When we speak about missionary work in the Episcopal Church, we often talk about the extraordinary work the Church does outside the United States in places like Haiti, Central America, and Africa.
In 1821, General Convention established the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), and all members of The Episcopal Church were made members of the Society.
In an 1835 address to General Convention, the Right Rev. George Washington Doane, second bishop of New Jersey, emphasized the importance of the whole Church’s membership in the DFMS, declaring, “that by the original constitution of Christ, the Church as the Church, was the one great Missionary Society” (Stowe, 1935, p. 176). A “gentleman’s agreement” divided the missionary work of the church; “the Low Churchmen were to control the foreign work and the High Churchmen the domestic field” (Stowe, 1935, p. 176). Today, the Episcopal Church’s missionary work is carried out abroad and within our own communities collectively by the whole church, regardless of how one worships.
Since the founding of Trinity School (New York) in 1709, Episcopal schools have been the greatest domestic missionary field of the Episcopal Church. William Huddleston, a lawyer and schoolmaster, envisioned providing “free education for the poor in the new English Colony” (History of Trinity School, n.d.). Beginning with 40 kids at Trinity School, the tradition of Episcopal Schools as “lively center[s] for sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom” (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979) was born.
Today, according to the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES), approximately 160,000 students are enrolled in 1,182 schools and early childhood education programs staffed by over 28,500 exceptional administrators, faculty, and staff. Currently, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has 32 schools and early childhood education programs serving students from 8 weeks of age to twelfth grade.
The executive director of the Commission on Schools and members of the Commission serve on behalf of the bishop diocesan to encourage and foster a strong Episcopal identity within and among the Episcopal schools in the diocese. The diocese certifies schools every four years, and the commission administers that process.
Furthermore, the commission consults with heads of schools, directors, rectors, chaplains, other key administrators and teachers, vestries, and school boards on matters of governance, operations, spiritual formation, diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ), and professional development. In addition, the commission fulfills its responsibilities under Canon 18.03 by publishing a directory of schools; administering the Franklin Grant program; consulting with parishes, missions, and other groups seeking to establish new schools and preschools; representing diocesan schools in professional organizations, and providing schools with legislative information and updates. Ultimately, the commission supports the exceptional work of our Episcopal school leaders in the diocese.
As both stewards and educators, Episcopal school leaders are called to nurture and develop the central ethos of the school community, the curriculum of the heart and the curriculum of the mind. In an Episcopal school, faith and reason are not opposite considerations of the human journey; rather, they are partners supporting the development of a curriculum that seeks to discover the truth and to ask the larger questions of meaning and purpose.
In their missionary work, Episcopal educators have the exceptional privilege of offering students meaningful and concrete connections of the curricula of the heart and mind to everyday events and experiences. Ultimately, our schools are called to nurture and develop articulate scholars who can think critically, engage others thoughtfully, be effective problem solvers, and be ever mindful of and responsive to ethical dilemmas and decisions as leaders in a global community. The Episcopal school tradition of pursuing academic excellence is underscored by a deeper call to nurture honorable, loving, and responsible world citizens.
Over the years, I have come to see our schools through the lens of Exodus 3:5. Episcopal schools are holy ground. It is the presence of the Holy that offers order and orientation to the community’s daily life. Amid the Holy, the school community is invited to explore the faiths, traditions, experiences, and knowledge that have shaped their hearts and minds and built the community in which they dwell. The community is also the outward manifestation of the school’s mission and vision.
Our missionary work in Episcopal schools is unique because it is a sacred endeavor focused on transformation, not conversion. Our schools proclaim the truth of the Gospel through expressions of love, not Truth (capital “T”) masquerading as love. In the end, the success of our missionary work in Episcopal schools is quantified, first and foremost, by who our students are, more than what our students will do.
The Reverend Ryan D. Newman has 28 years experience as an Episcopal priest in education and ministry. Currently, he serves as the Executive Director of the Commission on Schools in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and is the founding principal of Rite One Consulting, an Episcopal-centric consulting firm serving Episcopal schools, congregations, and organizations. He has a bachelor of arts in Political Science from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in Divinity from the Virginia Theological Seminary. He is completing a doctorate of education in Ethical Leadership from Olivet Nazarene University, and his dissertation focuses on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in independent school boards. Ryan resides in Orange County, California, with his wife, Erin, a physician and professor at the University of California, Irvine, and their daughter, Lexie, who attends an Episcopal school.
History of Trinity School. (n.d.). https://www.trinityschoolnyc.org/about/history-of-trinity-school
Collect for Schools and Colleges. The Book of Common Prayer (1979). New York, NY: The Church Hymnal Corporation.
Stowe, W. H. (1935). A Turning Point: The General Convention of 1835. Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, 4(3), 152–179.