When taking a road trip, the driver must first know a destination before he can embark on the journey. Without a clear route, he is sure to run into many detours that could have been avoidable had his sights been set on the destination from the beginning. These detours could result in additional travel time due to recalculating, possible danger, fewer hours to enjoy his destination, and a waste of gasoline and tread on his tires.
Just like a road trip, intentionally pursuing your school’s destination, or vision, involves planning the way you will progress through the journey mile by mile, year after year. Your school’s mission statement is the route you plan to travel while steadily pursuing the vision. Families choose Christian education for their children for many reasons, but one overarching reason is the shared beliefs and values. It is our responsibility as school leaders to be vision and mission minded in all our decision making to honor the integrity in which those families chose to partner with us in the building of their child’s spiritual and academic foundation. In our current culture that constantly promotes a secular worldview, along with the rapid rate of Christian schools closing each year, this pursuit of vision and mission fulfillment is perhaps more important than ever to the sustainability of Christian schools.
The Destination “Begin with the end in mind” was Dr. Stephen Covey’s second habit in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.1 Christian schools’ vision and mission statements are most often the very reason families choose to sacrifice for a Christian education. For this reason, the pursuit of a school’s vision and mission fulfillment is even more crucial and bears even more weight than any other.
Before a Christian school can set about on the road to success, a vision must first be created. Why does it exist, and where does it seek to be in the future? A vision statement is often synonymous with a purpose statement. With the end in mind, the road on which all decisions are made becomes a little straighter.
Shockley-Zalabak, Morreale, and Hackman identified four core purposes for vision statements that are certainly applicable to Christian schools.2 First, vision should motivate and inspire. Vision statements need to set the bar for optimum performance and goals within the school. Second, vision should push staff and faculty to action. Your staff and faculty should be bought into and invested in your school’s why in order to pursue the vision and foster an environment that encourages their involvement. Third, vision should operate on multiple levels. Vision statements need to be applicable to all levels and job functions within the school. Finally, vision statements should be short and to the point. Perhaps the most pivotal piece of creating a vision statement is that if staff and faculty have difficulty remembering the vision statement, then the vision does not exist within their practice. In order for successful vision and mission fulfillment to take place, all employees should have ownership of each.
The Journey The journey of pursuing vision fulfillment begins with the day-to-day practices and operations. Mission statements are typically longer in nature but are the practical, daily ways staff, faculty, and administration pursue fulfilling the vision in and out of the classroom. When hiring and retaining staff and faculty, leadership must seek individuals who desire to be mission fit and desire to put the mission into practice each day in whatever capacity they serve.
One of the biggest pieces, and one often forgotten in the consideration or assessment of vision and mission fulfillment, is the culture and climate that exists. Like vision and mission, culture and climate are often mistakenly used interchangeably. The culture of a school is the why of an organization. It is simply the personality of a school and the “unwritten mission statement.” 3 The climate is what the school does and can be referred to as the attitude of the school. 4 A school’s culture is directly shaped by the climate that exists within it. When considering this, intentionally fostering a healthy climate, as well as hiring and retaining mission minded employees, becomes even more essential.
The Detours A common misconception is that school leadership not only creates vision and mission, but it is also their sole responsibility to fulfill them. While leadership is certainly the most pivotal piece of successful vision and mission fulfillment, it takes all the passengers on the bus to safely journey towards the destination. A lack of vision and mission minded leadership, staff, and faculty will surely lead to detours that were never intended to be a part of the journey. These detours can negatively affect the school’s ability to effectively equip students academically and spiritually.
One of the most common detours is two-fold: an unhealthy climate and culture and a lack of effective leadership. “Cultures do not lead; leaders lead. If the culture is leading, the leader is only managing.” Too often, unhealthy climates have led to unhealthy cultures that have thrown schools off the path of their vision. Many times, unbalanced approaches to programs, unhealthy governing bodies, poor leadership, or lack of transparency have negative and long-lasting consequences. “A muddy vision or mission can help lead to continuing conflicts and a school that has difficulty identifying priorities.” 5 This lack of ability to prioritize shows the disconnect to vision and mission driven decision making, thus creating a circular pattern of repeated issues. This can lead to wasted resources and time and cause irreparable damage that has long lasting and possible permanent consequences. Leading researchers Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker went as far as to say, “If there is ever a conflict existent between mission and culture, culture will always win.” In many cases, this can be damaging to a school’s sustainability when left unaddressed for too long.
Recalculating So how do you recalculate your school’s vision, mission, and culture to either revamp or overhaul an outdated statement?
Implement effective leadership. Without effective leaders to create, cast, and chase the vision and mission, the culture of a school will follow and become ineffective to change. School leadership sets the tone and expectations for staff, faculty, and families. Marzano, Waters, and McNulty encourage “purposeful community.” 6 Within purposeful community, leadership involves other staff and faculty to create agreed upon goals and processes in order to reach those goals. Within purposeful communities, leaders know their employees on not just a professional level but a personal level as well. This allows them to see an individual’s strengths and utilize them in roles or tasks that highlight those strengths. With a purposeful community, everyone is striving towards vision and mission fulfillment all while positively impacting and changing the culture of the school.
Assess your school’s climate. Before you can change a culture, you must assess the climate. Gruenert said, “If the culture is ineffective, there are probably climate issues that were missed before they became rooted in the culture.” Without addressing the attitude of the school, the personality of the school will remain unchanged.
Be intentional. Good leaders are intentional in their decision making, in conflict resolution, and in the hiring and rehiring of mission fit and mission minded employees. Provide the resources your employees need in order to catch the vision and fulfill the mission. Approach conflict with the vision and mission as your roadmap to resolution.
Assess and create or recreate your school’s essential values and beliefs. Vision and mission statements should be based on your school’s core values and beliefs. Without these foundational pieces, your vision and mission statements may not resonate with stakeholders. Families are looking for educators to partner with them in not only the academic career of their child but also in their child’s spiritual growth and development.
Conclusion While there are many other dynamics that can affect successful vision and mission fulfillment, I firmly believe that most leaders need to begin with the assessment of the culture that resides within their building. When there is a climate that fosters the pursuit of vision and mission fulfillment, the culture becomes one of motivated and satisfied employees, institutional practices that positively affect student achievement, a haven for spiritual growth, gratified and involved families, and an opportunity to navigate conflict when the ending destination has already been identified. But regardless of the way vision and mission are unique to each Christian school, there is no doubt that the one commonality that exists between them all is more crucial than any other: furthering the advancement of the Kingdom. And in the end, what better final destination is there?
Dr. Allison Bearden is an assistant principal at Living Word Christian School in St. Peters, Missouri, and a product of K-12 Christian education. She has an EdD in Instructional Leadership with an emphasis in Andragogy, an MA in School Administration, and a BA in Elementary Education. Allison is also currently the district curriculum coordinator and previously taught in both elementary and middle school classrooms. She enjoys writing, reading, and trips to the beach to visit her family. She has a passion for fostering and adoption and is looking forward to seeing how God will use her as a newly licensed foster parent.
1. Covey, S. R., The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic (New York: Free Press, 2004).
2. Shockley-Zalabak, Morreale, & Hackman, Building the High-trust Organization: Strategies for Supporting Five Key Dimensions of Trust (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
3. Gruenert & Whitakerm, School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2015), 30, 31.
4. Gruenert, “School Culture, They Are Not the Same Thing,” Principal, March/April 2008, naesp.org/resources/2/Principal/2008/M-Ap56.pdf, 58.
5. Vision and Mission, (n.d.), Center for School Change, centerforschoolchange.org/publications/minnesota-charter-school-handbook/vision-and-mission.
6. Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, “Leadership that Sparks Learning,” Educational Leadership, April 2004, 61 (7), 48-51.