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.