As May begins, many schools are beginning to “wind down.”  At least a few (if not more) children have started their countdown toward summer vacation, and high school seniors already have their minds on graduation and beyond

But this time of year is also fraught with anxiety in many Catholic and Christian schools. In media articles that describe the “deteriorating” circumstances of faith-based schools, every reporting entity focuses on the nasty five-letter word – money.

It is about money – but it’s not ALL about the money, as the media would have us believe. The lack of it is one thing, but the ability to manage it, leverage tuition relative to financial aid, and implement innovative tuition or stewardship models are just some of the items that are lost in today’s headline/soundbyte media.

To help combat this emerging malevolent mindset, through the month of May, each Marketing Matter will be geared toward the fact that it’s NOT all about the money. Here’s a preview of the topics:

May 8 – Ministry vs. Business

May 15 – Enrollment vs. Retention

May 22 – Leadership vs. Faith, Hope and Love

May 29 – Memorial Day: a Day That’s Poorly Utilized

Most of these themes are going to have “difficult” thoughts. I fully expect those who read them to react the way the crowd that followed Jesus did when He told them that He was the Bread of Life. The crowd’s response was, “This man speaks harsh words. We can no longer listen to Him.”

I’m glad The 12 decided to stay with Him, even though they did not fully understand His message. These Marketing Matters will set the stage for the mindset that’s necessary to effectively market our schools. And marketing is only the first step to bring new children to our classrooms…which leads to this week’s Marketing Matter, “To Whom Does Your School Minister?”

I’m sure many of us have heard it over and over again today – “Today, schools are run like a business, rather than as a ministry.”

What’s more, that’s usually spoken with a negative tone. When parents say this, principals are sometimes quick to side with parents, and the conversation turns to longing for the “good old days,” when there was no tuition and vocations to the religious life flourished in Catholic schools.

We must realize being transparent and responsible when it comes to business practices are positive attributes, and must not join in the melancholy.

Instead, we need to remind parents that business practices were not always “best practices” back in those “good old days.” Today, we are called to be accountable, just as the Good Steward was held accountable in the parable which Jesus told. We are accountable for our stewardship of the funds that have been entrusted to us. Accountability has its roots in Scripture, AND is an exemplar of “best practices” in action.

But Catholic, Christian and other faith-based schools are still a ministry! Good business practices and ministry-centered activities are not mutually-exclusive. The problem is that we forget who we, as schools, are ministering to.

So, to whom does your school minister?

Before you answer that, consider your definition of “ministry.”  These definitions of the “noun” form of the word are from the American Heritage Dictionary:

  1. The act of serving; ministration
  2. One that serves as a means; an instrumentality.
  3. The profession, duties, and services of a minister.
  4. The Christian clergy.
  5. The period of service of a minister.
  6. A governmental department presided over by a minister.
  7. The building in which such a department is housed.
  8. The duties, functions, or term of a governmental minister.
  9. Often ministers considered as a group.

For our purposes, the best definition is the first one – it’s the act of providing service.

Note that in a business, an exchange takes place…goods or services are usually exchanged for some sort of currency. In that respect, parents are paying tuition for their child’s education. In a ministry, it’s the providing of service without expecting anything in return. In most ministries, though, funds are necessary to maintain it, and are usually given of ones’ own free will in support of the good works of service that are provided to individuals or groups of individuals.

Faith-based schools, indeed, could be ministries – completely. If they were, they would be totally funded through contributions – from the community, from parishes or the church, from individuals, and from parents.  Until recently, there were several schools and a Diocese that did not charge tuition; however, with changing times come changing circumstances.

It’s all a matter of mindset – and remember, the goal of marketing is simply to open a person’s mind to a new way of thinking.

Are people REQUIRED to support the parish through a levied amount set by the pastor in order for them to be members in good standing? No. Yet, the parish continues to seek contributions of time, talent and treasure to support its work of building and supporting the body of Christ.

Have Catholic, Christian and other faith-based schools come out and said that we are going to charge tuition, and therefore, will no longer accept contributions from members of the community who wish to support the work we do? No. Therefore, both the Catholic school and the parish are ministries that must engage in compliant and secure practices when it comes to the resources entrusted to them.

So to whom do school’s minister? The parents? Or the children that are enrolled in your school? Since faith-based schools are both a ministry and a business (since there is a cost to attend), I’ll bet you’re thinking that the answer here is “both” as well.

That would be incorrect…unless every child in your school was a member of your church or parish.

Faith-based schools minister to the children. They are in the school’s care at least 5 or 6 hours a day for at least 9-10 months out of the year.

Then who ministers to the parents? Unless we hold adult education classes in our schools, parishes and churches minister to parents. To think differently would violate the principle of subsidiarity. For evidence to support this claim, we simply need to look to the Gospels which say that Jesus instructed the adults, but blessed the children. If we only “Teach as Jesus did,” then we’d only be teaching adults. For Catholic schools, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that parents are a child’s first teacher.  Faith-based schools, therefore, are assisting parents carry out their important mission.

In this light, parents are customers. They’re the ones that are paying tuition, and just like any excellent business, we have to provide excellent customer “success.” Notice that it’s not “customer service,” since some would argue that customer service and ministry are the same thing.

They’re not.

Schools must assist parents in their primary role so that parents can “successfully” fulfill the role to which they are called.  Further, good customer service is an expectation today.  It’s the poor customer service that is highlighted in YouTube videos, Facebook posts and reviews on sites like Yelp.  Today’s customer is looking for exceptional/extraordinary/excellent customer service, and it’s only by anticipating the customer’s request and delivering service beyond expectations which will generate customer enthusiasm today.

People will give of their time, talent and treasure to help others who are in need, but have a more difficult time giving of their time, talent and treasure when they know there are others around them in a more financially-sound situation than they are. Therefore, if some parents are expected to pay tuition, then all should be expected to pay some type of tuition. However, if EVERYONE is expected to (and DOES) share of their time, talent and treasure in measure with how they’ve been blessed (and that includes parents, parishioners, community members, businesses, and alumni), then we are acting as a united community – which is Christ’s prayer for all of us.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2008-2023 (Original Publication Date: 20080505)