There’s a ruckus afoot in Richmond between the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd and the eponymous Good Shepherd Episcopal School (GSES). As with most such disputes, this one is both predictable and ugly. It also underscores the problematic family systems in many Episcopal entities and the misplaced priorities of many media outlets.
Before we go further, let’s start with some history.
GSES was founded by the church a little over 50 years ago when the Episcopal Church was twice as large as today.
Shortly after its founding, the school spun off as an independent entity.
Housed in the church buildings since its inception, the school received notice from the church about two weeks ago that its lease was not being renewed.
The matter soon hit the Richmond dailies and has been discussed ever since. And many people are wading in, often with little or no connection to the denomination.
And while only the school responded before we went to press, the coverage, combined with our experiences with Episcopal schools, gives us a good feel for the underlying issues.
The media coverage highlights issues with the underlying dynamics and the media itself.
Specifically, we know of myriad cases in which the Richmond dailies have ignored abuse within the denomination under the guise of not wanting to get dragged into an internal church dispute.
Fair enough, but this is every bit as much an internal squabble, yet of lesser importance than abuse.
So what’s the difference?
The issue here is that parents pay to send their kids to the school, and so suddenly, it’s newsworthy. (Images of Smaug in the Lord of the Rings come to mind: “Come here, my precioussssss.”)
We submit that’s a misplaced priority. Abuse of any human being is newsworthy. The notion of a bunch of kids having to find a new school is mildly sad, but it’s a safe bet none of the kids will go without an education.
The dynamics also give us insight into the underlying conflict.
The value of an Episcopal education
Several of us at Anglican Watch are the product of an Episcopal education. (Some would say that explains a lot.)
But our experiences were consistently positive, and we found Episcopal schools loving and nurturing. Indeed, no one here would disagree that attending these schools continues to impact our lives positively.
At the same time, there’s a downside to an Episcopal education, which sometimes becomes apparent only as one ages.
For example, while the Cathedral School in DC bloviates about justice, access, and equity, it doesn’t walk the talk. How so? It’s got alleged torture profiteer David Ayres on its board of governors.
That begs the question: does anyone who can write a big check get to sit on the board? The torture and killing of Muslims obviously is not a disqualifier.
So, what would prevent someone from serving? Child abuse? Human trafficking? Manufacturing porn? Your guess is as good as ours.
Nor are folks unaware. Our concern over this issue has gone directly to the school, senior officials, and +Budde.
The response? You guessed it: passive-aggressive silence. Straight out of the Episcopal family systems playbook.
Astute school community members will find the bit about respecting the dignity of every human being problematic. Or, given the denomination’s track record, not.
In any case, hopefully the school is taking its Episcopal heritage seriously and acting with integrity on all fronts, versus simply sidling up to whoever has the biggest checkbook.
Good fences make good neighbors
Then, there are the concerns expressed in the media between the school and the church. These center on the predictable issues of money and roles/responsibilities.
On the money side, the church says the school damages the property. The school denies this and points to its capital expenditures over the years in the physical plant. The church retorts that it’s made plenty of capital improvements on behalf of the school.
Okay, stop the ride. We want to get off.
These issues likely center on the failure to have a memorandum of understanding about who does what.
For starters, a swarm of ankle-biters causes damage. No two ways around it.
Hopefully, the school is being proactive when these issues arise and working collaboratively with the church on repairs. Note the word collaboratively — we’ll return to that in a moment.
As to capital expenses, these are always touchy. Schools often bring in lots more money than churches, and a parish struggling to pay its bills may look with a jaded eye at flush school coffers.
That’s a perennial problem and one that is not likely to go away soon. Parents value their children’s education while often ignoring their spiritual development. That’s a sad reality and partly the church’s fault, which does a rotten job of articulating the importance of spiritual education.
The solution is to have a fence between the two organizations in the form of a memorandum of understanding, or MOU. This should spell out who pays for what, who is responsible in the event of unexpected expenses, and more. Doing so goes beyond the lease and provides a covenantal framework for a shared life in the same building.
We note several related factors:
- Schools are typically good at raising money, and don’t hesitate. In contrast, Episcopal churches are downright apologetic and treat this as a painful afterthought. The church likely can learn from the school and should consider asking for help with fundraising.
- Even the best agreements don’t teach courtesy and respect. Time after time we’ve seen situations in which heads of school try to nickel and dime the parish, take over church space, and engage in other unhelpful behaviors. Generosity of spirit and a shared sense of mission are vital on all sides.
- There’s often a lack of knowledge about the nature of the relationship. For example, at Grace Episcopal Alexandria, a church where we have in-depth knowledge, attorneys for the school have falsely told the courts that the school is a separate legal entity. It is not. The same falsehoods have been told to vestry members, who still fail to fulfill their fiduciary obligations related to the school. Needless to say, conflict is inevitable when bad information abounds.
- Both sides often underestimate the help the church provides to the school. Even if it’s just a 50/50 split on utilities and snow removal, that represents a massive subsidy by the church.
In the case of Good Shepherd, we see blurred lines of authority at play. The rector says they are not invited to school meetings; the school says that’s not in the lease.
The solution? In addition to an MOU, be generous and kind. Shared mission means inviting the other person, even if there isn’t anything in the lease.
In other words, both sides need to worry less about turf and more about getting stuff done.
That raises the question: Do the two organizations have a sense of shared mission? Getting uptight about who’s using the building and when they are using it is easy.
But a better approach would be to answer the question: What is our shared role in the community? Our mission? How are we doing in making that a reality?
So, this is a great time to take a look at mission. And if there is a joint mission statement, this is the time to get outside help revising that document.
Although it’s never mentioned directly, we’ve got dinner and a bottle of wine riding on this one: parents at the school don’t treat the church with respect. And the same is sometimes true for school staff.
In our experience with Episcopal schools, we can’t count the times parents roll through for Friday chapel, often with other kids in tow.
The result is behavior they’d never tolerate in their own homes. Coffee rings on liturgical woodwork, bubble gum under the pews, donuts during the service, and trash scattered around the building afterward.
Yes, we get that parents are paying for their anklebiters to attend, but that doesn’t obviate the need for respect.
And we’d note that, while these issues are minor in their own right, when the pattern continues over time, it can get real old, real fast.
Even worse, it’s not unusual for school staff to encourage a snotty attitude. One member of our team, then a warden at Grace Episcopal Alexandria, remembers a tour of the building in which the school’s director of admissions told a prospective family, “This is our chapel, and this is one of our volunteers.”
That same team member also remembers then Head of School Chris Byrnes manually adjusting valves on the HVAC system, even after being asked not to. She later pretended not to know who had done so, and tried to avoid paying the thousands of dollars in HVAC bills resulting from her actions — even though she was caught on camera making these changes. And her empire-building was childish and unhelpful.
Nor does bad behavior run only in one direction. For example, we’re reminded of Oran Warder, rector of St. Paul’s Alexandria, who ran roughshod over the independent preschool’s board of directors to fire a head of school close to retirement, who had made a mildly inappropriate comment about Warder “throwing his dick around.”
She later apologized, but that wasn’t good enough for Warder, who threw Christian forgiveness out the window to get her. Yet Warder shrugs off the alleged torture profiteer, Anne Ayres, and her husband, allowing them to serve in leadership roles in the parish.
All involved must be kind, tolerant of human foibles, and stay in their lanes. Just like a marriage, things only work when all involved show genuine care and respect for each other.
And for heaven’s sake, focus on what’s important. Oran Warder’s tiny, um, problem pales in comparison to the torture of other human beings. So let’s hope that the school and church are both focusing on real issues, versus petty slights.
There’s also an intangible but vital aspect of family systems theory here. Specifically, does the school take time to get to know not just church members with children at the school, but all church members?
For example, does the school have a social evening for church members? If not, it’s well worth the cost of putting some burgers, hot dogs, and vegan options on the grill and inviting everyone.
Similarly, is there a school work day when kids can paint hallways, pull weeds, and stuff like that? Guaranteed, many issues with damaging the property will be addressed when kids become invested in it and keep it looking nice.
As for the church, is there a welcome day for the school? When everyone is invited to a service and a nice coffee hour?
Knowing the people behind issues can go a long way toward reducing tension and drama.
This issue is endemic and closely aligned with questions of communication and human connections.
Specifically, we have never encountered a situation where these issues didn’t arise.
And while we don’t have specific information on this issue in this context, we hope both sides pay close attention to this potentially divisive question.
For instance, we’ve seen many school fundraisers that go into the wee hours of the morning. As a result, the tear-down isn’t complete, and church members arrive Sunday morning to a church that reeks of booze, is shambolic, and overflowing with trash. Not the way to make friends.
Similarly, schools need to understand that church life is unpredictable. Weddings and funerals may wind up scheduled with little notice, may end up with much larger attendance than expected, and more.
The only way to resolve these situations is to be respectful, assume good intent, communicate, and when issues arise — as they inevitably will — focus on solutions over blame.
That raises another family systems issue at work in the Good Shepherd uproar: communication.
Specifically, the school says the lease termination notice came without any notice.
Guaranteed, the church thinks the matter has been a long time coming. And since most churches welcome additional revenue streams, the situation is pretty lousy if things have come to this.
So, a good starting point would be to sit down, start with “I” statements, and, with outside help, wade through these issues.
In other words, rather than the accusatory “you always,” and “you never,” both sides need to start with “I feel like,” and “my sense is that.”
The next step is to get everything in writing and then discuss the next steps.
From there, it’s a matter of developing a matrix of action items, due dates, and listing the person(s) responsible.
Similarly, a biweekly collaboration meeting is a great way to head issues off at the pass, anticipate scheduling issues, and foster healthy relationships.
Relatedly, it’s important that all topics get air time. For instance, one churchwarden remembers his surprise when he was told that the soap dispenser had come down in the bathroom.
“What soap dispenser?” he asked.
“You know, the one on the wall. And when it came down, it pulled the new silk wallpaper with it.”
Needless to say, the school had taken it upon itself to do this without asking, and there was considerable consternation within the church since the wallpaper was expensive, about two weeks old, and an effort to make the church inviting. In other words, zero collaboration resulted in conflict on about five different fronts.
And, of course, this touches on respect: if you wouldn’t change someone’s bathroom as a guest in their home, why would you do this in their church?
As to the school, staff was gracious enough to forward their written media statement to us. While we appreciate the transparency, we note an unfortunate, defensive tone. Indeed, there’s nothing about looking forward to resolving concerns, working with the church, or taking positive paths forward.
Hopefully, the school and the church will take the high road, act with kindness, and take a collaborative approach.
Now is the time for both sides to take a deep breath, chill out, and work together to resolve concerns. And while we are more trusting of the Diocese than we have been in a long time, we believe the parties may have made a mistake in pulling the Diocese into the fray.
Increasing the number of stakeholders can make things more difficult, and church officials may feel this was a case of being ratted out to Big Brother.
In any case, we encourage all involved to regroup, assume good intent, and work to resolve this matter. And when it hopefully is resolved, we encourage both sides to issue a positive media statement that emphasizes new ways of working together.
If either side wants help identifying mediators or other potential solutions, they are welcome to contact us for suggestions.
We wish both sides well and hope this matter is soon resolved.