How Do I Learn What Seminary Didn’t Teach Me?

by Sarai Rice

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Most ministers, me included, probably discovered early in our careers that we don’t have the full set of skills essential to congregational leadership, skills that include not only preaching and pastoral care but also congregational governance, employee supervision and evaluation, fundraising, change management, long-range planning, marketing/brand development, and budgeting. When this is true, where do we go? What can we do to gain the skills we need?

I first encountered my own lack of training when I discovered, one week into my first call, that the beloved nursery attendant who had been serving my congregation for more than two years didn’t have a work permit. No one in the congregation, including me at that point, knew that all employees, when they are hired, must complete a form called an I-9 that documents either their citizenship or their permission to work in the United States. It was then that I began to suspect that my highly-rated seminary hadn’t fully prepared me for the actual job.

If you’ve made the same discovery, what can you do to fill in the gaps in your education?

Here are a few suggestions:

Read relevant journal articles. In the field of management, I regularly read five publications – The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Harvard Business Review, Rotman Management (from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto), and the Nonprofit Quarterly. Two of these focus on the corporate world and three on the non-profit world, but all have articles that, with a quick application of parallel thinking, clearly relate to the life of the church. For example, the April issue of HBR features two articles whose applicability should be immediately apparent:

  • “Managing Yourself: An Antidote to Incivility” is an article on how to protect yourself from rude colleagues. I’m sure that all of you will immediately sense ways in which the content might apply to your congregation, but just in case you’re puzzled, I’ll share a comment I overheard one church member/volunteer make to another during a judicatory meeting earlier this week: “George just cursed at Jan, and now she’s upstairs crying.” (Names changed to protect the sad.)
  • “Culture Is Not the Culprit.” For those of us who struggle with congregations in which the internal culture is dominated by highly contentious long-time members, this author’s suggestion for those in the corporate world is that culture isn’t something you fix, it’s what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough strategic challenges. In other words, the culture ineluctably improves as you focus on the work.

Read great books that address your specific questions about church management. A few to which I refer often enough to have needed replacement copies:

Take classes, locally, regionally or on-line. Most communities have local organizations that offer leadership classes of some kind. For example, here in Des Moines Drake University’s Center for Professional Studies offers a three-day class in non-profit fundraising, the local Community Foundation offers half-day or all-day workshops on a variety of leadership topics, and the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center offers a leadership series that covers topics such as organizational dynamics and leadership in the midst of conflict. You can also look into on-line programming available through organizations such as BoardSource and the National Association of Church Business Administrators (now known as The Church Network), or you can check out continuing education workshops on leadership available through some seminaries.

Apprentice yourself. When I first discovered that there were leadership skills I hadn’t yet learned, I started volunteering with local organizations that were doing the things I needed to know how to do. For example, I volunteered to serve on the strategic planning committee of my local school district so that I could watch how schools plan for the future. I also volunteered with the local Planned Parenthood affiliate so that I could learn to fund-raise, and I volunteered with a United Way–funded partner so that I could learn program evaluation. As is often the case, the more I learned, the more I could see that I didn’t know, but over time I acquired a broad set of leadership skills.

Ask questions. A few years into my ministry, it became clear that two members of my congregation were angry with me, which they demonstrated by, among other things, making it a point to avoid shaking hands with me after services on Sunday morning. Rather than continuing to suffer, I looked around the community for someone who seemed comfortable in the midst of high levels of conflict and asked him what he did to manage the hostility. (His response—be clear that you’re doing the right thing and then keep doing it.)

Another option, of course, is to hope and pray that no one will notice our lack of training or expect us to do anything about. But while that may make life easier in a penultimate sense, it doesn’t usually help in the long run and it certainly doesn’t benefit our congregations. Instead, just think of budgets or supervision techniques as the knitting of the management world and give your brain a workout learning something new!

[box]Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.[/box]