The following is a final project for Catholic School Leadership at USF last semester (Fall 2013). The idea: write a brief speech based on the idea I am a newly hired President of a Jesuit High School somewhere in the U.S. The circumstances: my first time in front of the faculty, staff, and administration of the school one week before school starts in the Fall.
Let me begin by telling you all how excited I am to be here as your new President and have the opportunity – the blessing – to serve and be a champion for the students, alumni, parents, teachers, and staff of this school.
As some of you know I grew up in Southern California, the Los Angeles area. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten on. After graduating from Loyola High School in Los Angeles, I continued on to Loyola University Chicago where I earned my BA in English and Theology and MA in Theology, and I am currently completing my Doctorate in Catholic Educational Leadership at USF. I’ve spent 11 years in the classroom as a theology teacher first at Loyola High in LA, then at Saint Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, and finally at Saint Ignatius in San Francisco. During my time in Chicago I was also an adjunct professor at DePaul University and University of St. Mary of the Lake and Mundelein Seminary.
I’ve spent 20 years in Jesuit schools as a student and teacher – I’ve truly grown up in an Ignatian environment and feel a profound sense of gratitude for the Society. Other than their friendship, the most important thing Jesuits have given me over the years is the gift of discernment – as I hope they have given you. Under the promptings of the two most important women in my life – my wife and my mother – I began a discernment process during my 7th year at St. Ignatius in Chicago.
Soon into the process, I began to feel a strange call from God – one I resisted and tried to ignore at first: to serve the Church in a new way, and to do so outside of a school environment. Schools were what I knew . . . they were my natural habitat. So moving into an Archdiocesan environment as Director of the Office for Peace and Justice was, well . . . interesting. I felt a bit – probably just a bit – like Abraham being called to leave his home and move to a strange new land. Or, to mix metaphors, a few colleagues at St Ignatius compared the move to crossing over to the Dark Side! But like Abraham’s move, mine offered not just unexpected challenges but also unexpected blessings – most importantly, the opportunity to represent Cardinal George in all matters related to Catholic Social Teaching by serving and nurturing the programs of the office (CRS, CCHD, Justice education, faithful citizenship, and parish sharing) for the 2.2 million Catholics in the 356 parishes in the Archdiocese.
From my time in the classroom and serving the people of the Archdiocese of Chicago, there are many lessons learned I hope to bring to my work here. I’d like to highlight 3 with you today. I see these three as integral to understanding who I am and what I hope for all of you and this venerable institution we all serve. You could call it an initial vision statement for my time here with you.
The first is this: challenges are opportunities not threats. Challenges are opportunities not threats. Although we are in a very good position here – financially, academically, etc. – Catholic schools, including our own, face many challenges today: school closures, funding, access and affordability, population shifts, diversity and inclusion, technological demands, the rise of excellent independent and charter schools, a weak economy, and a struggling Catholic culture, just to name a few. I am firmly convinced that if we see these challenges as threats, we will respond to them in fear and risk our entire enterprise. As a Catholic school we are called to see all things – including and especially these and other challenges – through the lens of the Gospel, to hold these challenges in creative tension with the mystery of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This is no Pollyanna vision for it starts with an honest reckoning with the challenge itself. But it also means responding to the challenge with hope not fear. Possibility, not limitation. Bold creativity, not fearful retreat. We must never forget that every Good Friday has an Easter Sunday.
The second is that success (i.e. the fulfillment of our mission as a Catholic school) depends on community. Success depends on community. At a Catholic school this means more than collegiality or collaboration, as good as they both are. OUR success as a Catholic school, depends upon our ability to creatively offer our gifts to each other, AND honestly recognize our weaknesses in an attempt to constantly and authentically learn from each other. From what I have seen and heard my first weeks here, this mutual service to each other, in many ways already characterizes this community. This gives me great comfort and serves as a call to me to do the same. The title of President, despite what some may think, does not come with special insight or access to answers to tough questions. The fact is: we need each other; I certainly need you. I need your honesty, your care and support, your continued faithful service to our students and common mission. And I must give all those things back to you in kind – I must be honest, must care for and support you, must faithfully serve our students and common mission. And I expect you to hold me to those promises.
Lastly, leadership is about relationships – creating, sustaining, and repairing them. That’s what happens everyday in every classroom, field, court, theater, club meeting, department meeting, and carpool. As educators you are all relationship experts – you foster relationships between yourselves and your students, among your students, and between your students and the disciplines you teach. You coaches and counselors, librarians and staff do the same in your own spheres. Like all of you, the bulk of my activity this year (and every year) will revolve around relationships. It is true that a major component of the job of president is “external relations.” I will be reaching out to alumni, donors, community groups, parents, etc. This means I will spend a lot of time off campus – spreading the good news of the work you and our students do every day, working to create and sustain – and even repair – relationships that will serve our common mission. I certainly have an open-door policy and hope that you stop by whenever you can, but every time you come to my office and find it empty, please know I am out there, in the community, working on your behalf.
But this external activity is not enough. I also want to create relationships with all of you and our students. To that end I would like to invite each one of you to meet with me individually and I will set aside a full hour for all who want it. When I am on campus I will focus on getting to know this community and letting you know me. This means I will be doing a lot of listening this year, but it will be active listening – so I will also be asking a lot of questions. Please know that these questions are not meant to interrogate, but to discover and understand the good that you do every day in the service of our common mission. I do not have an agenda, rather WE have a MISSION. A common mission that we are all called to live and serve.
Please know my sincere gratitude for past service to this mission and for your generous welcome to me and my family. You have been and will remain in my prayers and I ask you to also pray for me as we embark together on this school year.
I’d like to end by reading our mission statement aloud so it more than I will guide our way and have the final word this morning:
We are a diverse community dedicated to educating young men and women for lives of faith, love, service and leadership. Through outstanding teaching and personal formation, the school challenges its talented student body to intellectual excellence, integrity, and life-long learning and growth. Inspired by the gospel of Jesus Christ, this community strives to use God’s gifts to promote social justice for the greater glory of God.