05/02/2016 by Bob Regan | ,

An Identity Exercise for Catholic Schools

blurred traditional classroom with single wooden desks and students in uniform

This post is the second in a three-part series on hard choices Catholic schools must make in recruiting talented leadership amid challenging demographics. View part one of the post here.

I do not pretend to have the answer to the challenging questions raised in my previous post concerning slippery slopes and mission drift or the fiduciary duties of trustees faced with hard choices and dilemmas. Each school must deal with these issues on its own. But as a search consultant, I am often asked by boards and search committees to comment on this “practicing Catholic” requirement and to provide market perspective on how other Catholic schools are dealing with this issue, especially in light of “the 22% factor.” For obvious reasons I am reluctant to impose an opinion, but I do find myself increasingly playing a kind of pastoral role by facilitating a healthy and honest discussion about core values, choices, and tradeoffs.

Recently, for instance, a lengthy discussion took place during a search committee meeting when a trustee at an independent Catholic school asked what seemed at the time to be a disarmingly simple question of her colleagues:

“What is it that constitutes a Catholic school?” she asked. “What makes our school distinctly ‘Catholic?’ Do we know? And how should this Catholic identity influence or limit our search for the next Head of our school?”

A fascinating and respectful conversation ensued, which led inevitably to the question of what is fungible and therefore not essential to the identity and mission of a Catholic school. In other words, someone asked, “What can we eliminate, replace, or modify and still be considered a Catholic school?”After several failed efforts to achieve consensus, one person finally suggested that perhaps Catholic school identity is essentially amorphous and even ineffable. We may know it when we see it, but perhaps it cannot be described or prescribed but only affirmed.

I am reminded of the ancient identity conundrum represented by the Ship of Theseus. If you recall from your Philosophy 101 days, Theseus was the mythical king of Athens who slew the fearsome Minotaur and returned from battle a conquering hero, anchoring his ship in the Athenian harbor for all to view and celebrate. Over time, the planks of the ship withered and rotted and were replaced, one by one, raising the thorny metaphysical question: At what point in the replacement of these individual planks does the Ship of Theseus lose its identity and become another ship entirely? Is it with the replacement of the first plank? The fifty-first plank? The last plank? Is there a discreet point in this gradual, deconstructive process where the identity is altered and becomes something else entirely? Is the ship ever truly altered, or is it simply renewed and revitalized?

For generations philosophers have addressed this paradox but have never satisfactorily solved the puzzle. Heraclitus weighed in, arguing that all of life is continuously changing, and that we can never step into the same river twice. Change is therefore the only thing that persists. Hobbes, Locke, and other philosophers were equally bedeviled by the conundrum and failed to resolve the dilemma. We know from biology that our cells are replaced entirely every seven years, and yet we somehow remain the same person, with the same identity, despite the chemical transformation. What endures is our sense of ourselves, for better or worse.

Likewise, we may find it helpful to ask the same identity question of our Catholic schools: Is there a constructive or ideational plank that, if replaced, vitiates Catholic mission and causes the school to forfeit its identity and essential purposes? Is there a core plank dispositive of mission and identity? Is it the “practicing Catholic” identity of the Head of School? Is this the plank that carries the DNA of Catholic school identity? Years ago, some may have argued that having consecrated religious faculty and staff was essential to the mission and identity of Catholic schools. In the fifties and sixties, 97% of Catholic school faculty were consecrated religious – nuns, priests or brothers. Today, that plank has been virtually replaced, as only 3% of Catholic school faculty and staff are consecrated religious. In addition, students attending Catholic schools several decades ago were almost exclusively baptized, practicing Catholics. Today that plank has also been structurally compromised, as upwards of 60% of Catholic school students are non-Catholic, even in Arch/diocesan secondary schools. The same can be said of Catholic school faculty as more and more non-Catholics are teaching in Catholic schools and participating in the liturgies and faith formation exercises while growing earnestly in their own religious beliefs. Trustee appointments have also diversified and become more reflective of the student population as a whole.

These are extremely difficult questions, but they go to the heart of identity and mission in Catholic schools and the challenge of responding effectively to changing market and demographic conditions while still remaining faithful to the core intentions of the institution. In the concluding post to this series, I will link perceptions of mission and identity with the hard choices available to Catholic schools in developing their leadership priorities and dealing with the dreaded 22% factor.

Read the third and final post in this series.

Bob Regan is the leader of the CS&A Search Group’s Catholic Schools Practice.  He can be reached at bob.regan@carneysandoe.com.

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