When a retired school administrator went from serving as financial officer at her church to chair of the board, the “fit” was obvious. The church’s biggest mission: a preschool teeming with children.
Relatively new to Disciples of Christ, Sharon inherited her post on Mar. 1, 2020. But when First Christian Church of Houston ceased in-person worship, and the preschool closed under the mandates of the COVID-19 pandemic on Mar. 13, Sharon Benka took a long, slow breath.
The church itself was in decline and aging, but the school program was vital and promising. With the panic of pandemic, how would church leaders respond? The response was a relief:
- The church wanted to keep the staff on the payroll through the shutdown.
- They understood completely when the then-director resigned to stay home to protect her newborn from an unknown virus.
- They enthusiastically embraced new leadership from Ember Mandell, who had served previously as interim director and agreed to come back and run the school.
Crisis contained, if not averted. The church could weather the shutdown through June 1, when reopening was allowed, and tuition would flow in again.
But when school reopened, enrollment had dropped from 140 children to just 30. Many parents opted to wait out the pandemic to learn more about the threat.
“We didn’t want to lose staff — let go people who had been there so many years,” Sharon said, recalling that her own 16-year-old grandson had attended the school as a toddler. “But the tuition wouldn’t be coming in… Without the school tuition income over several months, well it was beginning to threaten the longevity of school itself.”
Meanwhile, new director Ember saw the crisis as an opportunity for the school to pivot and emerge from the pandemic stronger and better. Her vision: to carve out a niche in the neighborhood among the other preschools located just north of the Astrodome, near Rice University by shifting to a Christian Montessori program.
On the one hand, it was ingenious: When better to retrain staff than during a very slow season? But on the other hand, how to pay for it?
Sharon said what transpired next was no accident.
“In this case, I think things happened for a reason,” she said.
Craig Walls, Building and Capital Services Advisor, had been in town shortly before the pandemic to help a congregation that was meeting in the FCC facility. The pastor of that congregation suggested FCC reach out to Disciples Church Extension Fund (DCEF) for funding ideas.
Sharon admits to being skeptical at first.
“Having bought homes and cars and helped finance school buildings as a school administrator, I know it’s not always a positive process.”
But working with DCEF was different.
“Craig came up with several options that he thought might work,” she recalls. “There were Zoom calls for hours with the board and church leaders, working through questions.
“When his initial suggestion didn’t pan out, he went back and put together a program tailor-made for our church and our group.
“Then he spent time helping us work through our questions in the congregational meeting … so everyone in congregation knew what was happening.
“And everything that happened just like he said it would. Paperwork – all of it – and no hitches.”
DCEF helped the congregation return to focusing on the mission: First Christian School.
“As our congregation got older and declined, the school kept thriving as a vital part of the church community.”
Today that relationship is deepening. The congregation has invested in the future of the school, not just to weather a crisis, but to emerge on the other side a viable mission project.
“The Elders have pivoted towards looking at the school as a point of ministry, reaching out to the families of the children who are there to be a point of ministry to these folks,” as much as possible and still observe CDC guidelines, she said.
Associate Pastor Nathan Tenney now provides Christian instruction, alongside the robust academic program.
“Ember knows when it reaches a certain level, then it’s time to add a new classroom and a new Montessori teacher. It’s very exciting.”
Oh, and did she mention that Senior Pastor Dr. Michael Dunn, resigned in February 2021 for another position? So, the church plans to call an interim, and see what other changes might be afoot in Houston.
With a partner like DCEF, not much scares them anymore.