High-performing Church: E-pistle 07.01.11

High-performing Church: E-pistle 07.01.11

Jeremy Nowak, formerly the CEO of The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), who this week became the President of The William Penn Foundation, spoke on Tuesday night at Rodeph Shalom to about 100 lay and clergy leaders from diverse congregations across the city. Nowak’s “assigned topic” was Philadelphia’s assets and challenges as P.O.W.E.R. (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild) develops a strategy for our city to better serve all its residents, particularly those who often get overlooked and left behind.

If you want to know more about what Nowak said about job creation, gun violence, fixing the public schools… or what P.O.W.E.R. is planning, ask Alice, Beth and Michael, who were all there.

Nowak insists that the greatest difference that could be made for Philadelphia would be to change its political culture: effectively bringing the interests and needs of “the broad middle of row-home Philly” back to the table. It’s the Jeffersonian ideal: an informed, involved ‘everyman and everywoman.’ Community organizing is an attempt to give them their rightful place among other, big stakeholders.

What intrigued me most was Nowak’s comments about “high-performing schools.” At TRF, he began the movement for Charter Schools, because, he explained, the district system does not work for under-performing schools. “I can walk into a school and in five minutes tell you if the adults or the kids are running the place.”

Nowak estimates that Philadelphia currently has 15 to 20 effective elementary schools. He challenged: “If that number were 100, the whole city would be transformed.”

The first school he worked with was Shoemaker Junior High School in West Philadelphia. From Time Magazine’s February 22, 2010 article, “A Quick Fix for America’s Worst Schools:”

In 2006, Shoemaker was considered one of Philadelphia’s most troubled schools. Fewer than a third of its eighth-graders exhibited proficiency on the state math exam. Fewer than half were proficient in reading. Violence was common, and students had full run of the hallways. Most of the bulletin boards had been torched, and the principal’s office had metal bars on the windows. One teacher says even the UPS guy was hesitant to go inside.

Three years later, students walk through Shoemaker’s halls quietly in single-file lines, the school’s walls are graffiti-free, test scores have increased dramatically, and packages are presumably being delivered on

If this sounds like an entirely different school, that’s because it basically is. In fall 2006, the School District of Philadelphia gave the building over to Mastery, a local operator of charter schools — that is, ones that are publicly funded, but privately managed. The adults left, the kids remained, and the once failing school has been turned around.

As the article points out, the strategy was to “switch out” all the adults, and to transform the school keeping the same group of students. Mastery brought in new administrators and teachers. …Leaders who could use information, standards, rewards and disincentives to provide faculty and students with quick, useful feedback, letting them know if they were doing what was expected/necessary. Mastery not only turned that school around; it learned from and could replicate the success in other schools.

Such “narratives of hope” enable us to recognize and to act, providing do-able steps towards improvement in systems that otherwise seem too big, complicated and beyond control to affect. This is another of the aims of community organizing.

At Old First we’re dedicated to creating a “high-performing church.” Isn’t that what our ‘covenant ministry’ is about? So, translating loosely from one context to another, from schools to church:

~ Are we clear about the standard of success for our congregation? Serving a larger community? Helping people who participate in our ministry develop a deeper spirituality? Turning out more people with a greater love of service?

~ If charter schools are “freed of some of the rules, regulations and statutes that apply to other schools in exchange for some type of accountability… producing certain results set forth in the school’s charter,” what has Old First been freed of in exchange for a greater accountability? In covenant ministry, what are the results we signed on for?

~ To do church well, what information must we be able to master and use? Are there rewards and disincentives that could tighten feedback loops so we become more aware of what we do and whether it is effective?

~ Does the “UCC denominational system” — whether that means ‘looking to the national church to fix us,’ or ‘counting on our feisty tradition of free church polity to offer the leadership we need’ — resource congregations for transformation, to thrive? If not, what system can prompt the needed improvements?

~ When in a congregation are “the adults are in charge, instead of the kids?” Isn’t it about leading with the maturity and strength of a public vision, rather than succumbing to our personal anxiety and fears? Can we tell “in the first 5 minutes” whether the church or any meeting is being led positively or negatively?

~ “Switching out the adults” …the very sound of it elicits a response like “but we can’t do that; we’re a church!” And transfers and firings are tricky for a mostly volunteer organization! But shouldn’t we take seriously what Old First says about gifts and callings? If people are not effective in one position, doesn’t church have an interest AND a responsibility to gently move them to a leadership role where they can excel?

~ What percentage of Philadelphia’s churches, synagogues, temples and mosques are excelling? How many UCC congregations can be classified as high-performing? What difference would it make in this city and country if the numbers of successful faith communities were multiplied?

~ Are we at Old First learning lessons about revitalization that could be shared? Should we be asking ourselves how our success can be replicated?

See you in church,


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