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The state of theological education in leadership and business

BOOKSBy Susan Michaelson

While church business management training has increasingly become part of MDiv curricula, the need isn’t entirely met — yet.

Theological education has undergone something of a renaissance during the last decade. In addition to the expected course offerings in the Old and New Testaments, biblical languages, systematic theology, apologetics, ordination preparation, and applied or practical theology, most of the nation’s larger seminaries now have robust programs that extend from these basics — and no more so than in practical theology.

Practical theology began as preparation for pastoral ministry in a church setting, and it has expanded in many exciting directions. In addition to formal training in preaching and counseling, evangelization programs targeting specific cultural contexts are growing. Examples include multilevel coursework in urban church planting, ethnically oriented ministries, Islamic studies, contemporary culture, and marketplace, which brings the gospel into secular work settings. Typically, these can either be structured as standalone MA programs or as selections within a professional pastoral-track MDiv.

An increased focus on leadership skills
Courses of study in leadership have also been in place in many seminaries over this period, although most lack the pizazz of the evangelization curricula. Here, the practical content has tended to remain focused on strategic planning, vision-setting and leadership development.

For example, Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary offers the clearly named LEAD 620: Mission, Vision and Strategic Planning. Dallas Seminary’s PM301:  Pastoral Theology and Leadership I and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s CL660:  Leading and Managing the Christian Non-Profit Organization cover similar content.

Other courses in this category are devoted to more interpretive topics, such as discussing leadership models, leading a congregation, developing skills in the laity, and building working teams. Biblical Seminary, Fuller Theological Seminary, Moody Theological Seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Westminster Theological Seminary offer courses in this vein, where the main point is reflective thinking about leadership in light of biblical teaching and Christian calling.

All leadership courses are helpful, but most tend to shy away from nuts-and-bolts instruction in important areas such as learning to read and interpret financial statements, developing and monitoring budgets, managing through congregational growth or decline, and coping with physical infrastructure challenges. Too often, the courses which do exist try to cover too much ground in a semester. Is it really possible to teach “relational skills, administration, financial stewardship, staff management, worship planning, weddings, funerals, baptisms, and the Lord’s Supper” in one course, as one notable seminary describes in its catalog?

Not quite there yet
In truth, the business side of gospel ministry — which might suffer from crowd-out as much as lack of appeal to theology students — is not an official part of most divinity curricula. The general expectation (if indeed there is one) seems to be that these subjects will be informally caught during pastoral internships, and later, on the job.

Interestingly, the larger the university setting for a theological seminary, the less likely it seems to be that that seminary will directly offer any forum in their degree programs for the teaching of church business and management skills. For example, neither Princeton Theological Seminary, Duke Divinity School, nor Talbot (part of Biola University) provide anything that incorporates church management education. Vanderbilt Divinity School does have the Turner Center for Church Leadership and Congregational Development; however, it’s not part of the regular divinity curriculum. Rather, it’s a conference and consulting center.

There are, however some notable exceptions in other institutions. Yale Divinity School’s (YDS) course offerings are similarly restricted to those above. But, YDS is different in that it encourages its students to consider dual degrees with Yale’s other graduate schools, including an MDiv/MBA combination for pastoral track students, and a Religion/Management combination for those more interested in church or nonprofit administration.

Asbury Seminary offers a robust set of concentrations, including one in Christian Leadership, which includes CL618:  Church Management and Administration. This course instructs non-financial managers in the basics of management and finance, including budgeting, planning and execution. It’s notable because it’s more focused on quantitative skills than most courses, which are able to do little more than touch on these topics as part of a more general approach to leadership.

Complementing its leadership curriculum, Asbury also has a department devoted to Information Technology as it relates to ministry, including practical instruction in audio/visual production, along with web design and management.

For pastors and other church and ministry leaders who have already completed their theological education — or for those who are employed by dioceses, churches and ministries, and have discovered that they need more leadership, business and management education than they have — the Villanova University School of Business offers an innovative program through the Center for Church Management and Business Ethics. There, students may enroll in a two-year, distance-learning graduate program leading to a Master’s degree in Church Management. The 30-credit program begins with a one-week on-campus residency, and then continues with a combination of directed study and weekly live class meetings conducted online.

The scope expansion of the practical side of theological education over the last decade has indeed been impressive, especially in the areas of evangelization and general leadership. While it’s also encouraging to see growing efforts to include managing the business of the church, there’s a clear need for more.

Susan Michaelson holds both an MBA and an MDiv, and is on faculty at the Villanova School of Business, teaching Financial Reporting and Controls in the Master of Science in Church Management program

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