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The purpose of this study was to understand the religious dimension of lay leaders in Catholic schools, particularly the role of principal.  This study was done because though Catholic schools purposes and goals have not changed much since their beginning, many complex and powerful changes in Catholic school context have changed, especially the growth of lay leadership in schools.

Using a qualitative interpretivist framework, the researchers employed multiple case studies of six lay principals leading rural Catholic schools in New South Wales, Australia.  The four research questions focused on the principals’ perceptions of their advancement of Catholic mission, the practical ways they enact and extend that mission, the tensions they encounter in that activity, and their perception of their own preparation for the role of Catholic school principal.

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The six principals were chosen based on four criteria: five years or more in their position, a mix of genders, different school sizes, and their ability to clearly communicate their experiences as a lay Catholic principal.  Each interview lasted approximate ninety minutes and were followed up by a second interview about one week after the initial.  All interviews were conducted over an eight month period.  Collected data included interviews, field notes, reflexive journals, observations, and documents.

The researchers key findings affirm that principals are critical to promoting and extending Catholic identity as positional leaders who promote interpersonal relationships.  Principal are the key symbolic and cultural leaders of their schools with enormous powers of influence.

Principals articulated the importance of their formation beginning with childhood religious education and upbringing, but unanimously reported a lack of preparation for their role and an equal lack of appropriate ongoing formation

(professional, spiritual, and theological) while in it.  An irregularity in the research was revealed because in this study principals affirmed the importance and help of previous managerial work in schools (eg. as vice principal) whereas much previous research has concluded the opposite.

The study also identified six common challenges faced by lay Catholic principals: keeping Catholic mission and identity central, increases in non-Catholic student populations, difficulties with parish/(arch) diocesan support, changing expectations due to the transition from clerical leadership to lay, gender problems rooted in clerical assumptions about women’s traditional roles, and a continuously growing list of duties that are more and more overwhelming for principals.  The researchers also listed clear implications of their study: the need for public clarity of principals regarding Catholic mission and culture, the primacy of promoting the religious education of students, the need to examine enrollment procedures in the light of the school’s Catholic identity, the need to ensure the hiring of principals with both professional and spiritual competence, and the necessity of staffing theology departments with well-qualified instructors.  Additionally,

new models of shared and collaborative leadership should be employed,

a dedicated position should be created to directly oversee the Catholic mission of the school, parish priests need to see themselves as equal partners with lay school leaders, programs of mentorship as well as professional, spiritual, and theological development for principals need to be enacted.  The authors did not identify the limits of their study or opportunities for future research.

Belmonte, A., & Cranston, N. (2009). The Religious Dimension of Lay Leadership in Catholic Schools: Preserving Catholic Culture in an Era of Change. Catholic Education: A Journal Of Inquiry And Practice12(3), 294-319.

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