How Today’s Clergy Are Putting Their Faith in Management Training
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Leadership Social Impact Jan 14, 2016

How Today’s Clergy Are Putting Their Faith in Management Training

Like CEOs, faith leaders face challenges running large organizations in a rapidly changing landscape.

Yevgenia Nayberg

In July 2012, Rabbi Darryl Crystal arrived in San Antonio to lead a synagogue divided.

A senior rabbi of twenty years had recently offered his resignation. He was intelligent, deeply committed to social justice, and beloved by many congregants. But over time, his leadership style had alienated others. He had also been butting heads with a newly ordained assistant rabbi, who ended up resigning as well. Within the congregation, factions were legion. Some members were angry that the senior rabbi was leaving, some were upset by the assistant rabbi’s departure, and some were simply frustrated about the lack of transparency surrounding the turmoil. How could they lose two rabbis in a month, they wondered, without ever knowing there was a problem? The crisis came to a boiling point when congregants were left to battle over whether the senior rabbi should be given the honorary title of “rabbi emeritus.” Over 900 people attended the congregational vote—which the senior rabbi narrowly lost.

Less than a month later, Crystal began his tenure as interim rabbi.

Business and nonprofit executives alike have long consulted management scholars for guidance on how to lead their organizations through change. Slowly, leaders of faith communities are getting in on the action too.

In fact, over the past decade, faith leaders have turned to traditional management education for insights into a variety of administrative challenges. It’s a trend that, from a distance, may seem obvious, even inevitable. Like their corporate counterparts, faith leaders often oversee a large staff (paid and volunteer), multimillion dollar budgets, and multimillion dollar facilities. Like executives in the private and public sectors, they are charged with meeting the needs of diverse sets of stakeholders. And they, too, are fighting for a place in the lives of an unprecedentedly distracted population.

“Although there are many differences, the organizational challenges that a CEO of a Fortune 250 corporation has to face and the challenges that a pastor or rabbi of a large congregation has to deal with are in some ways quite similar,” says Nicholas Pearce, a clinical professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School. For Pearce, who cofounded and codirects the school’s annual Faith and Leadership Week program, the parallels between the faith and business worlds are not merely academic. Since 2012, he has also served as assistant pastor at Chicago’s historic Apostolic Church of God. “It’s a calling,” he says. “At the age of seven, I knew I would serve in pastoral ministry.”

The Sacred and the Administrative

Divinity schools and seminaries may do a terrific job preparing future faith leaders for sacred duties. For managerial ones—according to increasing numbers of seminary presidents and clergy—not so much.

According to Pearce, this shortcoming may not be entirely accidental. A common view among religious leaders is that management training is antithetical to the aims of the ministry. Isn’t management education just about how to make more money? And isn’t money, if not quite the enemy, certainly a “secular other” that ought to stay a peripheral concern within the sacred context of ministry?

“Excellence in modern ministry demands excellence in both the sacred and the administrative.” - Nicholas Pearce

Faith communities, it seems, are often torn between two very different value systems. One system espouses all things spiritual: proclaiming sacred scriptures, administering sacraments, nurturing the faithful, visiting the sick, and caring for the bereaved. The other value system—let’s call it administrative—dictates how large teams are managed, how the physical plant is maintained, how space is allocated, and how unprecedented regulatory complexity is navigated.

“Many congregations rightly prize the sacred core, but unadvisedly cast aside the administrative elements,” says Pearce. “Congregations that want to grow and scale the reach and impact of their ministries recognize that you can’t have one without the other. Excellence in modern ministry demands excellence in both the sacred and the administrative.”

Beau Surratt, an interim minister of music at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church outside of Chicago, believes that as a congregation, “we’re uncomfortable, deeply uncomfortable, talking about money. If we get more leaders comfortable with embracing the business side of what we do, and the rest of the people in the churches are able to see that fruits of that, maybe that will lead to some more comfort.”

Still, Pearce is quick to correct an underlying misconception: that the management training that faith leaders seek is about money, or at least that it is just about money. These leaders do not simply turn to the Kellogg School because they want to fill their church coffers, he says. “What they are coming to learn is how to be better stewards of all the human, material, and social resources that will be at their disposal in the leadership of their congregations.”

Sally Blount, Dean of the Kellogg School of Management, agrees. “And that mission matters to society. At Kellogg, we are not taking on this work for financial reasons, but as part of how we give back. Whether one is a person of faith or not, I think we can all agree that faith organizations provide important social infrastructure for their members and a moderating voice in social debate. Human society benefits when our churches, of all faiths, are healthy organizationally.”

The Cross-Pollination of Ideas

For three years running, the Kellogg School is offering its interdenominational Faith and Leadership Week program. (It also offers executive education programs developed in conjunction with local seminaries.) During Faith and Leadership Week, clergy from diverse faith traditions learn the latest theories about leadership, motivation, collaboration, conflict resolution, and change management. There is a robust experiential learning component, which includes hands-on simulations and case debates to bridge the important gap between theory and practice. For instance, participants may step into the shoes of a minister who has just inherited a declining historic congregation and needs to lead a delicate congregational transformation. Participants also break into small groups to exchange ideas and to reflect on goals for their own congregations.

The discussions that arise would not be out of place in any management classroom: Who are your allies? What are the sacred cows? How should common goals be set, and individuals held accountable? What are you doing to invest in the next generation of leaders? Sometimes, though, the usual problems come with more unusual twists. Like: What if most of the people you are working with are volunteers? Or what if the resistance you are encountering is coming from one of the congregation’s founding families?

Blount adds, “Businesses and business schools have advanced knowledge about human organizing in important ways over the last 50 years. That knowledge is not all domain specific. We have a lot to share about how to build strong faith-based organizations. After all, we are a school, not a business. We’ve always had a broader agenda.”

“Even when you don’t have any information to give, tell them that you don’t have information to give.” - Beau Surratt

Crystal, the interim rabbi, says he uses his management training on a daily basis. Where engagement has historically been a problem, he says, he and the president do not bring forward new programs without explicit buy-in from the congregation. “Unless there were lay people, members of the congregation, who were going to own it, we wouldn’t do it,” he says. “So we set a number of projects on back burners because nobody would step up.”

The education has also fundamentally changed how Crystal leads his congregations in discussion. He consciously employs smaller, more intimate group discussions to encourage his quieter members to speak their minds—as well as large forums, which have their own purpose.

“In one congregation, there were sixty people in the room, and one guy said, very emphatically, ‘Well, no one said it yet, but I think we all need to say that we must have a male rabbi.’” The man “saw he was completely alone,” says Crystal, “but if it wasn’t a group setting, then he would have been an outlier and he wouldn’t have realized it.”

Surratt, the interim music minister, has taken to heart a lesson on communicating during times of change: “Even when you don’t have any information to give, tell them that you don’t have information to give.” Communication, any communication, he says, relieves anxiety. As he coaxes a new choir to expand its repertoire beyond classical music, he also expects to lean heavily on lessons in negotiation and compromise.

Surratt and Crystal both participated in shorter nonprofit executive management programs at the Kellogg School. Increasingly, faith leaders are opting to go further, deciding to pursue an MBA to complement their theological education. The experience, says Pearce, can be “incredibly beneficial—both for the faith leaders and those from other sectors, because the cross-pollination of ideas is critical.” Having a clergyperson in a room of executives and marketing professionals can make dialogue more surprising, more enlightening, and more profitable for everyone. Ultimately, it can show participants how to hold onto their core beliefs while opening themselves up to other viewpoints.

Most faith leaders, however, opt for programming tailored specifically for them. Because make no mistake, while a CEO and a priest may confront similar types of problems, they are each responsible for winning the hearts and souls of very different types of customers.

In fact, some clergy would disagree that they serve “customers” at all—viewing themselves as shepherds, advisers, or partners to their congregations, not service providers with a mandate to keep their clients satisfied.

“Who’s the audience?” asks Liz Livingston Howard, a clinical associate professor of management at the Kellogg School and director of nonprofit executive education. “A business would use marketing tactics to identify the best target audience to reach a specific ROI. It might say, ‘This particular customer segment is going to be our strongest, best, most effective—pick a metric—and therefore we’re going to customize our product line for our best customer.’”

But faith communities have a much broader definition of the target audience. They do not exist to serve only their wealthiest, most able-bodied, or most receptive members. “Communities of faith deal with all customers seeking a wide range of services and impacts, so the faith leaders need strong leadership and management tools,” Howard says.

Finally, studying the principles of management among like-minded peers is simply more accessible. “It can be less daunting,” says Pearce. “It creates a ready-made safe space, because you don’t have to defend faith or the sacred work of the faith community. You don’t have to defend the relevance of the faith community.”

Why Now?

Relevance. A decade or so ago, traditional management training did not figure prominently on the faith community’s radar. Today it does. And Surratt believes that one of the biggest explanations for this change is a gradual loss of the cultural privilege that religion once enjoyed. In the 1950s, he says, “there was this clear sense that if you were a good, upstanding citizen, one of the things you did was you went to church.”

In a social sense—even in a very physical and temporal sense—America protected religion. “It used to be that on Sunday mornings, stores were closed, restaurants were closed,” says Pearce. “There were no youth sports activities because everyone was expected to be in worship on Sunday morning. And if you did not worship, that was fine, but the world didn’t turn on until Sunday after church.”

Today, of course, the world is always on.

“You find a good pastor and you make him better.” - Thomas Baima

Because of the increased competition for people’s time and attention, or maybe due to a national souring on institutions more generally, people are distancing themselves from organized religion. A 2014 Pew study reports that about 56 million American adults do not affiliate with any organized religion at all—a jump of 19 million in just seven years. This puts “unaffiliated” as the second largest religious group in the country. The trend, though strongest among young adults, holds across age groups. It also crosses race, ethnicity, gender, and education levels. (The trend is stronger among some religious groups than others. A few religions, like Hinduism and Islam, are bucking the trend, and the percentage of evangelical Protestants in the population has remained stable.)

Moreover, being born into a religion is no longer as much of an assurance that someone will stay religious. Almost one in five American adults who were raised in a religious household now count themselves among the unaffiliated; religious intermarriage and religion switching are also up.

More with Less

Dwindling congregations can lead to dwindling finances. “Because church is not such an assumed part of the culture anymore, giving to church is not an assumed part of the culture anymore,” says Surratt. “Times of diminishing resources eventually make you realize that you’re going to have to change somehow if you’re going to continue to exist.”

Meanwhile, the institutional landscape has also evolved, upping the ante for what it takes to be a responsible member of the civic community at large. It is no longer enough to engage only with your congregants. “You have political officials, you have residents, you have other social impact organizations, you have schools, you have other churches and congregations that are not always the easiest to collaborate with,” says Pearce. And yet collaborate they must. “The church’s role as a credible community stakeholder is incredibly important. It can’t be understated.”

Add to that the fact that with each additional layer of complexity, there are more laws to comply with. “It is a very different mindset than the old, one-staff-person-lots-of-volunteers-type church-based not-for-profit,” explains the Very Reverend Thomas A. Baima, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and a vice rector for academic affairs at Mundelein Seminary, which has partnered with the Kellogg School to offer the Advanced Pastoral Leadership Program to priests from Catholic dioceses throughout the region. “Now, as a pastor or administrator, you’re part of the institutional world. And as such you have to be a good citizen of that world: hiring employees, paying taxes, benefits, observing proper labor laws and accounting rules, while at the same time keeping the focus on the religious mission. It is simply a more complicated environment than it was thirty years ago.”

The onus is on faith leaders to do substantially more, sometimes with less. So many are focusing on reaching congregants and future congregants in the places where they actually are. This means, yes, mastering new platforms like social media.

Pearce sees this as wise. He is bullish about the possibilities that tools like Facebook and Twitter have to offer. “If we want people to live out their faith seven days a week, 24 hours a day, but we only engage them with spiritual content for 90 minutes a week, there’s a real opportunity for greater engagement, and for allowing faith leaders to be more touchable and more accessible.”

So yes, he says, the days of “if we build it, they will come” are nearly over. But this may not be a bad thing. “Depending on your reading of scripture, one could say that even Jesus did not advocate for the ‘if we build it they will come’ mentality. He said, ‘Go ye therefore, into all the world.’”

Doing Compassion Better

Other drivers lead faith leaders to management education. Among many factors underlying the Kellogg School’s partnership with Mundelein Seminary was a shortage of clergy. The narrower pipeline, explains Baima, meant shorter apprenticeships after ordination, leaving priests to assume leadership positions earlier and earlier in their vocations—before they have had the wide range of experiences ordinarily gleaned during several appointments as associates. “We asked the question: If we can identify a person with proven talent and then give them high-impact training—a certificate program that takes their skills and notches them up two or three levels—then would they be able to assume these roles of greater management in the church?”

Indeed, they would. “You find a good pastor and you make him better,” says Baima. “You find a good administrator who has already proven himself and then through training, you turn up the volume on the skills.”

A final contributing factor is a fragile but growing acceptance that the goals of businesses and the missions of faith-based organizations are not always irreconcilable. To some extent, this reflects a shift in the attitudes of faith communities. But the business community, too, is in transition.

Spreading throughout corporate America is an entrepreneurial mindset, a scrappiness, a sense that if things don’t go right the first time, there may not be a next time. “That type of urgency—not just for resources, but for greater meaning and impact—is something that many congregations can really attest to,” says Pearce.

Corporate leaders are also seeking to engage employees who see their work as more than just a paycheck. “The Millennial generation is looking for purpose and meaning,” says Baima. “Now that traditionally hasn’t been a business school’s business, but it has certainly been a seminary’s business.”

Surratt agrees. He follows a few business leaders—marketers, entrepreneurs—on YouTube and has noticed how they talk about building relationship-based company cultures and about “making art instead of being a cog in the system.” Relationships? Self-expression? Identity? This, he says, is “the water we’ve been swimming in for a long time.”

In reflecting on how the principles of faith and management coexist, even build on one another, Crystal points to a passage from a book called Wrestling with Angels by Naomi Rosenblatt: “Being created in the image of an infinite God means that our spiritual potential for growth and transformation is limitless. If there is no ceiling on the concept of God, then we who are made in His image have infinite space to grow. We never reach the end of our potential.”

He stops reading. “There are schools of management that are very much synchronous with religious values,” he says. “I like to say that the management tools help us do compassion better.”

About the Writer
Jessica Love is editor-in-chief of Kellogg Insight.
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