Date of Award

Winter 1-6-2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Policy Studies

First Advisor

Sheryl A. Gowen, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Patricia A. Carter, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Janice B. Fournillier, Ph.D.

Fourth Advisor

Darren J. Pascavage, Ph.D.


Catholic schools in the United States have experienced daunting challenges since Vatican II (1962-1965) with a 45% decrease in number attributed to decisions made by Church leaders. Traditionally led by religious, the National Catholic Education Association (2010) reported 97% of Catholic schools are now staffed by lay people. This research details the importance of Catholic schools to the evangelizing mission of the Church, defines the role of laity, and acknowledges a lack of programs that support lay Catholic principals. Past studies provide a snapshot of trends, list expected competencies, and compare their positions to public school counterparts. The literature review indicates little attention has focused on lived experiences of lay Catholic principals. This study presents the stories of six female Catholic principals in an effort to provide a greater understanding of the responsibilities associated with their roles.

Using narrative case study design, this research reveals aspects of their lives, careers, and families as it pertains to their experiences as Catholic principals. Six major themes emerged from the analysis of data: (1) the unwavering link between the Catholic Church and school; (2) the call for leadership that deepens the faith of their constituencies; (3) the importance of building community as a dimension of the principal’s role as faith leader; (4) the requisite for principals to model faith in action; (5) the need for spiritual and professional development to support principals as faith leaders; and, (6) the negotiation of tensions in their personal and professional lives.

Results provide a richer understanding of the complexity associated with lay leadership and informs the reader of areas in need of further research to assure the future of Catholic education in the United States. Specifically, findings suggest Church leadership structure programs that adequately prepare lay Catholic principals for their roles, perform studies focused on the multifaceted roles associated with Catholic school leadership, and create opportunities for spiritual and professional development for those who currently serve in these positions. The study confirms priests as the link between the Catholic Church and school, and suggests their preparation, as well as desire to oversee a Catholic school, as critical.