Jay Blogs – What Doesn’t Change
I reported for my first day of work at Grace Community School on January 2, 2002. I came in the front door, newly-minted Development Director, ready for work in my fresh-pressed lawyer suit, eager to hit the ground running. Much to my chagrin, it had escaped my notice that schools don’t go back to work the day after New Year’s Day. I think the janitor let me in that day, and there I stood, in an empty office in an empty building (then a smaller high school) wondering what I was supposed to be doing. I wasn’t even sure what development was all about; I knew it had to do with fundraising, but that was about it. “Onboarding” was not really a thing, and my predecessor had already left. So, I opened a filing cabinet in my office and started reading. That was day one, an inauspicious beginning to a what would become a beautiful life in community.
Anniversaries are always opportunities for reflection and celebrating what God has done in our lives. As I am in my 20th year as head of Grace Community School, I think about all the things that have changed from that first day at work. At some point along the way, much too early, I became head of school. We’ve added around 600 additional students from diapers to diplomas, Early Education through 12th grade, along with their families. We’ve added lots of facilities, including about 2/3rds of our high school, our 5th and 6th grade building, part of our elementary building, and most of our athletic fields and fine arts facilities, and we’ve renovated lots of others. We’ve gone from being known only in our community to having a national reputation for being an outstanding Christian school, allowing us to bring an accomplished group of Christian leaders and teachers on board from all over the country. And, we’ve received most of the accolades there are for schools like ours to receive.
That’s all really great, and I’m so thankful to the Lord for His goodness in providing those things. In many ways, they are what initially attract a family or donor to our school, what gives us our “curb appeal.” But, as I look back on the past 20 years of our school, and even as it nears its 50th anniversary, I’m most grateful for what has not changed.
There are things that were true about Grace that cold, lonely day I walked in here that are still blessedly true today. These are the things that give this school its identity, and that we’ve all come to love and appreciate about it, whether you are one of the precious few who were here then, or one of the many who have since come to know and love it. Here are just a few that came to mind:
We lead with Jesus. Before I ever came to work here, my wife and I were like many of y’all: parents looking for an answer to educate our young children. We also were considering all the options, public and private (fewer private schools back then, but Tyler still had a lot of options for a community its size). One night, some friends asked us to attend the Grace Community School banquet. I remember listening to Julie Aldredge (who was here for years, moved away, and is back with us) leading her fifth graders through their Bible memory verses, hearing God’s Word coming from young lips. I noticed how sharp the high school kids were, how poised and well-spoken, how they weren’t just well-educated but well-versed in God’s Word.
As we walked out to the car that night, my wife commented on how impressive the evening had been. “We still need to keep an open mind and tour the other schools, though,” she said. “We can tour anywhere you want, but our kids have to go to THAT school,” I replied. Deep called to deep, the Holy Spirit in that place calling to His presence within me, and I just knew. He’s been doing that to and for moms and dads for 50 years, before and since.
Jesus is evident here: in the hallways, in the curriculum, in the lives of the teachers, in everything we do. One day in 2010, I was flying back from San Francisco, having just attended an organizational meeting for what would become CESA, now one of our accrediting bodies and a well-respected international Christian school organization that your school helped build. I was reading a book, Make It Stick, by the Heath brothers, about communicating complex and profound messages in simple ways. I was praying and asking God to show me a simple way to communicate all that we do at Grace, and He gave me “Grace exists to ‘teach Jesus.’” That’s where it came from, but the reason it stuck is because it was already true, and has always been. In all that it does, this place leads with Jesus.
We are a “people first” people. As a school that leads with Jesus, what is important to Him has to be important to us. And, what’s most important to Jesus? People. People are who He came to earth for, who He bled and died for, the flesh He took on when He became the God-man. If people are important to Him, they have to be important to us. We believe that education is a form of discipleship, and discipleship is life-on-life. The people who teach and coach your kids are the most important part of what we do at Grace- they are the point of the spear. And, a great school, like any organization, rises and falls on leadership. Teachers and coaches have to be well-led, by a caring, loving leadership team who first and foremost loves the Lord. And all those people need to be well-supported by a godly staff who have a servant’s heart and are characterized by kindness and grace.
Facilities are important, and we’ve invested in them over the years. Our facilities are nice, but admittedly not as grand as many of our neighbors. They accomplish our purposes, and we have a master planning group meeting as I write this formed to look at the long-term needs of our school as we grow, and to build a plan to meet those needs. But, the majority of the money you entrust to us, whether tuition or donations, go to the people who make Grace, Grace: the people who love and serve your kids, caring for them, investing in their intellectual development and professional growth, and, just as importantly, walking alongside them to help them grow spiritually. We build into these people, so that our people can build into, edify, educate, and disciple your childre.
When COVID struck our schools, and we were all wondering whether we should be back in class or not, our teachers, coaches, and leaders never doubted or wavered in our decision to get back in school and in class as quickly as possible. We didn’t make that decision when COVID struck; we had already made that decision years before. Because we are people first, life-on-life, and we simply had to be together, because that’s what education and discipleship is all about, life together. Which brings me to the final characteristic that has always been true of us.
We love each other. One of the things I hear time and again from families, students, teachers, and everyone associated with Grace, perhaps its greatest defining capacity, is the strength of its community: the way we love each other. For millennia, Christians have been defined by their love for each other, even when their other ways seemed strange or even repugnant to foreign ears. We see it most clearly when a family or member of our school is in crisis: the way our families, teachers, coaches, and leaders rally around them with prayer, emotional support, and meeting material needs.
But, it’s so much more than that. It’s the way we consciously work to think the best of each other first, to give the benefit of the doubt, to trust. It’s the way people who have a real, genuine grievance approach each other most of the time, with grace and kindness. It’s the way we are inclined to give our kids and each other a second chance, to seek and extend forgiveness. It’s in the way we’re always trying to open our doors to “one more” student, if at all possible, and to make our school as available to as many families who want a Christian education as possible. And, it’s in the way we give prospective families the benefit of the doubt if there is even a slight grace-filled reason to do so.
I love this place, and I love our people, and I’m so very grateful that this beautiful, grace-filled place and people have opened their doors and their hearts to my family and me for all these years. We live in a divisive culture with lots of pain and isolation. Leading with Jesus, being “people first” people, and loving each other is both countercultural and powerful: powerful in creating an environment that operates like rocket fuel for teaching and discipling our kids, and powerful in giving testimony to the gospel in our community and the world.
Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.