generalization is accurate. I will offer my generalization in the form of a brief story.
The members of [Pastor] Robinson’s congregation knew each other wonderfully well, but when it came to the outside world they could sometimes run into trouble. They were too focused on their own inner lives to appreciate the subtleties of character that might have alerted them to the true motives of those who did not share in their beliefs. Time and again during their preparations [for construction of their new facility},[they] demonstrated an extraordinary talent for getting duped.
Actually those aren’t my words. With the exception of the marked words, this is a direct quote from Nathaniel Philbrick’s masterful account of the Pilgrim’s and the founding of Plymouth colony. That these were good and godly people Philbrick makes clear. That they were naïve and fundamentally ill-equipped for the task of colony-making is also equally apparent.
I find it interesting that Philbrick inadvertently makes the case for God’s sovereign intervention in the affairs of the Pilgrims. Their survival was certainly not a result of wise planning and effective implementation. It was either dumb luck or God’s deliberate intervention. Since my theology doesn’t accept dumb luck as a causative power in the universe I’m left with God.
Sadly, it doesn’t seem that much has changed in the intervening 400 years. So here is my generalization. Christian organizations often assume that godly intentions are a sufficient basis for making difficult decisions. And there are enough instances of dumb luck (which we know doesn’t exist) or God’s intervention to reinforce this faulty view of how God’s sovereign hand and our personal responsibility interact.
In this limited space I can’t introduce and adequately explore the basis for a biblical theology of organizational decision-making. I must, however, make the following four points:
As beings created in the image of God we have a responsibility to represent Him accurately in and to the world. Since God doesn’t make reactive, uniformed decisions neither should we.
Wise stewardship; of God-given resources is a fundamental obligation of leadership.
We have been given not only the obligation for wise decision-making, but the capacity as well.
God never calls us to an obligation for which He does not provide adequate resources. If we don’t have the resources to fulfill our mission with excellence then one of two things is probably true. One, we’ve not managed our resources well. Two, we’ve been pursuing our own agenda.
So, how can we maximize our God-given resources in pursuit of our God-given mission? Here are three brief thoughts:
Admit you don’t know what you don’t know
Accept that one size doesn’t fit all
Avoid the painful experience of pay me now or pay me later
ADMIT YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
I learned a lot during my graduate studies in administration and supervision. Much of what I learned actually proved to be useful. What I didn’t learn was how to run a business; and like it or not Christian schools are businesses. Understanding educational philosophy, curriculum design, instructional strategies and teacher supervision are essential, they just aren’t enough.
Consider the following leadership obligations:
Staffing (recruitment, retention and development)
Land acquisition and development
That is the short list. I’ve yet to meet an individual who possesses the experience, insight, and skills necessary to perform, with excellence, all of the tasks required by that list. I doubt I ever will. No one is wired to think well about all of those critical components of running a school. Yet if you don’t make wise decisions in all of those areas you put your school at risk. What should a wise administrator do?
Some larger schools have staff dedicated for one or more of those responsibilities. Unfortunately those staff members are not always well-equipped or truly gifted (see point three). And ill-equipped, under-gifted staff are usually a greater problem than no staff. In most cases a school simply does not possess the resources necessary to staff for all of those areas.
When that is true you need to consider outsourcing. Unless, for example, you have a degree and many years experience in engineering or land development then you should outsource that responsibility to someone else when you are considering the purchase of land for the purpose of expansion.
Find the best, most experienced, most well respected person in your community. Don’t look for connections to someone on the board or staff. Find the best. If that person happens to be connected to someone in your school great, but don’t make that a pre-requisite. If you don’t you’ll likely end up violating point three. Please take my suggestion seriously. I’ve seen too many schools and ministries get into serious trouble because they didn’t understand what they didn’t understand.
ACCEPT THAT ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL
Often when faced with solving a problem for which he or she is not qualified a school administrator will turn to friends or choose to attend a workshop or purchase a manual or book. All of those options make sense. They just aren’t, in and of themselves, sufficient. You’ve got to distinguish between core principles and practical application.
There are certain core principles that will apply in almost any situation. But each situation is different and how and when a principle is to be applied will vary, sometimes greatly from place to place. Let me offer one illustration.
I’m often asked by school leaders to help them with student recruitment. Invariably they will show me what they’ve done in the past. This is good because it helps me context their situation. Then, inevitably they will show me the notes from the latest workshop they have attended; something entitled, Student Recruitment Made Easy. By the way, whenever I see the word, Easy, in any title I grow wary.
Typically there are things of value in the workshop. What is missing is the context. What’s the history of the school? What is happening in the community? Does the school have strong support from area churches or does it have a weak reputation? Are there other Christian or private schools in the immediate area. What is the reputation of the local public schools? Is this a suburban, urban or rural area? Is it growing or regressing? What drives the economy? I could go on and on but hopefully you get the idea.
Now we have to discuss the principles of marketing. What works; what doesn’t work; and why? It’s never been as simple as deciding whether to develop a web page or do direct mail, but in today’s environment, as you well know, the challenges have multiplied remarkably.
Again this is just a single illustration. We could look at any of the responsibilities I listed earlier and make the same observation. Each school is a distinct creation of God. God delights in creation. He does not clone. Learn what you can from others, but then figure out how, or even if, it fits your own context.
AVOID THE PAINFUL EXPERIENCE OF “YOU ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR”
I’ve often remarked that Christian school administrators can turn a dime into a dollar better than almost anyone. I mean that as a compliment. Most administrators manage their budgets well. But in doing that we often approach other people with the idea of turning a dollar into a dime and that is seldom a good idea for two very good reasons.
If you are successful in getting people to make major concessions on proposals for goods or services you will likely get inferior goods or services. If they are able to offer significant discounts on original bids then what they were selling was over priced. You don’t want to do business with people who intentionally over price their product. That is an integrity issue. If it wasn’t over priced and you still get a large decrease then that person is probably inept. That is an ability issue. You don’t want to do business to people who are character or competence challenged.
The second issue is equally important. Business owners, even those who support what you do don’t like being strong armed or made to feel guilty for simply trying to be good business people. I have a dear friend who owns a large, successful construction firm. He has often expressed how much he dislikes working with ministries; churches and Christian schools. He simply doesn’t like working with people who want something for nothing.
The fact is he is an extremely generous man who often gives significant gifts to ministries. I can guarantee you, however, that he is unlikely to give to ministries that try to nickel and dime him in the bid process. And please hear me on this: He is not the exception. I’ve yet to talk to anyone who does business with ministries who hasn’t expressed similar sentiments.
When you must purchase goods or services you will best serve the long term interests of your school if you buy quality. There is nothing wrong with a good negotiation process. But don’t buy poor quality or expect a business to deliver for less than it costs them to operate and make a reasonable profit. Believe me you will benefit n the long run from both a quality product and the good will you generate when you treat vendors in an honorable way.
If the Pilgrims had better understood our Lord’s admonition to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves” their experiences in the New World might have been a bit less traumatic. The same could be said of many churches and schools. I’ve seen the unfortunate consequences when ministry leaders fail to acknowledge the three points I’ve introduced in this article.
Once you assumed leadership in your school you accepted the obligation to be both wise as serpents and harmless as doves. We get the harmless as doves part right much of the time. We’ve got to get that wise as serpents part as well or we will likely be duped again.