Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Cloud of Witnesses

"Community is at the heart of Christian education not simply as a concept to be taught but as a reality to be lived. Through education, (people) must be moved to build community in all areas of life; they can do this best if they have learned the meaning of community by experiencing it" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1972, #23). 

Any organization is only as strong as the relationships between and among the members of that group. 

Teams. Work groups. Schools. Communities. Nations. Churches. Families. Friendships. Any group is as strong as the weakest relationship link within it. 

United we stand. Divided we fall. 

This does not mean that group members must be homogenous. Nor does it imply that those in an organization always agree with one another or that differences of opinions, thoughts, or behaviors are nonexistent. 

Rather, it means that the group has established a loop of safety and vulnerability. Members acknowledge a shared future with one another which creates safety. This increases the likelihood that members will be vulnerable with one another. When vulnerability is reciprocal, the level of safety goes up, and the loop continues. 

Vulnerable sharing. Enhanced safety. Enhanced safety. Vulnerable sharing. 

And, the centripetal force holding this loop together and keeping it in motion is a collective purpose. This sense of purpose might be in the form of a mission statement. It might be a set of root beliefs held by members of the group. Maybe this purpose is a commitment to a particular cause, a clear WHY that articulates the overarching goal of the group. 

In his book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (2018), Daniel Coyle covers all three of these components of a strong culture in vivid detail. All three, Coyle argues, contribute to the strength of a group. 

Build safety. Share vulnerability. Establish purpose. 

According to a study by John Kotter and James Heskett, the difference between a strong and a weak culture is a shocking. In business terms, the difference is apparent in monetary ways:


Strong, "performance-enhancing" cultures, according to Kotter and Heskett, "highly value employees, customers, and owners and that those cultures encourage leadership from everyone in the firm" ( The effect these cultures have on performance is that it is enhanced.  

Companies without "performance-enhancing" culture fared much worse, by comparison, than their strong culture counterparts. 

It is worth considering that a similar difference can be experienced in other metrics of success as well. In the realm of education, this can signal higher test scores, lower instances of discipline, and enhanced graduation/college acceptance rates. Numerous studies support this focus on community and/or culture to enhance the performance of students in schools (from Deal and Petersen's Shaping School Culture, 2016): 
  • Rutter, Maughan, Morrtimore, Ouston, and Smith (1979) found that school "ethos" contributed to academic achievement
  • Bryk, Lee, and Holland (1993) discovered that a sense of community played a vital role in creating a culture of excellence in private schools - teachers were more satisfied in their work, students were less likely to misbehave, less likely to drop out, and had higher achievement in math than their public school counterparts
  • Waters, Marzano and McNulty (2004) argued that "student achievement was related to a shared set of core beliefs, a clear sense of purpose, recognition of staff members and student accomplishments, intellectual engagement, and celebrations of success" (Deal & Petersen, 2016, p. 12). 
With this said, how might Catholic schools leverage this power of culture to enhance students' overall development and growth? 

First, a theology of education based upon the foundational belief in the mystery of the Trinity - our God is three Persons in one - should permeate our schools. Relationships between and among leaders, teachers, parents, families, students and community members carry sacred significance and time spent building relationships should be prioritized. 

Second, this should, in turn, impact our policies, procedures, programs and behaviors within our schools. Everything from admissions policies to tuition collection to discipline to formation to instruction to evaluation to support to prayer and worship should acknowledge the theological underpinning of the education in our schools and respond accordingly. 

If we are to help people "(t)hrough build community in all areas of life" we must give all members of our Catholic schools an experience of the type of communities that will help to establish the kingdom of God here on earth (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1972, #23). 

Our Catholic schools must create the "cloud of witnesses" described in the letter to the Hebrews (12:1-2) that allows us to "rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith."  

Animated by the belief that we are made for each other in the image and likeness of our Triune God, let us surround the members of our Catholic school communities with support, love, and mercy. 

Build safety, share vulnerability, establish purpose, and instead of merely persevering in the race, our students can run it - with a cloud of witnesses cheering for them, supporting them, and ushering them across the finish line - so as to win (1 Corinthians 9:24).