Leadership Lessons: The Parallel Paths of School Heads and Preachers

Summer 2022

By Autumn Adkins Graves

IS1.pngThis article appeared as “Parallel Paths” in the Summer 2022 issue of Independent School.
 
I’m a preacher’s kid. Throughout my childhood, I spent many evenings watching my father, Rev. Paul C. Adkins, a minister for the African Methodist Episcopal Church, carefully prepare his weekly sermons. We were often the last to leave church on Sundays because he was counseling someone who needed his help. I’d sit in church business meetings and hear him talk about hard choices—big, confusing things I only peripherally understood. My mother would hug people, loving them and being present for them as they navigated life’s highs and lows. My parents’ devotion to their congregation seemed ordinary to me as a child who knew no other way.
 
It occurred to me during my second headship search that being a pastor and being a head of school are very similar roles—and that I was preparing for this role my whole life. Now, in my second year as head of school at St. Anne’s-Belfield (VA), I remember that devotion with awe. As I reflect on having led a school through the pandemic and great social unrest, a time when schools and their communities needed so much more than academics, I see the many ways that my father’s work has influenced my own. These are the lessons that have helped me on my leadership journey so far and will continue to keep me grounded.
 
Recognize the business needs. When I was in middle school, my dad became a presiding elder, an appointed role that required him to supervise about 30 church congregations and their ministers across Virginia. He steadfastly visited each of them four times a year and managed their financial as well as spiritual well-being. He conducted the business of the church, including talent acquisition and placement.
 
Today, I find myself involved in the same tasks. I learned that even mission-driven organizations, to some extent, are businesses with needs; churches and schools are in the business of helping people on their journey to truth, but they also have budgets to balance, programs or ministries to offer, requirements to meet, and buildings to maintain. It’s a delicate balance that mission-driven businesses must navigate and, importantly, help their constituents understand.
 
I remember overhearing conversations related to how best to allocate church offerings. Should the minister and church staff receive a raise? If so, what amount would show the congregation’s appreciation of staff and still allow for needed building repairs or new buildings that would support a growing children’s ministry? Heads of school, myself included, always want to increase the salaries of our very deserving and extremely hardworking teachers. One of the most difficult balances is knowing that all increases have a direct impact on families paying tuition. And then there’s the ever-growing programs and facility maintenance; I have never worked at a school or seen a church where there isn’t a deferred maintenance issue on the verge of costing an unbudgeted amount. I think about how the way we spend money shows our values. Both schools and churches value people, especially those who are servant leaders.
 
Represent the brand. Pastors are an extension and reflection of the church, and their families are always under public scrutiny and sometimes held to an unrealistic standard of perfection. People want to see if the preacher practices what he preaches—and if it works. Similarly, school parents want to know if school leaders are walking the walk or just talking the talk—if the school values are being lived out in their households with their own children. Is their child thriving in the school’s program or just surviving?
 
Even in this kind of spotlight, my parents supported me becoming my authentic self. They encouraged me to question the why of decisions I witnessed in society or church.
 
I remember attending a large districtwide church business meeting in which changes to a multiday annual conference that included a youth service were discussed. Part of the discussion centered on ideas for boosting youth participation, which included ending the conference on Sunday. Several ministers struck down that idea because it would mean no weekly Sunday service and a decrease in that month’s offering revenue. Thinking that was a bad reason to deny students a positive religious experience, I spoke up. I thought I was being respectful enough without watering down my point, but later a church elder admonished me for disrespecting the ministers. I knew enough not to say much back in the moment, but I have lived a life of knowing my parents gave me the courage to speak my convictions and upholding the education that gave me the confidence to identify values-oriented flaws in an argument and give voice to those whose voice
is diminished.
 
My personal decisions affect my school, just as my family’s personal life was at times visible to my father’s congregation. As a school head, I constantly question the why behind decisions, even when those questions are disruptive to the status quo. I want my own children to question the status quo in a respectful manner, so they can practice the skills that my parents allowed me to practice, and that I use in my work as a head of school.
 
Set clear boundaries. Most nights, both of my parents ate dinner with me. While the conversation was not always riveting nor was I always a willing participant, I had to engage with my parents. They asked me about my day. We usually talked about current events and our upcoming family schedule. It was a great way for us to check in. 
 
When I first became a head, I was not married, nor did I have children. I didn’t recognize the need to account for personal time. I went out most nights for various school and community events. As I moved into my second headship, I realized how important it is for me to have a few nights a week to catch up with friends, watch a show, read for pleasure, or go to bed a little earlier than usual. Now that I have a family, I strive to have dinner two or three nights a week at home with my husband and children. I ask my colleagues not to call or text from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., unless it is an emergency. I want to be present for my family and for them to know they are more important than the demands of a school.
 
Share the right message at the right time. Dad often inspired hope or would respond to events in our society by helping our community make sense of it. He spent hours crafting his sermons, basing his message on a section of scripture and conducting historical research to paint a picture of life at the time of that scripture. He wanted to be accurate, and he wanted to be inclusive. He wanted every member of his congregation, regardless of age, educational background, or life experience, to receive his message in a way that was useful to them.
 
I remember a moment in the 1980s during the beginning of the AIDS crisis when the medical community was still learning about this disease. The lack of information about its transmission and its disproportionate effect on the gay community caused many members of religious communities to articulate that AIDS was God’s way of punishing homosexuality and drug use. I remember overhearing a conversation with some parishioners about supporting someone with AIDS and questions about their sexual orientation arose. I wasn’t privy to all the details, but my father reminded the congregants about what should guide them—not what man says, but what God says: Love one another, as I have loved you. He had shifted the message above the fray of politics and popular culture and positioned the conversation to focus on the one value above all others within Christianity: love. 
 
More and more, heads of school are asked to guide their communities in responding to challenges that may call into question the culture’s values. Inspired by Dad’s approach, I continue to use love as the guiding principle in my decision-making. This has served me well when navigating election seasons or questions regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. Loving someone doesn’t mean the school has to accept or tolerate their need or behavior; there are times when the best way to love someone is to require them to join another community that better suits their needs. I’ve learned it’s OK to stretch the boundaries, but don’t break them unless you are ready for the benefits and consequences of doing so.
 
Offer pastoral care. As the leader of 30 churches with a collective congregation totaling thousands, my father would take care of people when they were most vulnerable, even when he didn’t know them that well on a personal level. He demonstrated that you don’t have to know each member very well. In fact, you can’t. All you have to do is love them, be present in their successes, and, sometimes, help them make hard choices. There were times he would see someone crying and just hug them. He didn’t need to know why they were crying, he just knew they needed to know that they were seen and they mattered. My mother would call out someone she saw looking unhappy, especially teenagers. She would sidle up beside them and share a quiet message of acknowledgment, care, and hope. Sometimes if she sensed there were specific financial challenges, she would put money in their hand. This pastoral care—emotional, social, and spiritual support—helped many congregants through the most challenging of days. 
 
St. Anne’s-Belfield has more than 900 students ages 2 to 19 and more than 225 employees. I can’t possibly know everything they are all experiencing. I might not be as good at it as my parents, but I certainly learned the importance of providing pastoral care. And I’ve learned that I don’t have to do this all on my own; I have an extremely talented and dedicated staff who provide levels of pastoral care beyond what I can supply. When there’s a tragedy in our school community; when there’s a divorce, an illness, or even a disappointment, our job is to help students and adults feel that they belong, to know they’re cared for and loved, and to provide compassion and support. Sometimes just sending a note to let someone know you are thinking about them can make a difference. I recently asked members of my school’s leadership team to write notes of thanks and acknowledgment to someone they don’t supervise. I took time out of a meeting for them to complete this request and provided a $10 coffee shop gift card to put into each envelope.
 
My dad is retired now, but his influence continues to reach others through the torch picked up by his successors. His legacy is one of compassion, care, business acumen, and impeccable stewardship. I hope I can continue his legacy through my leadership.
Author
Autumn Adkins Graves

Autumn Adkins Graves is head of school at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia.