We interviewed Mike Tenbusch, author of The Jonathan Effect: Helping Kids and Schools Win the Battle Against Poverty. He shares from his experiences how churches can partner with their local schools and become a positive, proactive influence for change.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved with ministry in the school system?
I was born and raised in Detroit. After losing three friends to homicide as a young man, I felt a calling to make the city a better place for children and their families. After finishing law school, I ended up on the school board. One of the things I realized almost immediately was that we were losing more than half of our kids between freshman and senior year of high school. As a member of the school board, I visited ten high schools and stopped a fight in nine of them. I became overwhelmed with grief about how bad things had become in our neighborhood schools. So from that moment on, I dedicated myself to helping to transform our neighborhood high schools as a way to help Detroit become a better place to be a kid.
Early on, I thought the answer to transforming our neighborhood schools was having a great principal and great teachers for every kid. So as a part of the school board I worked for six years to make this happen, thinking I could turn around our school system. But what I found was that I was working in a very secular setting looking for secular solutions, solutions that just didn’t go far enough.
So what made the difference?
I noticed that the most successful students came from a set of schools on one campus, where the leaders there embraced partnerships in a way that most of the other schools didn’t. A few big companies were doing creative things to build relationships with the kids, and Oak Pointe Church, a large church about twenty miles from the school, had developed a long-term partnership with the schools.
Within these partnerships, I saw hundreds of people coming in to build relationships with the kids. People weren’t just there on a specific day each month when the company or church was coming for a half a day, for example, but they were there engaging with those kids every day: in school, after school, and on weekends. I saw someone come in to be a robotics coach, another to be a swim coach, and others driving kids up to college or going to staff concessions at every basketball game.
And then, in those relationships, I saw the church members inviting kids to come to church with them, having the kids share with the congregation, and having breakfast with the kids afterward. What was happening in that school was clearly different from all of the other schools. And I realized that one of the most critical pieces for every school is to have a church partner.
One of the most critical pieces for every school is to have a church partner.
You say in your book that the church’s goal is to “fill the gaps that no one else can.” What do you mean by that?
During my time working with the school system, I noticed that a large number of children had gaps in their lives. These might be gaps in their home life, such as a lack of parental guidance or support. Or, these might be gaps caused by poverty, like a lack of food or adequate shelter. The children also may not have positive influences in their lives; the negative voices are so overwhelming that the positive influences are drowned out.
In my observation, I realized that the best way to fill many of these gaps is to have more hope-filled people actively engaged in their lives. And our schools have a shortage of people—especially hope-filled ones. So the answer is simple: we need more positive, consistent influences in students’ lives, and the church is the best source for an army of people with hope and encouragement.
What sorts of boundaries and limitations should churches put in place when ministering within the school system?
The biggest fear I’ve heard from school administrators is that a church is coming in to proselytize. The best thing a pastor can do is share with the principal up front that they are not in the school to proselytize or run the show. Rather, the church’s goal is to have people available to love and serve the kids in the school, based on the principal’s guidance. When the pastor comes to a principal to simply ask, “How can I help you?,” it creates an opportunity for the church and His people to build meaningful relationships with kids in a successful way.
Avoid the idea of mentorship, as that term implies there’s something wrong with the kid.
Where I see this work well is in high school settings where the kids are older and can enter into relationships with church members. And these relationships are friendships. We want to avoid the idea of mentorship, as that term implies there’s something wrong with the kid. But if you think about these relationships as friendships, friends are always free to invite friends to things that they enjoy doing together. After a friend is invited to a meal or a ball game, it’s perfectly natural to also invite that person to church. In this sense, we can see some great opportunities when friends invite friends to do life with them, and part of that is the church.
Also, keep the focus on relationships, not money. Sometimes, when those relationships are built, the temptation is for the church to be a sort of ATM; they get asked to help with special expenses, which may genuinely benefit the kids. To help keep the focus on relationships, I recommend that every church, no matter what size, should have one person who’s responsible for being the steward of the school relationships. That person’s job is to look for opportunities where the church can build relationships with the kids and to develop and maintain a strong filter that points specifically to relationships. So for instance, instead of giving money for a bus for a field trip, the church might offer to do a carpool for the field trip. In doing a carpool instead, there’s relationship building. The need is still met; it moves from a money transaction to a relationship opportunity.
In your book, you warn against the “savior complex.” How can we avoid that sort of mentality?
Start with a simple rule of thumb that you can’t give advice about “what needs to happen” at the school until you know at least fifty students by name. Taking this time will help you to see and learn about the complex challenges that schools and people in poverty face. Honoring that rule will help you avoid coming across like a know-it-all when you really don’t know that much at all.
How does my church get started in helping a school?
- Pray for the right school. Seek the Lord’s direction while actively searching for a school to partner with. Ask for the Lord to affirm the right partnership as you investigate local needs and opportunities.
- Ask how you can help. Don’t assume you know what the school needs. Ask administrators some top needs in the school, pick one that is feasible, then excel at meeting that need.
- Establish a beachhead. Once you know the need, keep your eyes open for opportunities for your people to have a consistent and visible presence. As you meet needs, begin to build relationships.
- Build pathways for your people to build relationships. Intentionally seek out opportunities to serve alongside students, with the intention of building relationships. For instance, rather than church members serving a meal, invite students to help. Use the time to be intentional about strengthening relationships.
For details, see The Jonathan Effect by Mike Tenbusch.
On a deeper level, this rule keeps your focus on relationships. As you enter into purposeful relationships with young people in poverty, you’re likely to find that they are facing challenges you have no idea how to solve or fix. You may plant seeds in their lives, or you may water them, but you cannot make them grow. When you keep your friendships held up in prayer and see the Lord make things happen in their lives, you can’t help but be humbled and remember that it’s Him and not you.
Keep your focus on the real reason you’re there: relationships rather than fixing problems.
Can you share a little bit about the impact you’ve seen in the lives of children as a result of ministry in the school system?
When you help these school-age kids build healthy relationships, deal with conflict, or set and achieve goals, and when you help restore their sense of purpose, mission, and values, you’re not only helping them, but you may be impacting their parents, siblings at home, or others in their community. And a lot of the young people in high school are going to be the next generation of parents, and some of them already are. Ultimately, you’re helping them in how they think about who their spouse will be and becoming better fathers and mothers.
So in building relationships with these kids, bridging the gaps between families or between school and life, you’re having a tremendous impact on others in the community and on the child’s future. You may even have the opportunity to make an eternal impact.