MILLTOWN – Catholic school officials are kidding themselves if they believe they can keep the status quo and expect to be around in a few decades, a former high school administrator and campus minister told educators in Wilmington on Aug. 27.
Conventual Franciscan Father Michael Martin, director of Catholic campus ministry at Duke University in Durham, N.C., was the keynote speaker at the annual Spirituality Day for teachers, principals and other Catholic school staff members at St. Mark’s High School. Before going to Duke in 2010, Father Martin was principal and president at his alma mater, Archbishop Curley High School in Baltimore.
He has seen a downward trend in Catholic school enrollment, which is also true in the Diocese of Wilmington. Previous assumptions about and methods of recruiting students need to be re-examined, he said.
“If we keep going like this, there will be no Catholic schools in 30 years,” he said.
As director of Duke’s campus ministry program, he is responsible for securing funding each year. What he has found is that there are very generous people willing to support such a program if a quality mission is put before them. The same is possible with Catholic education.
He made several suggestions on how schools could revitalize themselves. First, he said the schools need to have a clarity of mission and vision. Various schools need to have a uniform approach to the mission of Catholic education, and that mission needs to be articulated in a compelling fashion.
School officials need a way to measure their institutions’ performance regarding the mission. Father Martin said the church wants educators to make disciples for the kingdom. If teachers and administrators are not sure what the kingdom is, how do they make disciples, he asked.
School personnel can overcome the challenges of doing this in a few ways. First, they should be rooted in Christ and model what they would like their students to be.
“If you’re afraid of that … you’re in good company with the rest of us sinners,” he said.
Second, teachers must balance being timely – understanding the needs of their students and ready to support them – and timeless – relaying the values and principles the children will need to flourish.
“We have to find timely ways to communicate timeless principles,” Father Martin said.
Schools need to either throw in the towel or identify the people who have the ideas to change the way things are done, he continued. Common assumptions and formerly standard ways of doing business are no longer viable.
Research shows that half of Catholics in the United States leave the church and only 11 percent return. Most who leave do so by age 23, and the belief that they will return for marriage or their children’s baptisms is “a pipe dream.” But the news is not all bad. Teachers are in a position to change the trends, Father Martin said.
“I hope that gets you pumped up,” he said.
They can give their students personal stories of how they have experienced God’s presence. They can foster connections to God and be catalysts for transformation. And they should stop waiting for the bishops to act, he said.
“I’m not bashing the bishops,” he emphasized. “They need help.”
He encouraged teachers to show the larger church how to engage people and either keep them active in the faith or bring them back. He called for “bold engagement” from educators. Schools need to focus more on discipleship “make it a calling card of Catholic schools.
“We cannot step into the shadows. We have to do this in service of the church,” he said.
To help get there, he said schools should measure their progress. As a high school president, he learned how important it was to be able to show progress to benefactors and parents. Schools should hire the right people, those who are able to articulate the mission and vision. And they need to market their mission, making this the thing that differentiates Catholic schools from others.
“The soft sell isn’t working,” Father Martin said. “We’re afraid to say what our mission should be.”
If the schools do those things, they should not have problems finding families willing to support them. Catholic schools have many positives and could have a bright future.
“We have a lot to rejoice about.”