Thank God for Educators and Schools!

Summer schedules are changing for a lot of people this coming week. It’s already begun for educators who are already back at school having team meetings, professional development days and school or district wide pep rallies of sorts. On top of that I am sure that many educators are sorting through the previous year’s supplies and spending more than a little extra money to get new materials so that their classrooms will be in tiptop shape.

Children, youth, young adults, and others are also feeling the change from summertime schedules. Cindy is in her 28th year of education, and comes from a family of educators. She has been easing back into getting up early and switching gears. This week she’s up at 5 a.m. and next week it will be 4 a.m. It takes a herculean effort for teachers, parents and students to make the adjustment. I especially think of those first-time college students whose parental alarm clocks will be replaced by digital ones, and I pray for those parents who are first-time empty-nesters as they send their children off to college. They’re probably the only parents who aren’t rejoicing that school is about to begin.

At church we have the Blessing of Backpacks this Sunday and will give out very nice identification tags that include a space for the owner’s name and also has the name and logo of the church. It’s an even better idea to let others know your identity as a Christian. Of course, that means that there are certain standards and expectations, but, best of all, I hope these tags remind students and teachers alike that there is a God who is always present and hears every prayer before a test.

In my mind, a new school year provides a literal clean slate, a fresh start: new teachers, new friends, new opportunities, and new challenges. Frankly, I am now convinced there is no such a thing as a clean slate. Every one of us brings knowledge and experiences forward from either our families of origin or previous classroom experiences. Our educational system is built upon those previous encounters, interactions, and building blocks of learning. We might have new surroundings, classmates or students, but we are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Our whole society rests on the bedrock of our civilization’s foundations when we promote education.

British historian Arnold Toynbee said that over the last 5,500 years there have been at least 30 different civilizations across the world, and 25 of them have collapsed. He said that the fallen civilizations weren’t destroyed by invading armies but by self-implosion. He put it this way, “Civilizations are not murdered. They commit suicide.” Toynbee summed up the stressors that cause such self-immolation in this way: “The number one cause of the fall of civilization is a loss of purpose. When a civilization’s leaders and their institutions lose their sense of purpose, they lose the energy to grapple with all the challenges to the commonweal. If leaders and institutions have no guiding North Star, no sense of cultural mission, they are reduced to currying favor with power or to satisfying the impulses of the masses. If the choice is to exist merely at the pleasure of power on the one hand, or of people’s whims on the other, then leaders and institutions begin to embrace a fatal nihilism.”

If our educational system doesn’t promote purpose then our whole culture is fated for destruction. Of course, it takes compliant students and supportive parents and communities to get it done. Teachers aren’t doling out facts as much as they are instructing students about life and how to be good people who make wise decisions.

Toynbee’s words are so true and frighteningly accurate: “We are only one generation from barbarism.” If teachers, parents, clergy, and the rest of society’s leaders fail to adequately communicate and transmit decent values then our culture is doomed and nihilism’s depressing grip creates an insurmountable death throe: living without purpose. If we want better lives, then our daily choices matter. We can try to turn the ship of state around through legislation and mandated educational benchmarks, but none of this takes the place of good old fashioned responsibility. Parents can’t pawn their children off to educators and expect them to undo parental mistakes or make up for a lack of adequate preparation.

Each of us must begin with our own personal responsibility and investment in community. New school years and weekly worship are two of the most effective ways to get our lives in order. When we go to church and start a new school year we are building on society’s best role models, heroes, pioneers, and paragons of moral virtue. Our society is only as good as our institutions.

We live in an anti-institutional age and that may very well be our culture’s downfall, but the start of every school year gives me hope for the future. So, I want to say thank you to all educators for their personal sacrifices that preserve our culture, and I pledge to pray for you because the stakes are so high. If this country or any culture desires to survive we must value those who carry the most responsibility. Too many in helping professions are underpaid, and you certainly are. None of us would know a thing if it weren’t for a teacher! God bless you! Thank you!

 Book Bag Tag

Waiting for Superman

We had our annual Cabinet Retreat this past week. One night we watched the movie “Waiting for Superman.” It was powerful, sad, riveting, and more. It’s about the school systems in the US and how and why they’re under performing though we’re spending more than ever on public education. As I was watching the movie I couldn’t help but see parallels to the United Methodist Church. Everyone should watch this movie because you might see or experience something very different than me. Do it now! The copy we watched was purchased at Target. I bet it’s online, too!

The gist is that educator Geoffrey Canada (whose brother Dan is a leader in the Columbia District UMC) is a critic of failing public schools. The litany of reasons is long but he targets flunky teachers who get transferred around to different schools in a “turkey trot,” teacher’s unions and tenure systems that don’t reward results, school districts and education silos with their big buildings that are out of touch with what works with real students and their families and are only out to justify and prop up their own existence. I could go on and on. I know the movie offers a simplistic answer: charter schools with excellent teachers and high motivation by all. The sad part is that the only way to get into the few charter schools that are already pretty much full is by lottery. Leaving our children’s future up to chance in a lottery is a shame and disgrace!

There is no way that fixing our schools by charter schools and lottery can be done so easily. In South Carolina education is woefully underfunded and there are no tenured teachers or teacher’s union to blame. School facilities vary from county to county because of school district independence and separate coffers, and a major reason for the lack of money isn’t the big manufacturing plants who pay taxes but the suburbanites who are old or rich enough to send their kids and grand kids to whatever school they want. Their mantra is that they have already paid taxes long enough and it’s time for somebody else to do it. The crime of poorly paid teachers and inadequately taught pupils isn’t their problem, but they’re living in a dream world that will be shattered when their grandchild ends up marrying someone from a failing school or has to go to such a school themselves, or a teenage truant from a school dubbed a “dropout factory” breaks into their home. Then their eyes will open. Yes, the whole situation is more complex than what I’ve written, but this is at least part of the truth.

We all know real life examples. We know that there has been a Nobel Prize winner from the Williamsburg County Schools, one of the poorest school systems in SC. We know that there are bright and exceptional kids in every school, and pray for them to be successful. We know that brave leadership from parents, teachers, administrators, and communities is hugely important. Don’t forget about churches either. There’s a school district in the Columbia District that has been failing. There has been a socioeconomic divide for decades in that town that literally split Main Street into haves and have-nots. The haves built a fine private school. The public school was mostly populated by the have-nots with meager resources. The school district in this poor county was put on probation, lost its accreditation, and was under court-ordered review and investigation. Enter the leadership of key individuals who said, “If I’m going to live here, I want to make a difference;” who said, “If I’m going to live here, everybody will receive a quality education.”

When we’re faced with the reality that Superman isn’t going to come, and that there are no superheroes, then we all become Superwomen or Supermen if we so choose. The newly elected head of the school board  in this poor county did his own heroics and inspired everyone else’s heroics and now the school system is once again accredited. This guy (who recently graduated from the Columbia District’s Lay Empowerment Program called “LeadershipNext”) did what came next in his mind as both a Christian and as a civic leader. He is living the UM mission statement that God doesn’t save us through Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but transforms us so that we can transform the world. I am so proud of this fine United Methodist layperson!

Now what did the film “Waiting for Superman” make me ponder about the UMC? Well, the similarities abound as I hope you’ve already digested in this commentary. I know, for instance, that the layperson who has taken leadership and turned around a failing school district is inspired by an effective pastor. There is no substitute for good leadership in the UMC. We can have every fix-it program in the world but nothing will happen unless we have laypersons and clergy who exhibit leadership! I appreciate guaranteed appointments when they allow pastors to be prophetic leaders who can speak freely from their pulpits without worrying that they might get “fired.”  Such appointments also offer a safeguard for women and minorities who could otherwise be shortchanged by congregations who only desire white male pastors.  Still, this movie has me wonder if guaranteed appointments don’t also turn out to be United Methodism’s version of tenure, teachers’ unions, and the “turkey trot” where under-performing clergy are transferred from one church to another – all of which breeds mediocrity. United Methodist Churches have become dropout factories because lay leadership is uninspired and self-centered and the quality of preaching, pastoring, and leading by preachers is lacking. We have lost our relevancy because we accept the status quo. No more!

Now the UMC has a Call to Action with data that says what we should do, stuff we’ve known all along but haven’t been doing. I admit that I have been critical of the Call to Action report’s  use of metrics. We all know places where metrics, a fancy word for statistics, is incapable of measuring where the Holy Spirit’s wind has been blowing. Nevertheless, I must admit that if you don’t have a target there’s a 100% chance that you’ll miss. Churches and clergy hope that their next pastor or appointment will be their version of hitting the lottery and winding up with a good education, a ticket to a better future. That’s too chancy and I can count on half a hand the number of good preachers my home church has had in its entire history!

We have to do something now about our decline. Maybe metrics will help all of our churches become magnet or charter churches where people will find excellence. We don’t choose metrics simply because we’ve bought into some  hip business or educational model. Rather, the spiritual underpinning is very Wesleyan: sanctification. The reason we measure everything is that we believe in fruitfulness. We believe that if Jesus is real in some one’s life it will produce something, so we measure everything to see if that’s the case. The UMC rolled out yesterday, July 15, its website. Wow! There’s a ton of stuff here that can help a local church measure up in vitality. The five areas are average weekly worship attendance, professions of faith, number of small groups, amount of money given to mission, and number of people involved in mission outreach. In SC we’re going to introduce this at charge conferences and invite people to come to a District Celebration in March 2012 to announce their results and make their plans for the next four years as a tangible gift to General Conference 2012. In reality it’s a gift to the local church and its people!

As a denomination we are not silo congregationalists. We’re not private schools. We believe there’s no such thing as private religion. We have religion of the heart and life – no holiness that isn’t both personal and social. We belong to a Connection that believes, “Together We Can Do More!” We are and want to be a better Charter or Magnet church drawing all people to Christ. We’re not waiting for Superman or Superwoman. No need to. We’re either the hero or villain in this story. I pray we are the hero.