July 12, 2013

‘What the Lord wants you to do’

Porter hopes to foster ‘callings’ at Christian Heritage

By Christopher Smith

— It was a letter given to him by an elderly friend on her deathbed that, in part, motivated Gerald Porter to become the new headmaster of Christian Heritage School, he said.

Porter has replaced Renny Scott as headmaster of the private Christian school at 1600 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Dalton. Scott said he retired after 18 years because he believed it was time “to pass the baton on to the next generation.”

More than a decade ago, Porter was asked to lead a Sunday school class at his church in Kansas City, Mo., to help his pastor free up some time. Initially Porter refused, he said, because the class was for churchgoers over the age of 50.

Porter, who began his tenure as the new headmaster on July 1, said finally agreeing to teach the class led him to a message he continues to share with students.

“I had gotten to know this woman and she became ill,” he said. “As I was leaving the hospital one day, where I was visiting her for the last time, she handed me this letter. She said, ‘Don’t read this till you leave.’ A few hours later she passed into eternity.

“I got into the car and read the letter. It was the story of her life. And the very last paragraph said, I will never forget it, ‘Gerald. I just hope, before the Lord takes me, I will be able to figure out what he wants me to do with my life.’”

Reading those words served as a “turning point” for Porter.

“That was the point where I committed to make sure I had a conversation with kids to help them find their calling,” he said. “Not just kids. Adults, too. Make sure you find out what the Lord wants you to do.”

Porter said he’s come a long way from being “terrified” of teaching a Sunday school class, even likening his first meetings at Christian Heritage to a Winston Churchill war room. Which is funny, he said, because being an education leader wasn’t his priority growing up. He said when he graduated high school he envisioned being a moneymaking business leader and retiring by age 35.

That wasn’t his “calling,” Porter said, adding that even his high school gym coach could see he was headed for education long before he saw it himself.

From pizza delivery to principal

Finding out what God wants you to do is the difference between “a career and a calling,” Porter said.

“Part of it is desiring to fulfill what God has called you to do,” he said. “Even outside of that faith, people still need to do what they’re passionate about. I run into so many adults that work at a job that’s miserable, that they just don’t enjoy.”

For Porter, that job was working as an owner of Domino’s Pizza in Kansas City. Not that he outright hated the job, he said, but it was “stressful, hard work” and a detour from his drive to teach.

An eight-year detour.

“I was two years into studying Christian education (at Calvary Bible College in Missouri) and a few things happened in my home: parents divorced, a few other things,” Porter said. “So, basically I put the brakes on all that and had to go to work and a friend of mine said, ‘Hey, why don’t you go and drive for this Domino’s Pizza with me?’ And I needed income.”

By 22, he owned his own store, Porter said.

“I worked hard and did well and Domino’s helped me start,” he said. “But the Lord reminded me of this commitment I made to education. So I got out of the Domino’s ... Since I’ve gotten out of that there’s not a day that I haven’t gotten excited for my job.”

After he got his bachelor’s in education from Liberty University, Porter started teaching, coaching and maintaining a “fun” career renovating historic Kansas City apartments during the summers.

“Eventually I was called into administration and I couldn’t take summers off,” he said.

After earning a master’s degree in administration from Liberty University, he moved to Eustis, Fla., in 2003. He worked at Blue Lake Academy in Eustis, then Whitesburg Christian Academy in Huntsville, Ala., in 2009, and Ben Lippen School in Columbus, S.C., in 2010, where he was high school principal before coming to Christian Heritage.

Mickey Bowdon, headmaster of Ben Lippen, said in a news release that Porter has a “passion” for students and will “certainly be missed.”

What kept Porter moving around the Southeast so much?

“I enjoy the culture here, the values and what families stand for,” he said. “Christian education is thriving in the Southeast. In other parts of the country it’s struggling.”

‘Great thinkers’

The reason Christian education struggles in much of the country is because many Americans see faith and academia as unrelated or polarizing fields, Porter said.

Porter plans to continue an “emphasis on academic vigor” at Christian Heritage, adding that he sees no conflict between faith and intelligence.

“We can produce great thinkers who happen to be great people of faith as well,” he said. “If you look at our profile sheets you can see that 97 percent of our students go on to universities and do well.”

Porter said most students do well because of the Christian Heritage “platform.”

“We want students to learn things from multiple views,” he said. “We don’t want to just feed students information. We want them to be thinkers. We want them to be in the learning process.”

That’s worth the $8,200 to $9,100 in yearly tuition, Porter said. Even with 413 students bringing in more than $3 million a year in tuition, Porter said private schools are facing a money crunch like their public school counterparts.

“It’s a challenge,” he said.

Especially with plans to build a $14.75 million high school across the street, expected to begin at a yet to be decided date this year.

“The students are worth it,” Porter said, noting a background in real estate has him already visualizing the new building “beyond blueprints.”

“It’s exciting,” he added.

Having more space to teach will help the Christian Heritage platform grow, Porter said. Seeing teachers and administrators work together to build a bigger presence in the community by expanding the school could be a lesson for the youngsters, he said.

“We want (students) to be collaborative with their peers and their calling,” he said.

But how someone finds their call isn’t always easy.

Figuring it out

Finding a calling comes down to an “intersection” of passion, talent and God’s will, Porter said.

“It may not always be easy, but it’s something you’ll enjoy,” he said. “You may not figure it out before you graduate high school. You may not figure it out before you graduate college. I was 28 when I nailed it down.”

So how does one nail it down?

By thinking about what makes you happy, Porter said.

“If you get people talking about those events in their lives that leave them most satisfied they are usually bread crumbs to where the Lord wants you to go,” he said. “I remember a kid I was talking to once at my house ... He had no idea what he wanted to do. We started a conversation and he started talking about a mission trip he had gone on to Africa.

“He’s one of the shyest kids I know, but 30 minutes had passed and he was still telling us his story. There was a young lady there that night who had kind of already figured her life out. She said, ‘He doesn’t see it, does he?’ I said, ‘You’re right. He doesn’t.’ He asked us what we were talking about and I told him, ‘This is your call. This is what you’re passionate about.’”

That’s the kind of conversation Porter said he hopes to have with Christian Heritage students in the coming months.

“I’m very excited about it,” he said.