A sermon illustration from 40 years ago has stuck with me. The pastor had us imagine a father hearing from his son, “Dad, I’m really grateful for all the stuff you give to me. We go on fine trips. You protect me…but sometimes, Dad, I don’t quite trust you.” The pastor claimed that would devastate the father. Then came the point: “Our Father must feel that way when we say, in effect, ‘Father, I like all your good gifts, but….’”
That story has come back to me when I see trust or distrust in Christian schools.
Trust centers in relationships: spouses, teachers and students, teachers and parents, teachers and principals, principals with boards, boards with churches or parents. I have been in board meetings where conversation on hard issues was stifled because one or more board members ruined a commitment to confidentiality. I also observed a rookie teacher who invited the parents of each of her students to her classroom for a ten-minute appointment to learn about the needs of their child. She built a foundation of trust that easily withstood some winds of disagreement later.
The most obvious reference to trust in Christian schools is the word “trustee” to describe a board member’s role. Decades ago, almost all Christian schools called board members “directors.” The first education I received on “trustee” occurred when I was on a Christian college board and a city library board at the same time. Trustees, I learned, do not own the Christian school; they hold the school “in trust” on behalf of the owners: the church or society of parents. “In trust” means holding the school the way grandparents would if they held a grandchild: feeding, clothing, tending to illness or injury—all while the parents are out somewhere.
When Christian school trustees are appointed or elected, they know that the church or parents trust them to guide the school with integrity. The same is true for a head of school, chosen and trusted by the board, for the teachers and assistant principals chosen and trusted by the head of school, and for the teachers trusted by parents and principals.
The hard part for boards and principals is keeping it.
Warren Buffett, the American who perhaps holds the highest level of trust among investors, realizes how fragile this trust is: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” In Christian schools, if a board believes the head of school withholds information, manipulates information, or tells the board only half of the story, the board’s trust level in that person begins to erode, like the crack in the driveway that expands unless it is tended to.
All of us can cite examples at all levels in Christian schools: a set of parents who exaggerate a teacher’s mistake, despite an apology, which lowers the trust level for the teacher in the community; or the board member who says he will not be bound by confidentiality, which causes distrust as thick as smog in that board. Occasionally a person rips a hole in trust by saying the equivalent of “Are you sure your spouse is faithful?” It’s devilish; any person hearing that can hardly help being distrustful.
I’ll end with a few practical principles to help Christian schools build or deepen trust within their communities:
- Trust, but verify. That’s the advice from the former US president Ronald Reagan. Trustees have to have confidence in their leader and parents have to have trust in the trustees they elected, but it would be irresponsible in these roles to say, “We trust you so much we will never have an independent audit of finances,” or “As principal, I trust you teachers fully and will not inspect your work.” Have practices and policies in place that allow for consistent transparency, feedback, and checks-and-balances.
- Be open, clear, and confined. Boards, principals, teachers, and parents all need to communicate about any threat to trust by first listening, then seeking the counsel of the Lord and colleagues, and finally telling all the audiences involved in clear language how the threat was resolved. I use the word “confined” because not every issue needs to be discussed broadly. Restricting the communication, for example, to just a teacher, principal, and set of parents over a threat to trust between one family and the teacher is a better choice than making it a public issue.
- Make trust a habit. In our current culture, suspicion reigns. Even within Christian school communities, too many of us act on a habit of suspicion by exuding, “If you want my trust, you will have to earn it.” George MacDonald, an English writer, says, “To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.” Make it a habit to express love by telling the people you supervise that you trust them.
The preacher who reminded me about my lack of trust in my Father also noted Isaiah 12:2: “I will trust [God] and not be afraid.” This trust is the bedrock of a Christian school. Trust among the participants in it is its life.
– Dan Vander Ark