The Importance of Structure in the Overseas Christian School. Foundational Documents, Part 1 of 3

This is part one of a three part series on the importance of structure at overseas Christian schools. Having the right amount of structure is important for any organization but because of the unique dynamics that is part of a Christian school that operates in an overseas context it is especially important. I write this article referring mostly to the sound writing of  Bolman and Deal, and their book Reframing Organizations. I also allude to my own personal experience living and teaching overseas. I hope you enjoy the article. Please feel free to write me with any comments or questions.

In their classic work on organizational leadership, Reframing Organizations, Lee Bolman and Terrance Deal write about the importance of an organization having the right amount of structure to keep it in balance. “The assumption of the structural frame reflects a belief in rationality and a faith that the right formal arrangements minimize problems and increases quality and performance” (Location 1200). Having the right amount of structure is crucial for all schools; however, it’s especially important for overseas Christian schools because of their complicated dynamics. Based on personal experience teaching at five different overseas Christian schools in twenty years, I have observed the dysfunction that happens when an overseas Christian school lacks balance in the structural frame. Four of the five schools where I have served were fully accredited institutions. This article addresses a few of the key structural elements that need to be in place and implemented in order for overseas Christian schools to avoid identity problems and high amounts of dysfunction.
Foundational Documents
“An essential ingredient of the structural frame is that ‘appropriate forms of coordination and control ensure individuals and units work together in the service of organizational goals’ ” (Bolman and Deal PG 40). The effectiveness of any organization will always flow from its reason for existing. This is especially true of the overseas Christian school. One of the critical questions the school will need to answer is why are we here? This is not a simple question. Over time, overseas Christian schools who do not have a clear purpose will struggle keeping the everyday practices of the school in balance. It is also important to point out that a school coming to a clear understanding of its mission through questioning its purpose is not a onetime event. This question needs to be reviewed consistently and periodically by the stakeholders and the wider school community. Overseas Christian schools are traditional and conservative in nature and yet, at the same time, have consistently changing dynamics and challenges. Because of this ever-present conflict, an overseas Christian school that does not consistently and periodically review its mission and core values may find itself in a full- blown identity crisis. As Condoleezza Rice states, “When a new challenge arises, the immediate response is to try to handle it within existing structure; but sometimes what is needed is an entirely different set of arrangements” (Location 2127).
Failure to consistently review mission and vison statements can have treacherous consequences. It is not uncommon to hear stories of an overseas Christian school suffering from various levels of identity problems. Some meet up to the challenge; some do not. In the past twenty to thirty years, American missionary schools have seen changing demographics in their student population because of the overall decline of American churches sending out missionaries. In one school where the author served, its stated purpose was to be a school for missionary children but only had 10 missionary children out of a student population of about 200. While the demographics of the school had gradually changed over time, the school failed to adjust to the community it was serving. Most of its supporting documents, policy and procedures, and even financial policies were still in place for serving missionary families even though few missionary children were attending the school. Needless to say, the school ran into one conflict after another. It can be painful for the missionary school community to come to the realization, possibly too late, that they no longer have a missionary school. The schools that can meet the challenge are the ones that pay attention. They pay attention to ensure that there is alignment between the practical, everyday operations of the school and its overall mission and vision. Some schools get lost in the routine and are forever stuck in survival mode, never able to see past the school day that is in front of them. In schools like these, the leadership is often reactive instead of proactive. Schools who dig in their heels and are unable to reflect on its purpose and change may end up closing down or, even worse, propagate a dying institution for the sake of maintaining the status quo or providing employment for teachers and nationals.
Why do some schools seem to be able to make the leap and appropriately solve their identity crisis while others are forever stuck in limbo? Because the status quo is safe. Restructuring and making the hard decisions are often risky for school board members and administrators. Again, I refer to Bolman and Deal, “Organizations are reluctant to make major changes because a stable structure reduces confusion and uncertainty, maintains internal consistency, and protects the existing equilibrium” (Location 1999). The potential price of holding on to the status quo is a structure that grows increasingly misaligned with the environment. Eventually, the gap gets so big that a major overhaul is inevitable. “Restructuring, in this view, is like spring cleaning: we accumulate debris over months or years until we are finally forced to face up to the mess” (Location 1999). I once served at a missionary boarding school that had a specific mission of educating children whose parents lived and served in an indigenous tribe. Over time, the school began to see fewer and fewer of students referred to as “tribal kids” enrolled in the school. The school either failed to see or ignored this dynamic due to lack of procedures or a willingness to review and assess if they were still fulfilling their mission. After many years, the school administrators finally came to the realization that most of their students were children of staff and teachers working at the school or children of parents who owned a business in the city. They were no longer fulfilling their purpose. After grappling with the hard truth for some time, the school eventually closed down for what was stated as contingency reasons.

Coming in July Part 2 on the School’s Curriculum.