As I walked up to the front doors of the middle school, I was texting my friend, “Are you here yet?” No response. It was the first time I was helping out with an afterschool club, and I felt out of place. I was not a teacher or a parent, so I was curious to see if the school would let me into the building. What if the secretary didn’t know our club, or what if I just gave off the wrong vibe?
Fortunately, my friend met me at the door, introduced me to the office staff, and escorted me to our space. In years past, it was easy to walk into a school, check in at the office and hang with students at lunch. Those days are long gone, and schools need to prioritize safety, so a new strategy for partnering with these institutions is necessary.
It is without question that parishes should partner with schools as much as possible. Schools are at the center of most young people’s lives, where relationships form and minds are molded. If the Church is going to be relevant in the next generation’s lives, she has to learn how to be present in schools.
So, how does one go about building a bridge?
While a school wants to be connected to the community, you can’t wait for them to reach out to you. As a leader, you need to take the first step. When you introduce yourself, set up an appointment where you can learn about the school and its administration, the goal should be discovering ways to serve this part of your mission field.
You might have to make a few attempts before you are successful with your first appointment. Remember, schools are busy, so don’t make your first encounter about pitching all the fantastic ideas circling in your head. Take your time to build the relationship and trust that God has a plan.
PARTNER UP WITH OTHER MINISTRIES
If going to school alone is intimidating, partner up with an organization or club already involved. Two that I recommend are Youth For Christ and Young Life. While they are not Catholic organizations, they are familiar with working with the Catholics. If possible, see if you can join their team as a volunteer. Learn how they engage students and use the relationship not only to bring kids to know Christ but connect them with a local Church.
The benefit of partnering with a ministry that goes into the schools is that it takes away all the work of establishing a relationship with the school administration. They’ll take care of the logistics, and you must show up. It’ll also show some of your students that you are willing to go to them, which will build up trust.
INVEST IN THE SCHOOL WITH NO STRINGS ATTACHED
Your local school might not need you to provide another club, but they may need the parish to assist in other efforts. Before the pandemic, we recognized that our local middle school was starting a food pantry and needed assistance. We were able to connect the school principal with our outreach coordinator. When we started this partnership, we did not ask for anything in return, but we have found immense trust.
When you can invest in the school by helping them establish programs that serve their students, you are showing families in the community that the Church cares about them. Sometimes the best way to partner with a school is to invest in them without expecting anything in return.
UTILIZE PARENTAL LEVERAGE
You might now have time to get involved in the local schools, primarily if you work in a region with them. Instead of trying to partner up with each school, discover parents who are involved. Over the year,s, we’ve encouraged parents in our parish community to run for the PTSA (Parent, Teacher, Student Association). We’ve found parents who are assistant coaches or volunteer in other ways at the school.
We ask those parents to keep the parish in mind when certain initiatives pop up. For example, if the school is looking for space or sponsorship, we can provide it. Get parents thinking about the parish as they get involved in the school and you’ll see a bridge built between the two communities.
BE PRESENT AT BIG OPPORTUNITIES
Try to be present, whether it’s a major sporting event, the school musical, or an art fair. Your presence is not only important for the students, but it’s a chance to meet parents, teachers, and school administrators. Whenever a school event is open to the public, it’s a way for you to break the ice and make yourself known. If you are afraid of going alone, reach out to a coworker or fellow ministry leader. Maybe there are parents or a family you know will be present. Take some of your office hours off campus and go into the community. Your presence will speak volumes.
Schools are essential to your mission field, and you must be present whether you are the youth minister, faith formation coordinator, or pastor. Connecting with the schools in your community will give you more opportunities to share the love and word of God.
How have you built partnerships with schools in your community?