When churches love schools: 10 tips for great partnerships

When churches love schools: 10 tips for great partnerships

Henry Helton, a member at Hiltons Memorial United Methodist Church, serves as a "reading buddy" for Hilton Elementary students.

Posted Nov. 16, 2016

In Hiltons, Va., a church began a reading program and built an outdoor classroom.

In Maryville, Tenn., three churches are partnering to offer semi-weekly suppers and homework help.

In Abingdon, Va., a congregation gave out new backpacks filled with school supplies at the beginning of the year. Now, they’re sending needy children home with food over the weekends and preparing a Thanksgiving meal for their families.

All over Holston Conference, churches are discovering that a practical way to reach out to local children in poverty is to develop partnerships with nearby schools. Earlier this year, Bishop Dindy Taylor challenged churches to give $10 and 10 hours of service per worshiper to help needy kids in their own communities. 

“Education is one of the ways that individuals can help break the cycle of poverty, but it’s going to take people to make a difference,” said Kimberly Williams, principal at Marion Elementary School in Marion, Va. “Money helps, but it’s really not going to change things permanently.”

Williams, a member at First United Methodist Church of Marion, was a speaker at Holston’s “Poverty Summit” in August.

Here are 10 tips from Holston congregations who have invested both people and money into new school partnerships -- or expanding existing relationships -- since Taylor kicked off this year’s mission focus.


USE INSIDE CONTACTS. “We’re so blessed. I grew up in Hiltons. We’re able to get things done,” said Andrea Lawson, guidance counselor at Hilton Elementary School and member at Hiltons Memorial United Methodist Church. For years, the church has offered a “Back to School Bash” in August, giving out free school supplies, haircuts, and hotdogs to as many as 170 children. In recent years, the congregation has also set up a reading program, provided weekend food bags, and this summer, built an outdoor classroom. Projects move faster when church members are also staff members in the school, Lawson said.


MAKE AN APPOINTMENT. If your church is new to the school, don’t just show up to talk, suggests Principal Williams of Marion: “We’re busy.” Call to schedule an appointment, then come with open ears for whatever the staff might suggest.  When the Rev. Jeffrey Kingrea and his lay leader from Soddy United Methodist met with the principal of Soddy Elementary, they were pleasantly surprised by “just how many opportunities they are for churches to get plugged in.” Suggestions included collecting socks and other cold-weather clothing; serving as cafeteria monitors and reading aides; and serving as a “safe haven” for the school in the event of an emergency. 


COME WITH CREATIVITY. While it’s important to listen to the staff’s suggestions, it’s also a good idea to come prepared with a few ideas, says the Rev. Sarah Slack, associate pastor at First UMC of Maryville, Tenn. This year, Slack’s congregation teamed with Green Meadow UMC, Williamson Chapel UMC, and Maryville College to offer a new program at nearby Lanier Elementary. “Two nights per week, we’re providing supper, homework help, and helping parents learn how to help their children,” Slack said. The ministry serves 12 children plus their families (about 50 people).


ELIMINATE EMBARRASSMENT. Teachers will often discreetly help identify children who could benefit from particular ministries, according to church workers. The school staff will also help volunteers be sensitive to protecting the students’ feelings. In August, Pleasant View UMC purchased school supplies and new backpacks for 33 students at Greendale Elementary in Abingdon, Va. “On registration day, parents were called and told to simply come by the office to pick up their kits on their way out,” says Carolyn Kidd. “That way, the children were able to show up on their first day of school with their backpacks full of supplies” – just like everybody else.


SEEK FACE-TO-FACE OPPORTUNITIES. The Rev. Mark Kilbourne, pastor at Hiltons Memorial, was touched by the children’s response when he served as a reading aide. “The kids just ate up the attention,” he said. “It gave me a lot of insight into these kids’ lives.” Lawson notes that many students at Hilton Elementary are being raised by grandparents or parents who work long hours. “The biggest impact for them is getting one-on-one attention from an adult.”


EMPHASIZE RELATIONSHIPS. To reiterate, poverty is not just about lack of material goods. “We discovered that our local elementary school needs strong male role models,” said Kingrea of Soddy UMC in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn. “Our school only has a handful of male teachers, so they told us the more men we could enlist to help in different ways, the more the students would benefit.”


MOTIVATE WITH FOOD. In Knoxville, Tenn., Central UMC has a relationship with Fulton High School, an inner-city school with a lot of free and reduced-price lunches. “When we ask what will help the students be successful, the answer usually involves food,” said the Rev. Jimmy Sherrod. So in August, Central fed about 400 parents and students who came to pick up their schedules, meet teachers, and pay fees. On a recent Friday, Central helped with a tailgate party as an incentive for students to stay for after-school tutoring.


BOOST THE TEACHERS. Several Holston congregations said they invest in teachers as a way to help the students. Central gave lanyards to the Fulton teachers, with a card saying they were praying for them and a $5 gift card to a nearby coffee shop. In August, 11 churches in the Tazewell District combined to serve a welcoming lunch and gifts for teachers at North Tazewell Elementary.  According to Principal Williams in Marion, teachers and administrators welcome gift cards to buy school supplies – and also for handing over to their students’ caretakers in times of need.


CAPITALIZE ON COMMUNITY IMPACT. Once church workers have invested time in the school, they will benefit from how the children and families recognize them in the community. Three years ago, the Greystone Circuit began providing food and holiday help at Camp Creek Elementary in Greeneville, Tenn. The ministry has expanded to include school supplies, food pantry assistance, Christmas gifts, reading buddies, and after-school tutoring. “The relationship has given us many opportunities to help with individual situations as needed,” said the Rev. Cindy Paxton. “And it’s pretty amazing to see how excited the kids get from seeing us in the school.”


DO IT FOR THE RIGHT REASONS. Sherrod says he sees himself as a chaplain for Fulton High School, and he was glad when the relationship gave him the opportunity to reach out with prayers and support during recent events that made the local news. “Be willing to take the risk, but do it because you truly want to serve and not because you want to grow your church,” Sherrod said. “If that’s your purpose, you will become frustrated quickly.” 

Sherrod, who’s a member of a Lewis Center for Church Leadership cohort designed to help pastors engage with their communities, recommends the book, “Educating All God's Children: What Christians Can – and Should – Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids,” by Nicole Baker Fulgham.


Find out more about reaching out to local children in poverty at WaytoGive.Holston.org.


Annette Spence

Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.