What Lessons can a Christian School Learn from J.C. Penney?

The comparison of a retailer and an educational institution may seem a bit strange.

However, they have a lot in common, and there are some clear corollaries that can be instructive when considering the challenges and changes facing both sectors.

Strength of Mission

“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is the mission statement that guided J.C. Penney and his company when he was actively involved. Changing consumer behaviors, challenging employee hiring, Wall Street profit pressures, and a dramatic increase in competition from e-commerce challenged the commitment to that mission, and challenged profits.

Many of these same factors are creating tremendous pressure on Christian schools founded to provide a Christ-centered, biblically-directed education. Parents have ever-increasing choices. The National Center for Education Statistics reveals that conservative Christian School enrollment in the US has decreased 29% in the last 10 years. Charter schools, for profit schools, online schools, home schools and classical Christian schools have experienced significant growth at the expense of the traditional Christian school. Financial pressures come from a highly competitive landscape centered around the race for new facilities, new academic programs, and more co-curricular programs. Faculty recruitment and retention are difficult due to financial realities that limit the hiring pool and pull experienced teachers and leaders away. These factors and others can easily lead a board and leadership team astray from the original mission.

Mission drift and decline typically do not reveal themselves immediately but rather over time through clearly discernible factors—including enrollment, finances, leadership, faculty retention, and recruitment—that are not proactively addressed by leadership. Mission fulfillment must be measured, reinforced, and resourced for the school to thrive and not merely survive.

Power of Culture

The culture of an organization is a direct reflection of the ability to deliver the mission. In 2011, J.C. Penney hired Ron Johnson, a “star retailer” at Apple and Target, to become the CEO, with a mandate to radically overhaul the department store chain. His plan failed, and it sent the chain’s annual sales down $6 billion, led to the firing of 40,000 people and the closing of 137+ stores, and caused a major cash crisis. Johnson blamed the company’s stagnant culture for the failure, saying people there were entrenched. He thought the problem was not with the plan, but rather, “When I got to Penney’s, I was told people wanted to change, but the truth is nobody wanted to change. The team there was very comfortable with their place in the market.” He was fired after two years.

Applying this to Christian education, the board and administrative team must create an effective culture by discerning what must change and what must never change. Leadership faces equal risks of jumping on the latest trend or ignoring obvious changes in the marketplace of educational choice. Until Christian school leadership can develop a plan focused upon parental choice, new educational models, student needs, effective biblical integration, and sustainable financial models, school cultures will wind up defending mission and past practice, resulting in the loss of families, faculty, and finances. In other words, schools will weaken their accomplishment of mission because they will have fewer students to impact.

Education, including Christian education, has not been noted for effective innovation, nimble structures, or dealing with cultural trends. Leaders must create a culture willing to adapt and willing to follow through with people and plans that bring needed change.

Vision and Leadership

Marvin Ellison became the fourth J.C. Penney leader in as many years in 2015. Ellison was brought in as the leader to define “what must change and what must never change.” The recovery is still fragile: J.C. Penney has had 11 quarters of losses in a row, and their stock was $4.54 a share on May 19, 2017, compared to over $40 per share in 2012. The board, Wall Street analysts, and shareholders will continue to evaluate the ability and effectiveness of leadership to implement the vision through mission and culture.

Christian schools have often struggled to accomplish the essential steps of hiring the right leaders and empowering them to bring needed change. Too often the board is willing to accept a leader with the right heart but without the capacity to lead in a changing environment. The results are stagnant schools and a staggering three-year average tenure for heads of Christian schools. Leaders feel safer maintaining instead of leading.

Christian school boards and leaders must provide both vision and leadership that create a value proposition for parents and students with the same level of planning, accountability, and communication.

Conclusion

J.C. Penney has not figured it all out. However, they are looking at their core mission, committing to e-commerce to supplement stores, and developing clear strategies to guide their employees to better serve their customers. Very few Christian school leaders, even those with strong current enrollment and finances, would state that they have it all figured out. Christian schools are preparing their students with a biblical worldview, with a faculty committed to modeling faith, and with a leadership team fulfilling the worthy mission of Christian education, but many are pursuing the same strategies and priorities while expecting different results. Change can be hard, but when board agendas, leadership team meetings, and planning retreats move from reactionary solutions to improving current practices, schools can begin to envision a future that can meet the expectations of parents and the needs of students in our 21st century context.

Whitepaper

To read more about the comparisons discussed (and others) and the research behind this article, please check out the expanded version of this article in the whitepaper:

What do J.C. Penney and the Traditional Christian School Have in Common? (PDF)

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Co-Authors

Dr. R. Mark Beadle, CEO and Head of School at Sevenstar. Follow Dr. Beadle on twitter @markbeadle7.

Bryan Miller, Partner, Bowdon Miller SG. Learn more about BowdonMiller at bowdonmiller.com.

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