In 2009, my daughter completed a 10 month internship with the Marianist Family Retreat Center at Cape May Point, NJ, and our family had the great blessing to celebrate the Easter Triduum there in prayer, fellowship and celebration. While there, I was introduced to a book by Jon Sobrino titled “No Salvation Outside the Poor.” It’s a series of essays by a Sobrino, a Spanish-born Jesuit theologian who spent 50 years in El Salvador. It’s very heavy reading, but the second essay of the book, Depth and Urgency of Option for the Poor, speaks of the poor as a “mystery,” which brings him to a stunning statement – “The poor give ultimacy to the mission of the Church.” He asserts that “It is not the Church that has a mission, but the reverse; Christ’s mission creates itself a Church.”

That revelation brought three statements of Christ together for me (there’s always three) – 1) “The poor you will always have with you;” 2) “You are rock, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it;” and 3) “As you go into all the world, proclaim the Gospel to everyone.” When we begin to consider all three of these statements together, along with the pressure today’s economic situations continue exert on families and pressure to increase tuition in faith-based and private schools, we need to step back and consider this question: “What part of ‘everyone’ don’t you understand?”

The first two statements begin to make sense when considered together. Christ said we will always have the poor with us, yet there are organizations whose goal is to eliminate poverty. To trust in the words of Jesus, to put it bluntly, means that goal will never be reached. However, it makes sense that the Church will always have a mission to minister to the poor, and since the poor will always be present, the Church will never cease to exist because the mission of the Church is to serve the poor.  There will always be someone in need.

So how does this relate to marketing your school?  Here are three considerations:

First, many schools have developed their mission statement as part of the process of defining their mission, vision and core values. Then, those mission statements are included in documents and posters so that everyone knows why the school should be supported through gifts of time, talent and treasure. May I suggest that many of these mission statements could be condensed into four words – “Because Jesus said so.” This ties in very well Sobrino’s praxis mentioned in the first paragraph of this article.

Second, when schools go through the process of developing a mission statement, vision statement and core values, so much time is spent on the mission statement that many times, the next two tasks are then crafted to fit the mission. Mission, Vision and Core Values answer the respective questions “Who are we?” “Where do we want to go?” and “How do we get there?” The thought is that we first need to know ourselves (which is true), and then we have to know where we’re going before we map a course of how we can get there. However, if our mission is already defined for us as members of the Church who continue Christ’s mission, then step one really speaks to our preparedness and formation in the faith, rather than what our school does in preparing and forming only the students for their future.  St Anne School in Wabasso, Minnesota says it well: “We enter to learn Christ, and exit to serve Christ.”  Note that the “we” includes everyone.

Third, many schools are charging tuition amounts that are cost-prohibitive to the poor.  Some would say that since their school offers financial aid, so that’s only a perception.  However, perception is reality.  Many parents see four- or five-digit figures and think, “I can’t afford this.” So how do we maintain a high-quality, academically excellent faith-based service-centric education, yet offer a preferential option for the poor?

I heard one administrative executive state how it can be done without even realizing that he stated it – budget for them. If you have 150 children in the school, at 10 percent of them have difficulty paying tuition because of their current economic status, then budget as if you have 140 children in the school. Then, anything that economically disadvantaged parents can pay is truly a gift of their treasure. It sounds simple enough, but the net impact is that everyone’s tuition will increase to care for all these people.

I can hear the objections now: “But parents will be upset!  Those that can afford to pay want to pay for their children and not for others. They complain that everyone should pay their fair share!” I didn’t say this would be easy – only possible. It’s our job to be educators – and children are not the only population that is educated in a Catholic or Christian school.  We are called to also educate parents.  If parents of children in a Catholic or Christian school don’t believe that it’s their responsibility to care for those who aren’t as blessed as they are, then go back to the top and read this again.  Or, perhaps take a look at 2 Corinthians.

There is one objection I can understand – “But ALL of our children are poor.” If that’s the case, then your school must rely on outside sources for funds, and that means development. Or, in some cases, stewardship on the part of the parish. Or BOTH!  So many faith-based school have charged tuition for so long that they think that’s the only business model they can utilize to fund their school, and development revenue is an afterthought since the school can’t afford to hire someone to champion the role.

There are, however, schools that are in existence that have reversed that model.  A development director shares the school’s case, vision and mission statement to engage donors and develop the relationship with them so that they’ll support the bulk of the school’s operation, and then the tuition paid by parents is just a small part of the school’s overall budget.

And yes, there are still parishes that consider their school an essential part of their ministry, and the school is run as a ministry, relying on the stewardship of all people of the parish. They charge no tuition. How do they do it? Visionary leadership and a charismatic faith that stirs everyone to not “buy into” the mission, but to come to the realization that since this is what they are called to do as member of the faith, they are the mission.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2009-2019 (Original Publication Date: 20090427)