05/09/2016 by Bob Regan | ,

Three “Es” for Catholic Schools to Consider

This post is the third in a three-part series on the challenges in recruiting top leadership for Catholic schools amid challenging demographics.

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

Which brings us to the sensitive topic of this post: The hard choices that Catholic schools must make in choosing their leadership and dealing with the 22% demographic factor.

It has been my experience in working with search committees, governing boards, and Arch/dioceses across the country that Catholic schools are becoming acutely aware of the enveloping threats and the need for dynamic new leadership. This has been a painfully slow, evolving, and reluctant realization in some cases. Most Catholic school boards are now willing and anxious to engage in a conversation about the radically changing leadership qualities required for success. But when it comes to the “practicing Catholic” component and the looming risk of the 22% factor, board positions are polarized and break boldly into the following choices:

1. The Existential Choice

I use this term in the Sartrean sense—schools who select this choice enthusiastically embrace their Catholic circumstance and celebrate who they are, despite the 22% consequence. For these schools, requiring a practicing Catholic as chief executive is a matter of principle and not negotiable. They adopt the view that “we are Catholic first and last and will not compromise when it comes to the faith dimension required of our leadership.” If this has unfavorable search consequences, so be it. To quoteWilliam Wordsworth, “In truth, the prison unto which we doom ourselves, no prison is.” By accepting our existential circumstance and embracing the “practicing Catholic” requirement — come what may! — this choice can also be psychologically liberating and deeply reaffirming to the Catholic school community.

Inherent in this Existential Choice is also the belief that leadership is uniquely positioned to drive and perpetuate mission and to ensure the Catholic identity of the school. While the religious composition of faculty, students, and families may change, leadership is a school’s ultimate leverage in achieving support for its values and ensuring its future as a distinctly Catholic institution. Particularly in this messy environment of continuous identity plank replacements, the Head of School assumes a critical legacy role and becomes the essential “carrier” of the school’s faith and sacramental traditions.

But this choice will also have definite consequences, of course: it will limit a school’s choices substantially, producing a significantly smaller candidate pool while potentially extending the search by weeks if not months. Search committees may also overlook some outstanding candidates who may be non-Catholic but are faith-filled and authentically passionate about the mission and identity of their school.

Anecdotally, I would suggest that roughly 75% of Catholic schools adopt this Existential Choice, continuing to require a practicing Catholic at the top and believing that the absence of a practicing Catholic in the corner office is a slippery slope to secularization and corruption of mission. Although this sentiment is beginning to soften, it has been my experience that this Existential option remains, by far, the dominant choice among independent Catholic school boards — and virtually all Arch/diocesan schools continue to require practicing Catholics in key leadership roles.

2.The Ecumenical Choice:

This option is increasingly being explored by governing boards and enables schools to broaden their perspective and open the pool of potential candidates to individuals who may be non-Catholic but who meet the intrinsic faith standard and are genuinely capable of exemplifying the core values and traditions of their school. These boards tend to argue that the institutional stakes are too high to limit choices to an arbitrary and numinous faith standard where definition is so elusive and authenticity can never be proven or validated. While they are committed to the Catholic mission and identity of the school, however defined, they want more control over their options. They want their search consultants to produce a diverse and robust candidate pool for their private review and consideration. The search process becomes for them a kind of journey in discernment, informing their collective judgment and leading to an honest but rigorously pursued consensus. In the end, they may yet choose a practicing Catholic as their next Head of School, but they want that choice to be made in the context of a nationally sourced, competitive process involving candidates of different backgrounds and religious beliefs.

Inherent in the Ecumenical Choice is the belief that Catholic schools are evolving and becoming “unifying” entities in their communities, capable of thriving in Catholic mission and identity while welcoming families and staff from different faith traditions – even the Head of School.  These schools believe that mission endures because their core values endure; this is the persistent identity plank in the hull. At a time when American culture is becoming increasingly coarse, secular, and divisive, Catholic schools are distinctly welcoming and inclusive sanctuaries, as evidenced by the diverse religious and ethnic representation throughout the school community.

This choice will also have definite consequences as well – both positive and potentially negative. On the positive front, the latest Pew Research includes a growing demographic category called “Catholic connected” — i.e., individuals who are not practicing Catholics but are connected meaningfully to the Catholic faith via marriage, prior schooling, family history, etc. — that now represents 45% of the U.S. population. If Catholic schools can achieve consensus around the validity of Catholic connected leadership, this alone will more than double their pool of potential candidates and virtually eliminate the risk of the 22% factor!

That said, the risks of this choice are significant and require prudent trustee attention. Communications and intense constituent engagement at the front end of a search are absolutely critical in achieving support for the Ecumenical Choice. All key constituents must be supportive of the decision to open the pool to non-Catholic candidates, and they must be prepared to advocate for this decision. This is especially true for independent Catholic schools with sponsoring religious congregations who oversee mission and hold reserve powers.  Simply put, without the support of the sponsoring religious congregation, this plan is dead on arrival and will never get off the ground—nor  should it.

3. The Endogenous Choice

There is also a potential third option for boards to consider in dealing with the 22% factor: a nuanced, hybrid strategy that could be applied to both of the above choices in expanding the potential pool of candidates while mitigating the demographic risks of the 22% factor. We might call this the Endogenous Choice, because it focuses internally on the structure of leadership adopted by the school. As discussed in another post, the President/Principal model has emerged as the leadership structure of choice for many Catholic schools and now comprises upwards of 60% of all Catholic secondary schools. One of the extraordinary benefits of the model is its ability to expand the pool of CEO candidates by bifurcating duties between an operationally-sound Principal (as chief academic officer) and an entrepreneurially-driven President (as chief executive officer). Because the day–to-day academic operations are being addressed by the Principal, this enables search committees to pursue non-traditional but highly qualified CEO candidates from other mission-critical platforms, such as higher education or Catholic foundations, associations, and charities – and even from certain corporate arenas. Knowledge of secondary education per se is less important than passion for mission and the ability to lead, inspire, transform, and create demand. Without ever raising the sensitive issue of whether a candidate is a practicing Catholic versus non-Catholic or Catholic-connected, schools can make the safe Existential Choice, if preferred, but maximize the possibilities inherent in the 22% demographic. This will not expand the demographic pool itself, but rather the available candidate options within the pool. And schools can do this without formally converting to the President/Principal model by simply realigning leadership responsibilities and calling the functions by whatever names they prefer. To avoid the perception of elitism or be forced to deal with misplaced complaints concerning profligate expense practices, some schools prefer to maintain the traditional “Head of School” nomenclature but adopt the best practices inherent in the President/Principal model.

Either way, messaging and alignment of duties are complicated and will require careful crafting and board attention, but this is a relatively accessible, internally inspired option that all Catholic schools should consider whenever they have an opportunity to revisit their leadership priorities.


As I trust you will agree, we have clearly entered unchartered territory in the Catholic schools sector. Strange and seemingly ineluctable forces have transported us to an unfamiliar landscape where life is different and simple choices no longer abide. Largely through no fault of their own, many Catholic schools are at risk, and the trustees and diocesan officials know it. They also know that Catholic schools have emerged in recent years, despite the unfortunate market and demographic threats, as the institutions of choice for many American families, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. To borrow a Wall Street expression, Catholic schools are simply too important to fail.

As a result, a promising new dialectic has seized our boardroom conversations, creating a sense of urgency seldom experienced before. Perhaps for the first time, trustees of Catholic schools know that the future of their cherished institutions may rely on the quality of the next leader they choose. Given the 22% factor and the enveloping market threats, there is no margin for error. Getting the leadership decision right demands a new rigor and candor in the deliberative process. Each school needs to come to terms with this on its own and be true to itself and its core values. But whether a school chooses the Existential, Ecumenical, or Endogenous option, or some combination thereof, the willingness to engage courageously, to ask the difficult questions, and to confront the limited choices is itself wholesome, encouraging, and self-renewing.

Serendipitously, it may also help ameliorate the vexing identity dilemma faced by Catholic schools. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, at the end of all their exploring and questioning, their fearless probes and intimations, they may arrive where they started, and know the immense power of their Catholic purposes for the very first time. That alone would be worth the hard journey.

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I hope you found this three-part series helpful and will share your thoughts. Let’s continue to learn from each other how best to serve our Catholic schools.

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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