‘Grace-in-Business‘: an exploration of how Lutheran school principals conceptualise their role in a landscape of accountability

Author: Gavin Marcus

Marcus, Gavin, 2020 ‘Grace-in-Business‘: an exploration of how Lutheran school principals conceptualise their role in a landscape of accountability, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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The purpose of this research is to explore how Lutheran principals conceptualised their role in a landscape of accountability as the business processes associated with education are better defined and scrutinised.

It is widely acknowledged in academic literature that changing policy frameworks over the last thirty years have been implemented in several education systems around the world and this has resulted in a changing role for educational leadership. This environment means that there is now more scrutiny and accountability for principals, with an accompanying greater level of managerialism. The Australian education sector has not been immune to these changes. With educational expenditure in Australia now accounting for about a third of total government expenditure, the business processes associated with education have come into sharper focus. School leadership, especially principals, now have a greater responsibility to get it ‘right’, as business decisions now impact heavily upon student outcomes.

There is acknowledgement by principals that this transition is often much more demanding than they have anticipated, particularly given their lack of effective business acumen. Further literature analysis suggests that the role of principal is now akin to that of a Chief Executive Officer (CEO). A search into traditional preparatory programs revealed that principals were not afforded effective business skill development opportunities (Watterston, 2015). It is within this context that the business acumen of early career principals was investigated.

The study’s purpose was to explore how Lutheran principals perceived their role in a landscape of business accountability, given their appointment as the ‘CEO’ of their schools. Lutheran Education Australia (LEA) clearly acknowledges that it appoints its principals in a dual role, that of spiritual leader and business leader. While some work had been done in Lutheran schools around the area of leadership and principal transition from other roles, no work has been done focusing on the business dimension of this role.

Viewed through a constructionist lens, an explanatory sequential, mixed methods design was utilised within an interpretivist epistemology. After completion of an anonymous survey, four principals were interviewed after purposeful sampling of all respondents, based upon selection criteria of length of service, regional representation, gender and school size. Coding of the interview data led to the identification of four themes to inform the research questions. The themes were: Grace-in-Business, Business-Mission Symbiosis, Role Overload and Awareness.

The research made significant findings which informed how Lutheran principals responded to the business dimension of their roles. It highlighted the tension that exists within the principal’s role while operating as an agent for church missions and operating a business entity, which often places them in moral dilemmas. The results of this research show that Lutheran principals execute the business dimension of their role guided by their Lutheran values and theology, particularly the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and Grace, and that they struggled to find a balance in the implementation of Grace.

The first finding of the research is that Lutheran principals come into the role with large gaps in business acumen and need help in bridging this gap. The second finding is that there exists great tension between the execution of the business and spiritual roles of Lutheran principals which impact on the viability of their schools. The third finding is that Lutheran principals intuitively consider Lutheran doctrine in their decision making, especially the Lutheran Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and Grace but that they fail to strike the right balance in its implementation. These findings lead me to suggest that Lutheran principals do not need more business training, but rather more help to bring Grace and Business together.

The findings of this research will be of assistance to the Lutheran church and the LEA as a means of insight into the plight of its principals, as they seek to implement business training for the business role and grapple with everyday tension experienced executing their roles. The research will also be of interest to governing councils, state and territory governments and training providers as they work with principals in the provision of business training to enhance their leadership. Systemic and non-denominational Christian schools will be potentially influenced by this research as all Christian schools, to some extent, are now operating as a business while executing their Christian mission.

This project was limited to conducting interviews with early career principals. Further research focusing on the business experiences of more experienced principals may shine more light on this area of research, particularly their experiences as they have transitioned into principals over the last 15 years.

It appears that Lutheran principals work hard ensuring the financial and business success of their sites but work even harder to ensure success where it really matters to them – advancing the Kingdom of God. They view the profitability of their sites in terms of the success of the church and its mission of evangelisation rather than monetary value. As a result, I argue that Lutheran principals conduct their business leadership differently to public school or other non-systemic independent school principals. They utilise the ethic of care and the ethic of service to bring Grace and Business together instead of using each one independently or alone. I further argue that future business training must be integrated with theological training as these are fundamental to principals and are two sides of the same coin.

There are personal and institutional implications that arise from this research. LEA is mindful of the three-dimensional nature of the role of Lutheran principals and seeks to support them where possible. The findings of this research will assist in ongoing development and support for principals as they lead schools in complex spiritual, business and teaching and learning roles.

Keywords: Lutheran, business, principals, CEO, Chief Executive Officer, Grace, Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms

Subject: Education thesis

Thesis type: Professional Doctorate
Completed: 2020
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Associate Professor Shane Pill