When the Parish and School Don’t Seem to be on the Same Page

By Dr. Michael Ashton, Superintendent of Catholic Schools

Pastor: “Why aren’t the families at my Catholic school sitting in the pews on Sunday?”

Principal: “Why aren’t the families sitting in the pews on Sunday attending our school?”

Pastor: “I wish the principal would promote parish life more.”

Principal: “I wish the pastor would promote Catholic education more.”

We know from experience that the blame game and finger pointing never bears any lasting fruit. So how can school and parish leadership really work together to fill the pews AND the classrooms, thus both rejoicing in the bountiful harvest more and more families encountering Jesus and growing in discipleship? As Fr. Pat McLaughlin said in a recent interview with the Norfolk Daily News, “I consider Catholic schools an important apostolate of the parish — it never should be thought of as separate from the parish.”

It all starts with regular conversation between parish leadership and school leadership. While there’s no doubt there are many meetings already happening between the pastor and the principal, it’s usually around a problem that needs be solved and fires to be put out. Some of those conversations, however, need to be around a vision that addresses these two questions.

1. How can we jointly create opportunities for our families to encounter Christ in parish life and the Catholic education experience?

2. How can we collaborate to physically bring people to these opportunities?

Of course, these are perennial questions that require far more than a single, quick fix. As I’ve talked to pastors, teachers, board members, evangelization experts, and school leaders about these issues, the conversations have shared common themes, as well as some clear ideas. So I offer several launch points that can help move the conversation to a more unified vision for both parish and school.

I. Key principle: Families are attracted to communities that are welcoming, safe, loving, and joyful. They don’t always recognize it as Christ in the midst, they just know it attracts them and something feels good and right.

A. Find out how from people who aren’t in your school community what it looks like from the outside.

B. What impression do families have of your parish community?

II. Key principle: Start with the youngest families. Pastors and principals need to directly invite them in to experience parish life and a Catholic school experience at the earliest point in their lives that they are ready to seek an external community. Grades 1-4 keep coming up as key target times when parents are ready to engage outside of the immediate biological needs of their children.
III. Key principle: Pastors and principals need to use each other’s expertise. Pastors need to understand that their principals are experts in what young families want to experience in their parish. Principals need to understand that pastors are experts at knowing what young families need for their religious formation.

A. Do the school leaders and parish leaders meet regularly to co-plan each year’s messaging and encounters with families?

B. How often to parish and school families see the principal and pastor together, collaborating and echoing each other’s messages?

This is just a starter list of things to consider for parish and school leadership in the coming school year. Not only does this unity of vision, “being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing” (Philippians 2:2) offer a better witness to those in and outside our parishes, but it also helps us to focus the collaborative mission of the Church and bear greater fruit.

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