Catholic secondary school principals as faith leaders: A study of the dioceses of Lismore


Thompson, Caroline. (2010). Catholic secondary school principals as faith leaders: A study of the dioceses of Lismore [Thesis].
AuthorsThompson, Caroline
Qualification nameDoctor of Education (EdD)

Faith leadership as a critical dimension of the role of the Catholic secondary school principal within the Diocese of Lismore is the focus of this study. Set in the context of constant change; ecclesial, social, cultural and educational, this research seeks a more informed and sophisticated understanding of the phenomenon of faith leadership. This topic is problematic within the Diocese of Lismore, with the perception that there is little support for principals in policy or professional development. At the same time there are clear indications of a gap in the research regarding faith leadership especially from the perspective of principals. A comprehensive analysis of key literature in organisational leadership, faith in organisations, values in Christian based organisations and Catholic school leadership, reveals a number of key insights that inform this study. Here faith leadership is shown to be loosely defined with a clear distinction emerging between notions of spirituality and religion. The literature also points to the development of a values-centred congruence between organisational leadership theory and trends in the expression and management of faith and spirituality in the workplace. Thus the literature review establishes faith leadership as the personal and intrinsic motivation behind human action, expressed in human interaction and centred on core values. This finding raises questions regarding the exact nature of the values underpinning faith leadership and their source and expression in contemporary Catholic secondary schools. Based on these insights three research questions are used in this study: How do principals understand the challenge of faith leadership in Catholic secondary schools in the Diocese of Lismore? How do principals conceptualise faith leadership in Catholic secondary schools in the Diocese of Lismore? How do principals enact the faith leadership role in secondary schools in the Diocese of Lismore? This research study is informed by the theoretical framework of symbolic interactionism. As both a perspective and a method, symbolic interactionism is situated within a pragmatic constructivist paradigm of research. This study employed qualitative research methods, including focus group interviews, record analysis, two individual interviews and a research journal. The findings of this research study suggest that Catholic secondary school principals cannot articulate a common understanding of faith leadership and that they also make a clear distinction between personal spirituality and formal religious adherence in their conceptualisation of this facet of their leadership role. Principals also indicate that faith leadership is rendered more challenging by the reality of tensions surrounding the leadership models operating in Catholic secondary schools and differing perceptions of the role and purpose of these schools from the perspective of principals and the clergy. The data also suggest that little effort had been put into the development of a lay spirituality of faith leadership or into the professional support of principals. It is also apparent through this research study that Catholic secondary school principals, despite an absence of a clear policy or institutional definition of faith leadership, have conceptualised this dimension of their leadership role as gospel based meaning making involving an interrelated construct of ‘having’ (skills and knowledge) ‘doing’ (practical leadership action) and being (personal intrinsic motivation sourced in spiritual values). The utilisation of a discourse of personal spirituality and values, alongside a wider rejection of narrow understandings of Catholicity and Catholic school purpose, suggest that the principals involved in this study have redefined or reimagined (Mellor, 2005) what faith leadership means in contemporary Catholic schools. In addition, the absence of a definitive theological basis for this redefinition and calls for a specific understanding of faith leadership from a lay perspective, suggest that this process is ongoing and unfinished. Despite indications in the research data of tension in the leadership models evident in Catholic secondary schools and the impact of significant external and internal challenges to faith leadership and faith expression within the Diocese of Lismore, this research found principals were positive about this aspect of their role and determined to help the students, parents and staff in their school communities connect with the message of Jesus and the richness of the Catholic faith tradition.

PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Research GroupSchool of Educational Leadership
Final version
Publication dates01 Jul 2010
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