• Health and Hope

  • We have an opportunity to affect the salvation of souls because of the events of the last year. The COVID-19 pandemic and other events of the last year have made history. We not only see global changes but changes at the local level where organizations have been altered forever. In the realm of Lutheran education, “forever” does not just mean over the course of a generation or two. No, “forever” means eternal. We have an opportunity to affect the salvation of souls because of the events of the last year.

    The theme verses at Immanuel Lutheran-CL (Crystal Lake, Ill.) for 2019–2020 were from 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18 (ESV), “Rejoice always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” All of God’s Word is important and points us to the work of Jesus Christ, but there are times when some verses fit the context of a culture and time better than others. These verses spoke loudly as we worked through unknown and difficult times. These verse from Paul reminded us to look always at Christ’s goodness and to thank Him in advance for the work He has yet to do.

    During a period that many have seen and experienced as dark and difficult, we continue to see God’s work in our lives. We pray, trust, and rejoice in the work He does in the most difficult of situations. Throughout the pandemic, we have given thanks because “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose” (ESV).

    Throughout the last year, Joseph’s words to his brothers continued to ring in my heart, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive as they are today” (Genesis 50:20 ESV).

    While 2020 has affected nearly every individual on earth, the way in which it affected people is very different depending on a variety of factors, including location, healthcare systems, political cultures and climates, and specific careers. From our place on earth—a Lutheran church and school in northern Illinois—we have seen tremendous blessings throughout the pandemic. Do not get me wrong, it has been a burden. COVID-19 has taken an enormous number of lives. In addition to deaths, we have seen many on the brink of emotional damage, isolation, and economic hardship. Nevertheless, we take heart from last year’s theme verses. We find the joy from God’s hidden blessings and give Him thanks in all circumstances.

    Immanuel’s Story

    While our church has grown, the school is seeing extreme growth. So where does this leave us? In our eyes, it leaves us right where God has intended for us to be: The rock standing strong on the foundation of His Word. We have experienced growth; I dare to say tremendous growth throughout the last year. Immanuel’s vision is to be city on a hill, and it has taken a pandemic for us to see earlier years of hard work to become that city on a hill pay off for the good of God’s Kingdom.

    While our church has grown, the school is seeing extreme growth. For the last five years, Immanuel has hovered just under 190 students in preschool through grade 8. During the summer of 2020, as we prepared for the 2020–2021 school year, we were hoping we would make it to 130 students. In our human eyes, we saw many obstacles. Families were not just on the fence, they were on both sides of the fence and moving as far away from the fence as possible.

    Some families did not want to come back because they feared what the coronavirus might do to the health and safety of their children and those around them. Others feared how our mask wearing might affect the health and safety of their children. Still some families were choosing not to come back because they feared government overreach in what our school was told we had to do.

    Our educational staff remained diligent about balancing the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of our children. Remote learning was never an option for us. Reasons for making sure we were in-person included academics, social development, spiritual development, personnel, and financial sustainability. We fought some of our government’s “required recommendations” at first, but we eventually chose to heed the guidelines given by the Illinois Department of Health. We followed some guidelines exactly as given. We were stricter with other guidelines and more lenient with still others. In each case, we took into consideration the balanced development of our students’ mental and spiritual development.

    One of the simpler but most important decisions we made involved how we handled lunch. While recommendations suggested that we have lunch in the classroom where everyone was facing forward, we felt that it was too militaristic and took away one the most important parts of the day for social development. The benefits of socializing in a lunchroom setting were too important to take away. Therefore, we figured out a way to put up to eight students in multiple spots to form lunch groups that were appropriately distanced but still able to do beneficial socializing.

    On June 1, 2020, we had 102 students enrolled. As we developed a COVID protocol plan and communicated it with families, we started to see our enrollment grow, but it was slow. By July 14, we were still at just 116 students. Then came a major turning point. Local public school districts announced they would be starting the year with remote learning. Families quickly headed our way. The phones kept ringing, and the emails kept coming. We gave multiple tours each day.

    We decided, for distancing purposes, classroom capacity would be about 18. In no time, many of our classes hit maximum capacity. By the end of August, we added another 42 students. God was working the whole time. He was answering prayers and guiding us to where He intended for us to be. Throughout the school year, families have continued to join us. They reevaluated their children’s education and looked for better school options. We currently have 195 students. God is good!

    Many of our new families intended to attend Immanuel for one year, but they have realized that there is a difference in the overall education, development, and care for their children. Next year, our classroom capacity will be 28. Registration has begun, and, at the time of this writing, our enrollment is at 240 students for 2021–2022. Our retention rate for students entering grades 1–8 is 98.7 percent. All but two students will be returning next year. Many of our new families intended to attend Immanuel for one year, but they have realized that there is a difference in the overall education, development, and care for their children.

    Where We Go from Here

    Depending on what other educational institutions do, many Lutheran schools are seeing similar growth. Sue Domeier, principal of Immanuel Lutheran School (Dundee, Ill.), says, “We’ve grown by 50+ students. Families have first come to us because we were open for in-person learning. Many are choosing to stay (at this point) because of the relationship their children have with one another, their teachers, and Christ! God is on the move here!”

    Through the power of the Holy Spirit’s work, the pandemic drove new families to our schools. Yet, as Domeier notes and as we at Immanuel-CL have experienced, it is the relationships families are developing that keep them at our schools.

    Steve Zielke, principal at St. Peter Lutheran School (Schaumburg, Ill.) adds, “As [new families] have joined our school family, they realized that they are getting much more than what they thought they would. Their students are challenged. Teachers communicate and know them by name to work together with them. Teachers show personal care and spend extra time outside of normal school hours to help students be successful. They can’t believe the care that is extended for their child.”

    Families are coming to Immanuel-CL for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons have been:

    • Their children do not learn as effectively in a remote learning setting as they do with an in-person setting.
    • Parents wanted their children to have more socialization with others their own age.
    • Education of children is now happening in front of the parents, and families have begun to question the way in which their children are taught and the content their children are being taught.

    The first two reasons are understandable and expected. It is the third reason that surprised us the most. Although, if we analyze the popularization of many belief systems that seem to stray further from post-modern society and into post-Christian society, it seems to make more sense. The more we think about it, the less surprised we are.

    What surprises us the most is the way families are communicating it to us. Multiple new families have complained about the “indoctrination” of their children. This is a heavy word, but it is one that has been used on multiple occasions. It has given us a renewed reminder as to how important our jobs are as Christian educators.

    Eric Malm, theology teacher at Lake Country Lutheran High School (Hartland, Wis.), notes, “With so much going on in our world and especially in our communities, from topics such as racial inequality, injustice, pandemic, and extreme political rioting from both parties, the Gospel of Jesus Christ continues to be the sole answer to what our world needs. To be able to offer that hope is a joy and an honor and our Lutheran Schools are the model of this beacon of light to students in our areas of influence.”

    We are more than just teachers. The idea of being God’s hands and feet is an expectation, and it is a duty the parents of our students expect from us. We are more than just teachers. The idea of being God’s hands and feet is an expectation, and it is a duty the parents of our students expect from us. It is our job to indoctrinate students, in every good sense of the word, with the soul-saving message found only in the Gospel Word of Jesus Christ.

    God has given us a responsibility and opportunity to have a great effect on His Kingdom. The obligation to educate children about God’s creation and to share with them His love is, in a way, the same as it always has been. Yet with larger class sizes and a western culture that is shifting from post-modern to post-Christian, it feels as though the stakes are higher. This ought to be sufficient motivation to continue to grow personally in our faith so the abundance of love shown to us in the actions of Christ may overflow into each of our students and families through the power of the Holy Spirit.

    Our mission has not changed. Malm believes, “Competing/distinguishing with free education services is always a shared visionary responsibility of stakeholders within the Church-related school.” He adds, “Being better, providing similar academic offerings, and distinguishing the value of the educational product in a Christ-Centered environment is our norm.”

    • How have you seen God working in your school through the events of the last year?
    • What responsibilities do you personally feel are due to the events of the last year?
    • What responsibilities fall on Lutheran schools in educating families that are new to Christian education?
    • How would you rate your school’s strength in each of the following areas— academic excellence; relationally driven; Christ-centeredness?

    However, to go about that mission in the same way we always have can be irresponsible. “[We are] needing to start all over again with each new student to teach the Bible from the start, knowing that some of these kids come with zero Bible knowledge. It’s an eye opener for sure, but a reminder that the mission field is HERE!” says Domeier.

    As we reflect on the changes over the past year, we should do so through a Gospel lens. We must give God thanks in all circumstances, understand the responsibility he is giving to us, and accept it as part of our vocational call to build the Kingdom of Heaven. In doing so, our challenge is to determine where we are as Lutheran schools and educators, and make noticeable changes to the way we have always done things so generations of our schools’ families are affected for all of eternity.

    John Meulendyke is serving in his second year as principal at Immanuel Lutheran in Crystal Lake, Ill. John and his wife Jessica, while true Wisconsinites, live in northern Illinois with their three children.

    Photos courtesy the author.

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