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Easy as 1,2,3: the Church’s role in education

What does it mean to be a Christian School (or Church school) and is there a difference? Is it about an educational organisation based on values such as care and respect, or is it something more than that?

With more than 12 000 Queensland students and almost 2000 staff going through the gates of just the Uniting Church schools each year, this month Journey examines the ABCs of education.

IN MAY over 40 school board members, principals, chaplains and Synod representatives gathered to begin exploring the meaning and implications of being a church school.

Director of Pilgrim Learning Community Rev Dr Robert Bos challenged the group to consider whether there was a difference between producing “good citizens” or “followers of Jesus”.

He said that although there was overlap, “Christian values are based upon loyalty to Jesus Christ while social values (while influenced by our Christian heritage) are based on a vaguely defined societal consensus”.

According to a Queensland Synod Schools’ Commission document, “Each school is part of the Christian witness, mission and outreach of the Church to the community of which school and church are a part”.

Jim Haak, Spiritual Director of Calvary Christian College, said he found this statement challenging, but something he could wholeheartedly embrace.

“This statement forces me, as the Spiritual Director of a Uniting Church congregational (parish) based college, to reflectively attempt to answer a number of questions: Are we as a college reaching out to community in mission as genuine Christian witnesses? Are we fulfilling the great commission Jesus Christ set before his followers before he left this earth? Are we making disciples and teaching them to obey our Lord?”

Mr Haak said that if Christian schools were to make a serious attempt to establish Christian culture, the governing body of the school needed to ensure that the principal and teaching staff were committed Christians and willing and able to disciple students.

“Otherwise schools will evolve over time into secularised educational businesses domesticated by our surrounding capitalistic culture,” he said.

Executive Officer of the Queensland Synod Schools’ Commission Elaine Rae agreed that the leadership of the college, the governing body, the chaplain and the local and wider Church all played a key role in developing the Christian life of a school.

“While a school must maintain highly qualified practitioners if it is to retain credibility and meet parental expectations there needs to be a ‘critical mass’ of staff who can sincerely profess a Christian faith and further be capable of communicating that faith to others if a Christian culture is to be created and maintained,” she said.

Presbyterian and Methodist Schools Association (PMSA) chair Mr Des Robinson also agreed.

“The PMSA regards itself as an activity that is an extension of the mission of the church,” he said.

“Its objective is to expose our students to the Christian message and to demonstrate its relevance to life today.

“We do this by both conducting educational programs and by practical examples presented in the daily life in our schools.

“The later requires staff to understand Christian values, to uphold them and to demonstrate these in the daily relationships that are established with students, other staff and parents. This is required of all staff even though they may not be confirmed Christians.”

While many government run schools provide an excellent learning environment and are required to commit to values education, the autonomy afforded to Church owned or run schools enables that environment to be unashamedly Christian.

Executive Director of Catholic Education David Hutton said, “As Christian educators we have a challenging task in the current cultural milieu, but it is our vocation and ministry to bring the message of Jesus to our school communities.

“We need to recruit committed Christian educators and school board members and provide ongoing formation if we are to promote the reign of God in our schools.”

What all of these issues mean for Uniting Church schools is being explored by the Synod Schools Commission this year.

So what is the challenge for us as a Church?

Ms Rae urged Church members to take seriously our ministry with young people.

“So many hours between early childhood and adulthood are spent in a school environment … let us as a Church acknowledge the worth of this ministry area,” she said.