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Calvin Announces New Center

January 18, 2007

An inative new center at Calvin College will bring fresh resources to beleaguered Christian school administrators.

The VanLunen Center for Executive Management in Christian Schools is being established at Calvin thanks to a $2 million gift to the college from the Richard D. VanLunen Foundation.  The Center's purpose will be to provide world-class executive management education for heads of schools based on the historic Christian faith (of which there are some 20,000 across the continent).

The center will serve faith-based schools large and small across the U.S. and Canada. And it will practice a big-tent philosophy, reaching out to schools from a wide-range of faith traditions, including Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Episcopal, independent Christian, Lutheran and Reformed Christian day schools.

Gordon VanderBrug, a trusteee with the VanLunen Foundation, says Calvin was a natural choice to host the center.

"We were looking for an institution that had a solid understanding of Christian schools and was excellent in management education," he says, "and we found it in Calvin College."

Dr. Shirley Roels has just been appointed as the first VanLunen Center director and will shift into the role after a 27-year career at Calvin that has seen her serve the college in a variety of ways, including as a professor of business management and the dean of academic administration.  She will continue to serve as director of the Lilly Vocation Program.

Roels, who combines a 1971 bachelor's degree from Calvin in secondary education with a master's in business administration from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in college and university administration from Michigan State, is thrilled about the new challenge on her horizon and says now is a critical time for such a center.

She notes that many schools with a clear Christian mission, sound strategy and good planning are growing, but that the role of Christian school heads is changing -- often times in dramatic ways.

Jim Marsh, head of school at Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis, Missouri, where he has served for two decades, agrees.

He says the role has seen a significant shift from internal to external, requiring skills and capacities far different from those of an educational leader who comes up through the ranks of the schoolhouse.

"School leadership is becoming more complex and challenging," he says.  "Boards are looking to the head, the CEO if you will, to set and keep the school’s vision, take significant leadership in fundraising and strategic planning, and recruit and retain the best and brightest faculty and staff."

Echoing those sentiments is Bill Burke, head of school at St Sebastian's, a Catholic school in Needham, Mass.

He says a three-day course he took years ago on developing executive leadership (in which he was the only educator among 40 participants) was one of the most memorable experiences of his career.  And he is eager to see the VanLunen Center make such experiences available to educators around the continent.

"The center will fill a huge void," he says.  "It is an idea whose time is long overdue.  I can't wait to get started."

Roels is eager to tap into that kind of excitement and to connect to educational leaders from a wide range of circles.

"The cultivation of senior leaders from many ethnic groups, both men and women, is important," she says.  "God's church includes people from every culture and future Christian schools should mirror such diversity."

School heads like that idea.

"The 'big tent' is really one of the most impressive aspects of the Van Lunen Center," says David Hahn, head of school at Long Island Lutheran Middle and High School in Brookville, N.Y.  "People who connect with the center will have the chance to step out of their personal denominational confines and grow from the experiences and practices of other Christ-centered traditions."

The Center currently is forming a governing board, selecting an advisory body, and considering a number of initial strategies for its first year of operation and expects to announce its first program in the next month.

Roels, the product of Christian grade and high schools, can't wait to get started.

"There is no other entity that provides executive leadership development for school heads that is distinctively Christian and specifically focused on Christian schools," she says.  "The Van Lunen Center will be a very special place for the intersection of Christian faith, school needs and executive leadership development which will be without parallel in North America.  Other universities and associations provide leadership development for heads of private schools, but do not  emphasize the special nature of a Christian school's mission and executive leadership imperatives because of that mission.  Yet the majority of private schools in the U.S. exist because they are the products of a Christian faith tradition that is determined to teach that faith to the next generation."