“Faithful Presence”: Dissonances and Distinctives in the Work of the School Head

Faithful Presence

“The work I do from day to day, week to week, and month to month . . . and I have to tell you, I fail and fall much of the time . . . is striving to be a servant leader. I am broken and so is my school, but I hope to send out graduates who can live and . . . work in a fallen world. My being there [in the school] signals a . . . precarious balance of love and authority . . . of being strong and weak.”

—Christian school head

Hunter’s “Faithful Presence” and the School Head

James Davison Hunter makes no ostensible reference to Christian schools or their heads in his 2010 book To Change the World, and yet its resonances with this cultural institution sound deeply and profoundly. As a microcosm of applied Christian faith in a fallen world, the Christian school finds itself working out of certain contested paradigms of cultural engagement. Hunter, with acknowledgment to Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture, posits three archetypal postures toward cultural engagement taken by the church and by extension the Christian school: defending against, relevance toward, and purity from culture (214–19). Finding these insufficient, he purports another position, that of “faithful presence.” Hunter does not proffer a succinct definition of “faithful presence,” but progressively reveals its design and contours throughout his book:

If, indeed, there is a hope or an imaginable prospect for human flourishing in the contemporary world, it begins when the Word of shalom becomes flesh in us and is enacted through us toward those with whom we live, in the tasks we are given, and in the spheres of influence in which we operate . . . this is the heart of a theology of faithful presence (252).

As to our spheres of influence, a theology of faithful presence obligates us to do what we are able, under the sovereignty of God, to shape the patterns of life and work and relationship—that is, the institutions of which our lives are constituted—toward a shalom that seeks the welfare not only of those of the household of God but of all (254).

I have argued that faithful presence is a theology of commitment and promise. The commitment is “covenantal.” It is a binding obligation manifested in the relationships we have, in the work we do, and in the social worlds we inhabit, and it is oriented toward the flourishing of the world around us (261).

Hunter situates his argument for faithful presence in light of a “new city commons” (279), whereby Christians envision themselves as living and working in world shared by others, and being committed to “the highest ideals and practices of human flourishing in a pluralistic world” (279), whose ends are “the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness” (263). Hunter’s work evokes Kuyper’s thoughts on Calvinism and religion: “The Calvinist cannot shut himself up in his church and abandon the world to its fate. He feels, rather, his high calling to push the development of this world to an even higher stage” (73).

Neither steeped in withdrawal from the world nor exhibiting a naïve triumphalism, Hunter manages to steer a course that demonstrates a potential guide of cultural engagement. For the life and work of the Christian school head, “faithful presence” is applied in the interactions, tasks, and spheres of influence operating in the school and wider community.

“Faithful Presence” and Educational Leadership

It is here that the problematic of school head leadership comes to rest. How does “faithful presence” work itself out in a real school context? The extant literature in the field typifies educational leadership in the public sector as one fraught with contestable attributes (Robinson, 2010; Goldring, Porter, Murphy, Elliot, and Craven, 2009; Robinson, Lloyd, and Rowe, 2008; Krüger, Witziers, and Sleegers, 2007). Questions of the direct or indirect impact of school leadership on student outcomes and teacher quality, or models of effective leadership as being managerial, instructional, or transformational, yield tenuous connections at best.

What is frustrating is that there is little to no correlative research in the realm of Christian school leadership. We rely upon models from the public sector that do not explicate the unique attributes of leadership or the theological aspects of the vocation. Certainly common grace insights emerge from the extant literature—emphasis on mission and vision, collaboration, instruction, school culture—and illustrate the complex world of the school leader. However, the particular life and work of the Christian school head is very much under-researched.

While Hunter’s construct of “faithful presence” is not definitional to the life and work of the Christian school head, it does begin to unfold a model that might become a clearer and more cohesive conceptualization that confirms the place of transformational leadership in the Christian school.

Dissonances and Distinctives

In my EDU 740 Master of Education course at Covenant College, entitled “Instructional Supervision,” I have spent seven years listening and responding to the stories of Christian school heads as they grapple with personhood and relationships in the schools they lead. A common frustration is the apparent dissonance between the model they purport (philosophy of education, mission and vision of the school, curriculum, etc.) and the interpretation and implementation of that model across constituents. From master to novice teachers, new and seasoned parents and students, shifting boards, and a changing world beyond the school, each of these contexts brings varying understandings, fulfillments, and commitments to what is often stated on a few pages of a handbook.

My challenge to this subset of Christian school heads is to make the implicit more explicit as they unfold the possibilities of faith and learning and by extension their “faithful presence” as leaders. One aspect of this challenge is to create a more definitive process document that identifies and describes the unique categories of their own Christian school education. Each school head looks for what is most unique about that school’s philosophy and model, asking:

  1. What are the purposes and aims of our school’s model of education from a biblical perspective?
  2. What is the nature of the learner, learning, and knowledge in our model?
  3. What is the nature of the role of the teacher and instructional practices?
  4. How is the classroom a community of learners inclusive of students and teacher?
  5. What are appropriate responses of service to home, school, church, and the wider world?
  6. What are the broader goals of education beyond the school walls?

Neither these statements nor this process are infallible, yet this activity causes the school head to consider the most essential categories of schooling and how they relate to those under its influence—usually a more implicit influence. It also reinforces the personhood of the school head in terms of professional identity formation and collaboration, and provides an outlet for relationship-building for capacity and collegiality within the school constituencies.

Works Cited

  • Goldring, E., et al. “Assessing Learning-centered Leadership: Connections to Research, Professional Standards, and Current Practices.”Leadership and Policy in Schools 8 (2009): 1–36.
  • Krüger, M., et al. “The Impact of School Leadership on School Level Factors: Validation of a Causal Model.” School Effectiveness and School Improvement 18.1 (2007): 1–20.
  • Kuyper, Abraham. Lectures on Calvinism. New York: Cosimo Classics, 1931/2009.
  • Hunter, James D. To Change the World. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.
  • Neibuhr, H.Richard. Christ and Culture. HarperSanFrancisco, 1951/2001.
  • Robinson, V. “From Instructional Leadership to Leadership Capabilities: Empirical Findings and Methodological Challenges.” Leadership and Policy in Schools 9 (2010): 1–26.
  • Robinson, V., et al. “The Impact of Leadership on Student Outcomes: An Analysis of the Differential Effects of Leadership Types.” Education Administration Quarterly 44 (2008): 635–74.