At the Heart: Spiritual Leadership

How can lay principals become better prepared to be spiritual leaders in their schools?

By Louise “Toni” Moore

Spiritual leadership is at the heart of the Catholic school. The attitudes and beliefs of the school leader help shape all the interactions that take place in the school. Spiritual leadership is one of the most important and influential roles of any Catholic school principal.

Catholic Christian beliefs and practices are the foundation of education in a Catholic school. They provide the basis upon which the culture of the school is built. Yet how many Catholic school principals and administrators feel adequately prepared to undertake this important role of spiritual leader?

Emerging studies into this question have uncovered that lay principals, in particular, often feel underprepared to assume the spiritual leadership of the students, teachers, and families they serve. For many years, Catholic schools relied on the generous service of religious men and women who were spiritually formed in religious communities.

The intentional spiritual formation of these vowed religious took place as they lived, prayed, and learned in the context of a community. In fact, compared with lay principals, principals formed in religious communities report higher levels of satisfaction and commitment and feel they are more effective in their roles as spiritual leaders. Additionally, they report higher levels of religiosity or practice of their faith. The attitudes of people who have left their religious orders correlate closely with the vowed religious — which means that it is their formation experience, not their current situation, that is important.

Today’s reality, however, is that Catholic schools are largely in the hands of lay leaders who have assumed their roles without the benefit of the intentional spiritual formation programs that religious orders offer. Since the numbers of vowed religious have dwindled, how can lay leaders become better prepared to be spiritual leaders in their schools?

First of all, principals must be knowledgeable about the basic teachings, beliefs, and practices of the Catholic Church. There are many avenues for gaining this knowledge, including diocesan-led programs, university classes, and additional online options. This strong knowledge base of the Catholic faith, once provided by religious communities, has now become the individual responsibility of those who lead our schools.

It is also important for the school’s spiritual leader to be up-to-date in current teaching, learning, and leadership practices. In this way, principals can most effectively put into place processes and practices that support building a strong culture of Catholic identity in the school. Regular prayer for both students and teachers, sacramental opportunities, and displaying religious artifacts are but a few examples of ways in which the principal can encourage Catholic identity.

Finally, and critical to the role of spiritual leader, is personal formation. In order to be an effective leader of others, one must become what he or she is asking others to be. The personal practice of prayer, reflection, and Christian meditation are keys to personal spiritual growth. Informed by the practices of religious communities, Catholic school leaders can form lay communities through which they can work together to create a trusting environment where they can practice prayer and good works in a safe and supportive setting. Such lay communities can help to decrease the feelings of isolation so often felt by educators and become sources of inspiration to re-ignite passion for the ministry of Catholic education.

Personal spiritual growth begins on the inside, in the heart of the leader. It will grow outward and eventually exhibit itself in increased influence and good works in the school community. Ask yourself this important question: “Do I take the time to invest in my own spiritual growth?”

Louise “Toni” Moore, PhD, is an educational consultant at the University of Dayton.