Jay’s Blog – Partnering with Promise

GCS Art Students were presenting Promise Academy Student with portraits.
GCS Art Students were presenting Promise Academy Student with portraits.

Over the years, our school has had the opportunity to partner with a lot of great ministries for the advancement of God’s Kingdom in Tyler and beyond. Perhaps the partnership that has brought us the most blessing is our venture with Promise Academy.

If you’re unaware of Promise Academy, know this: our community’s six low-performing schools are all located north of Front Street, in the area known to all of us as North Tyler.  Before Promise, all of Tyler’s private schools were located south of Front Street, and most (like Grace) are located just on or south of Loop 323.  Christian families in North Tyler had no Christian education that was either financially or geographically accessible to them. For years, our school has worked to raise financial aid to allow as many families as possible to be at Grace, but the need exceeds the dollars raised.  For almost as long as I’ve been a head of school, I have heard Christian families from the North Tyler community express their dream to have a Christian school in their community. I prayed about how Grace could be a part of making that happen.

Sarah Cumming was a middle school teacher at Grace. She began teaching for us in 2003, right out of LeTourneau. Sarah was a great teacher, and had a deep understanding of what it meant to “teach Jesus.” Her husband was a stockbroker, and his company transferred them to New York City in 2006. While there, Sarah taught for Manhattan Christian Academy, located on the edge of Harlem. At MCA she worked with under-served students, kids for whom Christian education would not ordinarily be possible, but for the generosity of a few gracious people. There, Sarah got a vision for what might possible at home.

Six years later, Sarah and her husband returned to Tyler. Sarah began praying about starting a Christian school in North Tyler, serving that under-served community. After asking others to pray with her, Sarah came to see me to tell me about her dream. She told me later she was scared to meet with me, because she was afraid that I would be disappointed, because she now wanted to do what I had dreamed of doing: starting a school in North Tyler. And, she was right. I was disappointed. I had a pretty bad attitude about it for the first half of that conversation, griping internally to the Lord that He was clearly calling her to do what I had wanted. In the middle of that conversation, however, God spoke to me as clear as day: “Your job is not to do this work; your job is to help her do it.”

From that point forward, Grace worked alongside Sarah, her board, several pioneer families, and her talented staff (along with many others, I might add) to help get the school started. Our students participated in service work days at New Days Church, which would house Promise in its early years, getting the school fixed up and ready for students. Our curriculum director, Karla Foreman, was integral in helping Sarah get Promise’s curriculum up and running in the early days. I helped train its board, and Grace and its people helped lend credibility and support to the ministry start-up. And, in August 2015, Promise opened its doors to its first students.

Shortly after Promise became reality, I read a book that challenged my preconceptions of ministry deeply, and reaffirmed our commitment to our North Tyler sister school. In Rooting for Rivals, Peter Greer warns that so many Christian schools, universities, and other organizations began Christian in mission and deviated from that path. He observes that one of the practices that kept mission-focused organizations centered on Jesus was for their boards and leadership to focus on God’s Kingdom work beyond the four walls of their institutions.  In other words, one of the best ways to stay focused on our Christian mission, and to build the heart of Jesus into our own kids, was to really care and be on mission for what God is doing in our community outside our school.

Greer notes that generous, open-handed, mission-focused leaders are first Kingdom-minded. It’s not that what’s happening within the organization isn’t important; it’s critical. Greer notes only that leaders have to care even more about advancing God’s Kingdom work throughout their communities overall, than simply about what’s in it for their organizations. Only by doing so do they actually stay on mission and, by God’s grace, also do what’s best for their constituents within their ministry.

Further, Greer says that generous, open-handed, mission-focused leaders have an abundance mindset, rather than a scarcity mindset. The God who brought forth food from heaven to feed his people, fed thousands with a handful of loaves and fish, and who owns everything there is can be trusted to provide everything we need. We can be courageously generous, knowing our God will abundantly care for us. Conversely, those with a scarcity mindset are frightened to share, scared to give to others, because they’re always afraid of giving up a part of their piece of the pie. Those with an abundance mentality trust that God is their provider, and He can always make a bigger pie.

I’ve been amazed over the years to watch our board, leaders, teachers, and parents embrace these ideas, and support and engage in the ministry of Promise. In 2019, our school board even added to Grace’s strategic plan that developing a deeper connection with Promise was a priority.

All the while, it has been our joy as a school to do ministry alongside and learn from the students, families, and parents at this amazing school. We have engaged in professional development together, our students sharing service-learning experiences together, students from each school visiting the other’s school and learning from them, and many other collaborative ventures. Promise students and staff have taught our kids and faculty a broader perspective on life, engaging us in many different ways to be a blessing to our larger community, and several Promise families have become a part of our own Grace family. We’ve become a richer, more Kingdom-focused school that “teaches Jesus” better because of Promise, and God has blessed and enriched our school and our lives because of our partnership.

People often ask me why I’m in favor of the parental choice initiatives now making their way through the Texas State Legislature.  I believe that God has given parents the primary authority to educate their children, and every parent should have the power and right to choose a Christian education for his or her kids, if that’s what God is calling them to provide. (And, it won’t surprise you to know I believe, generally speaking, that a Christian education is the best education in this day and age for disciples of Jesus who want their children to be disciples, as well).

Some states’ school choice initiatives are universal, meaning they provide for families in every economic situation to receive state funds to educate children as they choose. Texas very well may get there at some point in the not-too-distant future, but it will probably be difficult in this political climate for that to happen the first time around. It’s possible that whatever passes in Texas at first may have income restrictions, providing for families who tend to struggle more financially than others to be the first to have opportunities at parent choice dollars, given that their economic circumstances prohibit them from exercising such choice now. As time passes, and parent choice initiatives are proven in those states to be effective, most parent choice initiatives in other states like Texas have expanded to reach many families, with fewer or no income restrictions, like most of the families in our school. That’s what we are hoping for, if not now, then the future.

For now, I do know that any parent choice initiative whatsoever would be a game-changer for schools like Promise, that because they serve an under-served community have to raise well over 50 percent of their operating budgets every year, which is a constant challenge to its viability. And, because it is our sister school, and we are Kingdom-minded people who want all God’s people to flourish and grow, to thrive and transform and impact their community and ours in the next generation for the gospel of Jesus, what is good for Promise is good for Grace. For the sake of this partnership, and for the sake of providing more parents over time the opportunity to choose a Christian education for their kids, I encourage you to support parental choice in our state and our community.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.