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Presidential Perspective: Waiting on SuperChurch

Philip AmersonIf you haven’t seen the movie Waiting for Superman, you should. This film is a compelling analysis of the state of public education in the United States. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim follows the life story of five young people, documenting their lack of access to quality education. The film’s title, Waiting for Superman, comes from Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a charter school in New York City. Mr. Canada speaks of his dismay as a child of poverty in discovering that there really was no Superman who would fly in and set injustices right.

Growing up, I benefitted from exceptional schools and teachers. Our children also attended public inner- city schools. As a nation we benefitted for decades from generations of investment in what Horace Mann proposed as “common schools.” The idea was that our nation held one thing “in common” and that was access to high quality education. All students, no matter their socioeconomic standing, could expect one thing – excellent public education. This was understood as essential for a healthy and prospering democratic society.

For eight years in the 1970s and 1980s, Elaine, my spouse, served as board member and ultimately as president of the school board in Evansville, Indiana. We learned much during this time about the challenges and possibilities for public education. My appreciation grew. Still, it is impossible to ignore the ways our schools in many places are failing our children. As a pastor in the core-city of Indianapolis, I saw the tragic reality of a system where fewer than 15 percent of the young men in our neighborhood graduated from high school. The pattern of schools failing our youth has only gotten worse since then.

It seems that we in the church have been waiting for Superman – someone or something that will right the wrongs of our situation and bring us back to a time of prosperity. Rather than freeing our pastors and congregations for innovative ministry, too often we belittle those who are on the frontlines of ministry. What if we dreamed new dreams? Not ones that wait on a super person or idea but ones where hundreds of our congregations and denominational systems worked together on schools or healthcare?

Perhaps our worlds of analysis are too narrow. In a recent gathering of church leaders, some spoke of the halcyon days of United Methodism, when we started a new congregation every day! As the group bemoaned our contemporary loss of membership, a voice of hope and perspective was heard. Dr. William Lawrence, American Church historian and dean of Perkins School of Theology, reminded us of the foolishness of believing we could do new church starts without a larger vision for all of society. Bill reminded us that our earlier successes in starting new congregations occurred at the same time we were founding hospitals, colleges, and orphanages. In the decades when United Methodists lived out a public theology to the benefit of all and not simply a few, our vision grew along with our congregations.

For many years we at Garrett-Evangelical have been thinking about ways to encourage congregations to support elementary and high school education, whether public or private. Those who know the story of Wesley’s Kingswood School will understand that our Methodist commitment to education is deeply imprinted within our genotype. Think of the resources we have already in place: facilities that are strategically located, teachers sitting in our pews, internships through our colleges, universities, and seminaries. We have enormous, untapped capacity to make a real difference in our schools.

On Thursday, April 7, 2011, Garrett-Evangelical is sponsoring Partners In Education, a consultation for congregations already engaged in (or hoping to engage in) significant educational ministries. The event will be held at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. The purpose of this event is to bring together congregational leaders involved in K-12 education to strategize new partnerships in underserved communities and develop a network of support. Information is available at www.garrett.edu/PIE.

The wait for Superman or SuperChurch can end. We can grow up... and start being the real, live, witnessing people of God right where we live! It may or may not cause churches to grow again, but it will be a sign to the nation of a church that believes in all of our children!

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