Leading during difficult times: your best training options

What are a pastor’s biggest indicators that it’s time to consider leadership development training?

Matthew F. Manion
Professor of Practice in Management and Operations
Faculty Director for the Center for Church Management
Villanova School of Business

Martin: Many seek training during a crisis, or when a felt need is strong, which creates anxiety in the church’s system.

Those who choose to pursue ‘lifelong learning’ are less likely to have staff conflict, mistrust or confusion in the church family system.

Ricketson: It’s never too early to begin to create a culture of responsibility that follows a biblical ethic of mutual respect and submission. Although I received a wonderful biblical education while in seminary, I didn’t have one required course on how to get along with people to accomplish the goals of the church. No one explained to me that leadership is a process between people in the role of leaders and people in the role of followers trying to accomplish a common goal.

Manion: The most successful leaders are lifelong learners and know that it’s always time to consider leadership development opportunities!

For the rest of us, I think the Holy Spirit prompts us when something feels off in our ministry or relationships. We should always check first to make sure our relationship with God is in the right place. Assuming it’s healthy, then the challenges we face in ministry or our relationships are usually a function of our leadership. Our ways of doing things might need a refresh.

Amid COVID-19, church leaders are facing a lot of challenges right now. What areas of leadership development are most in-demand among church leaders currently — especially among senior pastors and executive pastors?

Phill Martin
CEO at The Church Network
Certified Church Administration
Certified Association Executive (CAE)
Certified ICF Coach – ACC

Ricketson: First, conflict resolution. Our individualized, me-first culture influences church members to believe that personal rights are preeminent. Add to this that some leadership teaching requires submission because of position, power and control and you have a toxic brew just waiting to infect other members within the fellowship.

Second, strategic planning. Many pastors experience the ‘silo’ effect — various ministries within the church making their own plans, raising their own funds, and doing their own thing without considering how these actions might affect other ministries within the church. Thus, many churches are ‘activating’ their people to exhaustion.

Finally, organizational culture. The challenges many pastors unknowingly face are those of an ingrained organizational culture. By understanding that people create their organizational culture because of deeply held beliefs, pastors can begin to unearth the actual underlying assumptions that inform people in their decision-making and reticence to change or try something new.

Manion: Clarity of mission. Many leaders can mistakenly confuse how they do church with why their church exists. In this pandemic, the mission hasn’t changed, but the means to fulfilling it have changed dramatically. It’s crucial for church leaders to remind people of the mission and help them understand how it can be fulfilled in this new environment.

Managing remote work. The skills to lead a team or ministry when you can’t be physically present to each other are different. Communication is more difficult, and misunderstandings can occur more easily. Also, priorities need to be clarified, and expectations must be adjusted. Leaders should expect people to be less productive as they juggle a new work setup with the additional stress of managing their home life during a pandemic.

Rusty Ricketson, Ph.D.
Professor of Leadership
Master of Arts in Leadership
Program Coordinator
Luther Rice College & Seminary
Author, Followerfirst: Rethinking Leading in the Church

Self-care. This is always a challenge for other-centered Christian leaders, but the risk is even higher in a crisis. Leaders can’t give what they don’t have, so they must make time each day for prayer and renewal. They must overcome the temptation to sprint through the day and collapse at the end. It’s a poor leadership example, and fatigue can decrease our immune system, which is even more crucial these days.

Martin: Staff management and culture; vision (strategic direction);
and communication.

In terms of staff management and culture, church leadership demand and complexity are greater than ever. Failure to pay attention to this will cause serious discord in an organization.

With regards to vision (strategic direction), an organization must have a clear contextual focus that drives the mission and work to the congregation. Leadership must have a central focus to communicate this and focus the work.

Finally, related to communication, it’s more diverse and complicated than ever before. Understanding options and direction require a clear plan and continued focus.

What training does your organization offer to help church executives address these in-demand areas of leadership development?

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Manion: Villanova’s Master of Science in Church Management and our non-degree programs have always had elements that help leaders better align their resources for the mission of the church. We have also always had courses and content to develop self-leadership. Our human resources and organizational management courses have general principles on managing work that have been adapted to managing remote work.

Martin: The Church Network (TCN) focus is around 14 domains: Personnel/Human Resource; Staff Development; Congregational Leadership; Theology of Stewardship; Office Management; Information Management; Property Management; Communication and Marketing; Strategic Planning; Financial Management; Stewardship of Self; Legal & Tax Matters; Christian Perspectives & Theology of Church; and Theology and Ethics of Church Administration. (You can find complete details at www.thechurchnetwork.com/Online/Education.) We offer training through a certification program, local network groups, web seminars, an annual national conference, and an eLearing 24/7 lab.

Ricketson: The Master of Arts in Leadership (MAL) at Luther Rice teaches a Conflict Resolution course. Using the work of Ken Sande, the course teaches the student the reasons why conflicts arise and prescribes specific steps to resolve the conflict and bring about reconciliation.

The MAL teaches a course specifically regarding Strategic Planning within an organization. The student is given a framework to develop a unified purpose within the body and the steps needed to avoid ‘silos’ by creating a churchwide, agreed-upon plan to which everyone can focus and commit.

The MAL teaches a course on organizational culture that begins with understanding that all organizations have a culture that has been created over years. To try and change them without proper preparation is a formula for conflict and division.

Many of our readers work as many as 80 hours per week — maybe even more right now, as they help their staff and members navigate the pandemic. What leadership training options can you offer for them?

Martin: The 14 domains I named in the previous question help to inform both the certification and CEU programs of The Church Network. Our national conference, regional events, distance learning and chapter programs are all shaped by this body. We offer training through a certification program, local network groups, web seminars, an annual national conference, and an eLearing 24/7 lab.

Ricketson: The information delivery system at Luther Rice is perfect for the busy pastor. Spring and fall semesters are 15 weeks, and the summer semester is 11 weeks. Classes are offered 100-percent online or in combination with on-campus classes; we let the student choose. Each week, students are presented lectures, videos, and reading and writing assignments and can work at their own pace.

The MAL degree is a 36-credit-hour program composed of 12 three-hour courses. The course work begins with the theories and foundations of leading and them moves toward the more practical skill sets that leaders need.

Manion: Since the crisis started, Villanova has been hosting regular webinars to equip church leaders for these unique challenges. Those webinars have been recorded and posted to our website along with relevant articles and resources. Hundreds of leaders are joining the webinars to connect with peers and share ideas on how they are navigating this pandemic. And hundreds more are accessing the recordings and resources to support their leadership development when the time of the webinar conflicts with their other duties.

What leadership development options can you offer for pastors who don’t thrive in online learning?

Ricketson: Although the majority of teaching at Luther Rice is done online, on-campus classes are still available in metro Atlanta. I encourage pastors who might be hesitant to begin online studies to take a “test drive” first via our free, online, no-credit lessons offered through Project FOCUS. These classes give people an opportunity to experience the online delivery of information and how online learning isn’t that dissimilar from in-class learning.

Manion: The Center for Church Management in the Villanova School of Business has facilitated a few videoconferences for small groups of pastors, many of whom had no prior online learning experience. Keeping it small and focused on a finite number of issues made it more accessible for those who were new to online learning. They liked to chance to see and hear from fellow pastors and this opened the door to future training opportunities for them.

The other option we have supported to the best of our ability is 1-1 support via email and the phone for pastors. I think any pastor who is hesitant to pursue online training should minimally avail themselves of the person to person support from a trusted mentor or advisor during these difficult times. 

Martin: The Church Network is a large network of local groups, most of which meet monthly and cover a topic of training that affects the work on local congregation. Our Certified Church Administrator (CCA) designation training is available both virtual and in person. Our national conference is held each year and is a large training event with a robust trade show of hundreds of suppliers who support churches.

Over the next several years, which areas of leadership development do you expect to gain momentum among pastors?

Manion: The environment for church ministry in north America has been changing for years, and this pandemic has been an accelerant for that change. The move to virtual ministry, live-streamed services, and online giving as just a few examples have all been happening for a while, but now have become a necessity. The context for ministry will only become more complex in the next five to 10 years. Church leaders must be able to assess and understand the unique ministry needs in their mission territory. They must be able to shape and lead the culture of their churches to fulfill that mission. They must become agile learners who are willing to let people fail quickly as they try new means and new methods of sharing the Good News. We will not return to church life the way it was before COVID-19, any more than the early disciples returned to life the way it was before the Resurrection. Church leaders will need to be able to discern the tenets of the faith that have not changed from the forms and rituals of their faith that need to adapt.

Martin: There’s no question that the current pandemic will drive a movement to look more at crisis planning.

Ricketson: I expect that leadership development will be more follower-focused than leader-focused. The current teaching of ‘everything rises and falls on leadership’ has been interpreted by some as, ‘everything rises and falls on the leader.’ This mantra is patently false because the willingness of the follower to follow a leader isn’t taken into consideration. By concentrating for the last 50 years on leader training exclusively, a division has unintentionally been created in our churches between those in positions of leading and those in positions of following.

The next generation of leaders don’t appear to be enamored with ‘being the leader.’ It appears they want relationships that work together for kingdom purposes. Yes, certain skills for certain positions will need to be taught, but the overall focus will be to create flat organizational structures that function through meaningful relationships regardless of position.

No matter what, there will be some pastors who simply believe they can’t make leadership development work for them. What would you say?

Martin: Time and money are always the two pushbacks that keep a congregation from supporting ongoing learning. Post-COVID time, cost will become an even greater barrier; for many churches staff development is considered discretionary spending.

In reality, however, it’s as necessary as payroll, buildings and mission. Balance is critical for a congregation to have the best possible leaders. Skills development needs to move at such a great pace that no staff member ever has all the training he or she will need for the next decade.

Ricketson: My response to those pastors is … don’t do leadership training. Leadership is a process and an art, not a person. For leadership to take place, you must have people willing to lead and people willing to follow. I’d concentrate on teaching followers how to follow.

Hundreds of graduates from the MAL program can attest that this ‘follower-first’ approach has revolutionized their own approach to leading others and produced a new spirit of cooperation within the church.

Manion: We have heard numerous testimonies from pastors who signed up for leadership development training reluctantly or even against their desires. The common sentiment at the end of the process is that, “Wow, it turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks.”

If we believe the life of a disciple of Christ is one of ongoing conversion, we must practice what we preach. Church leaders need to be committed to their ongoing development as Christians, as ministers, and as leaders. I don’t know how a pastor could fulfill their vocation without it.

— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh


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