At Every Turn, Church Leaders Face Challenging Choices

By Kelly Gilmer

Article updated on Jan. 7, 2009

Before he was elected a United Methodist bishop in the summer of 2004, Will Willimon had decades of experience as minister to Duke University and professor of Christian ministry. He had written dozens of books, served on boards for several colleges and organizations, and lectured around the world.

Yet Willimon felt overwhelmed by the prospect of overseeing 800 pastors, 157,000 United Methodists, and a $12-million budget for the North Alabama Conference.

“I’m not qualified for this job,” Willimon recalls telling L. Gregory Jones, dean of Duke Divinity School. “I don’t have training for managing a large, far-flung organization.”

Neither Willimon’s worries, nor the challenges faced by Christian institutions, surprised Jones. With colleagues at the Divinity School and at Lilly Endowment Inc., which supports programs nationally in the field of religion, Jones had shared concerns that Christian leaders and institutions were struggling. Their focus, by necessity, tended to be on survival, which diverted them from living out their mission and helping pastors and congregations flourish. At the same time, Jones says, few Christian leaders assume their positions with adequate leadership training.

“It’s hard to be an effective leader today,” Jones says. “It’s not that people are content to be mediocre. They’ve been beaten down. If they don’t hope for much, they won’t be disappointed.”

Now, with a $14-million grant from Lilly Endowment and funding from other donors, Duke Divinity School has launched a bold response to a changing and challenged church. Founded in January, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity (LEADD) will provide an array of programs to help Christian leaders combine theological insight with wise management practices.

Offering a continuum of new and existing programs to meet people at different stages—from high school students to experienced institutional leaders like Willimon—Duke envisions multiple benefits from a focus on strengthening leaders, who in turn will influence pastors and congregational life.

“Too often matters of organizational life consume all of the leader’s attention, with little time left for discerning God’s call or interpreting the current world situation in light of the tradition,” says the Rev. Janice Virtue, one of the initiative’s executive directors and the former associate dean for continuing education at Duke Divinity School. “It’s time to change that. Through Leadership Education, we will offer an education that helps simplify organizational leadership so that more energy can be spent on theological leadership.”

Duke Divinity School has long been working to address some leadership challenges. In 1999, the Divinity School developed a model with the Greensboro, N.C.-based Center for Creative Leadership to support pastoral leaders. Since then, United Methodist clergy from the Carolinas and Virginia have participated in the Royce & Jane Reynolds Program in Church Leadership. Participants, who meet over a year for group study, peer feedback, and personalized leadership assessments, have seen multiple benefits, from greater professional satisfaction to improvements in their church’s membership, fund raising and worship attendance.

Guided by that success, Dean Jones asked Willimon and other United Methodist bishops if they’d like to gather for two four-day retreats to explore effective leadership. The group, which came to be called the Episcopal Leadership Forum, has met six times and wants to continue its work together.

The evidence is everywhere that such leadership training is needed, Jones says. It’s in the numbers—declining congregations, dwindling budgets, struggling seminaries. The evidence is also in the stories people tell about isolation and lack of preparation for the challenges they face as managers.

James Wind, president of the Alban Institute, which has been a resource to American congregations since 1974, says today’s Christian leaders are particularly challenged because congregations are changing at the same time people are increasingly questioning traditional church leadership models.

“There is a growing portion of the American population who are in motion, from one kind of religious identity to another,” Wind says. “If you’re a leader of a religious institution, instead of having a solid place to plant your foot, you feel like you’re standing on sand that is shifting and moving very rapidly.

“A second kind of challenge we face is that most of our religious communities bear traditions of leadership that are heavily influenced by hierarchical and more authoritarian models of leadership,” Wind adds. “I don’t think there’s a religious community in this country where there isn’t an ongoing struggle to find the right shared answer to, ‘How is leadership going to be practiced here?’”

The Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick, one of the new initiative’s managing directors, was assigned to two United Methodist churches in western North Carolina when he graduated from Duke Divinity School in 2003. He said he had a particular view of what parish ministry would look like, and it didn’t include serving a church with its own tractor. (Kirkpatrick was handed the keys to the parish tractor at one of his churches.) Neither he nor fellow pastors received guidance in setting priorities and managing their time, and he saw a number of his peers “burning out, rusting out and dropping out.”

“It was the dailiness of ministry that took its toll,” he says.

Bill Lamar, an AME pastor who graduated from the Divinity School in 1999, faced overwhelming challenges in his third placement, where his predecessor had embezzled funds. Lamar had to spend several months doing forensic accounting before focusing on his congregation’s needs.

“I wish my leadership had pulled me aside and told me, ‘You’re going to difficult places, and you don’t have all the resources you need. But focus on the resources you do have. Start by finding out the strengths and passions of the church,’” says Lamar, a managing director for Leadership Education. “Leaders can inspire. When you work with them, you can have an exponential effect.”

Hope Morgan Ward, United Methodist bishop of Mississippi and a 1978 Divinity School graduate, agrees. She is part of the Episcopal Leadership Forum, where she says she found support and guidance from her peers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and for her role as the first female leader of a denomination in Mississippi.

“This initiative will address the challenge the church faces wherever there is leadership that is passive, lethargic, depressed, sluggish,” Ward says. “Effective leaders are contagious. As more leaders are helped and strengthened, the vitality will overflow and the synergy will increase.”

The format of the bishops’ Episcopal Leadership Forum—part skills training, part theological reflection, part support group—is informing the development of several new programs. Foundations of Christian Leadership, for example, will be a year-long, four-session program for newly appointed Christian institutional leaders, such as bishops, and those who show promise for such positions.

A number of the Divinity School’s established lifelong learning programs will become part of Leadership Education, including the Reynolds Program, Courage to Serve, Institute of Preaching, Duke Youth Academy and Sustaining Pastoral Excellence.

Leadership Education also will develop customized programs and convene groups within and across denominations around issues facing the church, such as clergy health and well-being, pastor assessment, and debt management. An online newsmagazine for pastors and institutional leaders, expected to go live in late 2008, will share stories, research, best practices and other resources. Preliminary research has shown that pastors and other leaders want information about managing their staffs, growing as leaders, and taking better care of themselves and their congregations.

In developing their plans, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity directors are seeking partners in unexpected places—including Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and Duke Corporate Education. In recent years, Jones and Virtue say, businesses have more systematically studied and invested in leadership training than churches.

Jones knows that some people in the church are skeptical about any connection between the congregational world and the corporate one. The initiative’s leaders are wrestling with the questions their approach raises: What does a theologically grounded leader look like? How can churches learn from business while staying true to their mission? What will success look like?

David Odom is the founder and former president of the Center for Congregational Health, an agency that helps faith communities through training and consulting. Since starting the center in 1992, he has thought extensively about the qualities of an effective Christian leader.

“The short-term measures of success are extremely difficult to discern,” says Odom, who has also served as a local church pastor and a leader of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. “Long-term, some of the clues I would look for are: What are people talking about in their meetings? If the conversation is about the survival of the institution and the loss of money, that’s not very healthy.”

For his part, Jones hopes that Leadership Education at Duke Divinity inspires cultural change in institutions—environments that nurture and invest in excellence, systems that encourage collaboration and creative problem solving, ambitious goals for living out the gospel.

“What would success look like?” Jones asks. “There would be much deeper and richer pipelines of people ready to assume positions of leadership. There would be a whole constellation of resources to support leaders in their work. There would be networks of relationships among leaders.”

Retired United Methodist Bishop Ken Carder, now Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams professor of the practice of Christian ministry, hopes LEADD influences the curriculum and creates an ongoing conversation about leadership.

“We have a unique opportunity to link theological inquiry and education and some of the tools from the outside world,” Carder says. “But I don’t think we can accept those uncritically.”

Virtue agrees. She admires that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, trained preachers to study not just Scripture, but science, medicine and a variety of other fields.

He trusted that these preachers could connect their life of faith to these other sources of wisdom,” Virtue says. “I don’t think the church is a business, but I do think it is an organization with particular habits and practices we can examine and improve.”

Like Virtue, Willimon names Wesley in explaining his interest in learning business principles to enhance his ministry. He also cites Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Four United Methodist churches have closed recently in West Birmingham—the same area where a gleaming new KFC is thriving. Willimon says that KFC is “the only functioning social institution serving that community.” In that fast-food restaurant, Willimon sees lessons in how best to welcome and serve people.

“I think it’s pitiful when you can sell soggy chicken to people,” he says, “but we can’t proclaim the gospel. Half of the churches in my conference are 100 years old. They’re doing much the same things they did 100 years ago. We need a new set of skills.”

Kelly Gilmer joined Duke Divinity School in February as director of communications for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

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