At Every Turn, Church Leaders Face Challenging Choices
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity helps open paths for effective change

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.”

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