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A Church Called Tov is not a story I ever planned to write. My journey started with the unfolding of the Willow Creek Community Church tragedy, where women my family knew to be truthful were branded liars by Willow’s elders and pastors. Weeks turned into months and disbelief turned into anger because the truth remained buried by a church we previously attended and loved. This was how Tov began for me—to write about a better way; to offer an alternative to hiding and wounding and false narratives and power abuses. 

But it was a story I thought my father should write. My father (Scot McKnight) is a New Testament scholar, a historian and theologian, and a widely respected author. I encouraged (pestered) him for months to write about the truths he privately explained to me about Scripture and its misuse, about character and Jesus’ concern for the wounded. I was unsuccessful in convincing him to write his own book about Willow Creek, but we eventually decided to write together about a larger topic; a topic that is ultimately redemptive. I persisted because the voice inside me would not quiet, and he had the outline for a beginning. And so Tov began.

Tov, I should now explain, is the Hebrew word for goodness. It appears more than four hundred times in the Bible, and seven times alone on page one of Genesis. (God saw all that he had made, and it was very tov.) God is tov, God does tov, all that God created and creates is tov. He designs humans to walk in the way of tov, Jesus is the “tov” shepherd, Jesus calls us to tov works, the Spirit’s fruit is tov, and Peter calls Christians to do public “tov” works. Our gospel, the good news, is “tov” news. Our Bible is the Book of Tov.

Because I am a schoolteacher and have spent two decades of my professional career teaching in public schools, I constantly thought about education and Tov’s applications as my father and I wrote A Church Called Tov. (I still think about the applications, particularly as my career and writing now converge here.) I thought about my students and how I can nurture the traits of goodness within my own classroom. I thought about classroom culture and school culture and how to resist toxicities within them all. I thought about the role of a teacher, of a principal, of a superintendent or head of school, of board members. I thought about tov leaders and toxic leaders and dreamt about the creation of healthy school cultures that nurture goodness for those within them. I dreamt—and still dream—about school leaders seeking goodness and transformational practices and how the restoration of wholeness can impact the next generation.

And we believe our “Circle of Tov” can provide an outline for such transformation and for the unleashing of goodness. We believe it offers a radical culture shift toward goodness; one that can transform schools and the lives of those within them. Tov provides a map for school leaders to create cultures that reflect the goodness of God.

We studied traits and patterns of cultural toxicity and countered each with a tov alternative, an alternative that can transform the culture and lives of those who submit to tov practices. The circle can apply to all Christian communities, and here consider schools, school culture, and school leadership:

Nurture empathy. Resist a narcissist’s culture.

Nurture grace. Resist a fear culture.

Put people first. Resist institution creep.

Tell the truth. Resist false narratives. Know Yom Kippur.

Nurture justice. Resist a loyalty culture.

Nurture service. Resist a celebrity culture.

Nurture Christlikeness. Resist the leader culture.

​​Briefly evaluate your school or district with the Tov Circle. Consider the influence of its leader(s) and culture. Which tov practices exist? Which do not? Where do you observe toxicity, and by whom? Who has power, and how is power used or misused?

A word on power. Many attribute this stinging quote to Abraham Lincoln: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” How true this is, no matter the original source. Since the publication of A Church Called Tov in October 2020, we have received a steady stream of letters from readers who are survivors of abuse. The details differ, but the overall theme is largely the same: A leader misused power in a Christian organization. The result is horrendous damage to lives, families, souls. Power corrupts. Power destroys. 

Hear this: Toxic Christian leaders discredit the gospel. Our sense of justice and doing the right thing needs to be at work in all layers of education, and by doing the right thing I mean doing what is right at the right time. A healthy school culture puts people first instead of burying the truth. Healthy leaders use power for others. Healthy cultures heal instead of wound. They offer compassion. They resist toxicity of all forms and instead offer grace, justice, healing, truth, and Christlikeness to its teachers, students, employees, and families.

If school leaders commit themselves to tov, a healthy culture develops instead of a toxic one. So let’s be schools that lead courageously, by offering practices of tov that heal wounds and bridge divides. Let’s act justly and do the right thing at the right time. Let’s be tov!

Laura Barringer is coauthor of A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes HealingLaura is also a primary-grades teacher and a curriculum writer for Grow Kids. She previously co-authored the children's version of The Jesus Creed and wrote a teacher's guide to accompany the book. Laura published articles for The Jesus Creed and The Englewood Review of Books, and her writing has featured in Church Leaders and The Roys Report. Laura is a graduate of Wheaton College and now lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and three rescue beagles.

One Comment

  • Thank you for this. I recently was hired at my children’s school as the project coordinator and I feel like a big part of my job is to increase moral at the school among the faculty which will hopefully overflow to the students. My previous work was full time ministry at a multi-site mega church in South Fl. Our school is not a Christian school, although most people involved in the founding of the school would consider themselves Christians. It is a Hillsdale Barney Charter School Initiative classical school. We are on our third year. I was involved in the founding of the school before I understood all the political connections. Despite this, I still feel it the best option for my children and I am glad to be on staff to hopefully influence for the good. I have been listeing to your podcast and have A Church Called Tov my list to read this year. I look forward to gleaning truthes and applying it to my work at our school.

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