Leading is hard. Leading during an unforeseen crisis is even harder. Six weeks into my first year as head of school at Sioux Center Christian School, the entire school, along with most of the community of Sioux Center, was shaken to the core by a sexual abuse scandal involving one of our teachers and many of his students. At some point during the first forty-eight hours of this crisis, I realized that this situation would change both my school and who I am as a leader forever. For the past four years, we’ve been picking up the pieces, doing our best to stay on the path of healing.
Then, 2020 happened. Another unforeseen crisis. Another leadership crucible that demanded so much attention and energy. If someone would have told me in graduate school, “Josh, someday you are going to lead an entire school community through a scandal and a pandemic during your first four years of school leadership,” I would have first laughed, and then I would have changed programs!
Of course, no one can predict the crises through which they’ll have to lead, but any experienced leader will tell you that a crisis is inevitable. Never if, always when.
Moments of crisis make or unmake a leader and the community they are charged with the privilege to lead. Leading a school during a crisis is one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I am not alone. After talking to many Christian school leaders across the country, everyone agrees: leading through the COVID-19 pandemic was the hardest season of their leadership, and most felt utterly overwhelmed and unprepared.
Observing fellow Christian school leaders and experiencing crisis myself instilled in me a desire to answer this question: What does it take for a Christian school leader to lead well during an unexpected crisis—not just to survive the moment, but to lead in a way that allows the whole community to be transformed into something much brighter, much more aligned with God’s purposes during dark times?
To discover an answer, I interviewed school leaders in Christian education: heads of school, principals, and other administrators at twelve schools scattered throughout the United States. The discussions were guided by these questions:
- What are the common ways individuals struggle in their leadership during a crisis within the context of Christian education (K–12)?
- What are the key attributes a leader needs to have/cultivate to successfully navigate through a crisis within the context of Christian education (K–12)?
- What tools or skills consistently help leaders as they lead through a crisis?
Through my research, I have come to believe that every crisis reveals character, competence, and conviction. We must see each crisis not as something to white-knuckle our way through but as an invitation to growth and transformation as Christian leaders and school communities.
My research uncovered ten keys that contribute to a leader’s ability to lead well through a crisis.
Key 1: Seek Out Crisis-Focused Leadership Training
In today’s climate, it’s not if there will be a leadership crisis, it’s always when. All school leaders—heads of school, principals, and board members—will be on the front lines of a crisis, with people looking to them for guidance. Schools should invest now in the development of their leaders to be prepared when the inevitable crisis comes, working to build a foundation so that when strong winds hit, the school responds with clear-eyed realism and unparalleled hope as they keep moving forward.
Key 2: Learn and Practice Leadership Agility to Better Respond to Change
Today’s constant is that things change. And navigating through a crisis often brings about changes, both expected and unexpected. School leaders need to be adept in the change process (understanding it and having practice with it), comfortable with the messiness of change, and ready to implement processes and tools to manage change toward innovation.
Key 3: Surround Yourself with a Supportive Leadership Team
Leadership can no longer be a one-person job. School leaders thrive in places that provide support through strong leadership teams, support staff, and others who both balance and add to the leader’s strengths and weaknesses. Schools would do well to cultivate leadership teams that feature individuals with unique gifts that complement and empower each other.
Key 4: Invest in and Be Intentional About a Strong School Leader-board Relationship
A school leader thrives when their board supports them, believes in them, trusts them, gives them room to grow, provides the freedom of making choices, and listens to what they have to say. The key relationship is the one between the board president and the school leader, and this relationship must be intentionally developed and sustained.
Key 5: Implement Board Governance that Focuses on the Mission and the Future
A school with a governance structure focused on the future versus one focused on fear or the status quo has more opportunities for success. Schools governed by traditional board models tend to be sluggish and reactionary. Boards governed by a mission have their eyes set on the future, even as they address the crisis of the moment. Leaders thrive in a model where their expertise, talents, gifts, and office are respected, nurtured, and empowered. Leaders thrive in a model that views the school leader more as a CEO than as a middle manager.
Key 6: Advocate for Access to Self-Stewardship and Counseling
Leadership is hard, and school leaders benefit from the opportunity to process situations, events, and their own leadership. Schools that provide access to and support for self-stewardship and counseling activities better serve and will be better served by their school leaders. Prioritize resources that promote mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.
Key 7: Create and Sustain Connections with Other School Leaders
Leadership can be a lonely and isolating experience. School leaders need connections with other people who are traveling the same journey and experiencing the same phenomena they are. School leaders thrive when they have a network of support that can provide ideas, encouragement, and a sense of “we’re all in this together.”
Key 8: Implement Regular, Value-Adding Methods of Communication Well Before a Crisis
To lead well is to communicate. When communication with stakeholders doesn’t happen, negativity flourishes and wheel-spinning occurs. Leaders must have training, support, and experience in communicating well with diverse stakeholders using tools and methods that have the most impact.
Key 9: Seek Training and Support in Personnel Issues
School leaders benefit from understanding people, how to work with people, how to manage conflicts, and ways to develop their teams. Leaders also benefit from having support staff available to assist with personnel issues.
Key 10: Invest in Yourself Through Leadership Coaching
With a demanding and ever-changing work environment, leaders need coaching to navigate well. Coaching provides leaders a safe outlet, a place to brainstorm, and an opportunity to be challenged and encouraged. Coaching leads to leadership confidence and thriving.
In order to discern support, resources, and potential next steps regarding all of the ten keys, I encourage you to reach out to a nearby college or university, a national Christian school organization, other school leaders, and/or Christian school consulting services. I would love to hear from you and share specific resources if you are interested. There are many ways to move forward and many people who want to help. Funding various resources and methods of support can also happen through grants, budgeting line items, and government programs such as Title II and Title IV.
There’s no doubt about it: the world needs Christian schools.
Christian schools need effective leaders.
And Christian school leaders need support and tools to thrive—before, during, and after crisis.
What you do and who you are as a Christian school leader makes all the difference. May the Ten Keys be an encouragement and a roadmap for you on your journey of faithful, effective, fulfilling Christian school leadership.
May they unlock thriving!
Keep leading well!
About our guest author: Dr. Josh Bowar currently serves as the head of school at Sioux Center Christian School in Sioux Center, IA and teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses in education and school leadership. Bowar has experience teaching at the elementary, middle, and high school levels and in various levels of administration. Earning an EdD in educational administration from the University of South Dakota, his leadership interests include the process of change, leadership coaching, inclusive education, school finance and revenue streams, board governance, and strategic planning. Dr. Bowar also serves CSI as an accreditation regional coordinator. This article is a condensation of an article series that can be found here on the CACE website. He can be reached at moc.naitsirhcretnecxuois@rawobj.
We must see each crisis not as something to white-knuckle our way through but as an invitation to growth and transformation as Christian leaders and school communities.