Volume 5 Number 3
by Barbara Chaapel
If you’re a kid who goes to Van Cleve Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio, you certainly know someone at Westminster Presbyterian Church.
That’s because since the beginning of the 1997 school year, Westminster has had a special partnership with Van Cleve, a partnership that is the church’s only mission project.
“Before Van Cleve, we had a United Way approach to mission,” says George “Sandy” McConnel (PTS Class of 1978 and the church’s pastor and head of staff). “Anyone in the church could recommend a group that needed help and our mission committee would usually give them a nominal amount. We were dividing our budget too many ways and had little personal involvement.”
All that changed when McConnel, the session, and the two associate pastors, Glenn and Miriam Leupold, also PTS alums (Class of 1988), began a serious discernment process about the congregation’s mission.
“We started by discerning the need in our city,” says McConnel. “We discovered that Dayton, one of the first communities to do school busing in the sixties, had experienced white flight and was now a city of mostly African Americans whose public school system had really deteriorated.” (Dayton was judged the second least effective school system in Ohio, with only 6% of its students graduating with what would be considered a standard high school education.)
The need was clear.
The congregation then proceeded to inventory the gifts of its 1300 members, discovering that education topped the list. “We’re a highly educated church, with 35% of our members having education beyond the bachelor’s degree,” says McConnel. And a study of members’ vocations revealed more people involved in teaching and school administration than in any other profession.
The resources were there.
Need plus resources plus lots of prayer, and Westminster’s session had a new, singular mission focus.
“Our goal was to become known in Dayton as the church that made a difference in education,” says Glenn Leupold, associate pastor for mission whose job it is to oversee, plan, and care for the partnership.
“We chose Van Cleve because it was the closest school as the crow flies,” says McConnel. And it was a school for the arts, a good match for a congregation that has a strong music program.
After meetings with the principal, teachers, and the church’s boards, the partnership was off and running. “We wanted to keep it as broadly based as possible,” explains Leupold, “doing things that benefitted students, faculty, families, our members.”
Some of those things?
Another goal is that “every significant group in the congregation is involved in the partnership in one way,” says Leupold. The youth group has sponsored a Halloween party for the kids. A Bible study group oversees Christmas gift-giving for Van Cleve families. “The choir and the finance committee, everyone is challenged to find a way to connect,” he says. And it’s working.
The Dayton school board is holding the program up as a model for other school-church/synagogue partnerships, according to Leupold, with the goal that every public school in Dayton will have a partner.
And while the statistics and test scores are not yet in, the anecdotal evidence is positive. “Kids are doing better academically,” says McConnel. “Our members live their mission, rather than just supporting it. And Westminster is now known throughout Dayton as the church that partners with the Van Cleve school.”
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary