These days, ministers need to know a lot more than how to deliver a powerful sermon or console a family in crisis.
They need to understand organizational leadership: how to create a mission statement, set goals and measure whether they’ve achieved those goals — skills typically taught in MBA programs, not seminaries.
Beyond that, they should be comfortable with technology and savvy about social media — maybe tweeting or creating a lively Facebook page.
That’s why California Lutheran University recently hosted a mini MBA workshop for Lutheran ministers. Over five days, the workshop covered finance, leadership, marketing, technology and strategic direction.
“The church suddenly finds itself in a competitive environment,” said the Rev. Kapp Johnson, a minister, lawyer and lecturer in CLU’s School of Management who taught at the workshop. “That didn’t used to be the case. But when you’re in a competitive environment, you need additional skills.”
Fewer than half of Americans now identify themselves as Protestant, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. In the mainline Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, average attendance at worship services dropped 26 percent from 2003 to 2011.
Evangelical churches, on the other hand, are growing. Because so many are relatively new, they’ve already learned to compete for members, Johnson said.
But seminaries that prepare ministers in the mainline Protestant denominations — Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran — to varying degrees cling to a curriculum that has changed little in 500 years, he said. Seminarians still learn to read Greek and Hebrew. They study church history. They study the Bible and ethics.
All of that knowledge is valuable, but it doesn’t necessarily help in the day-to-day running of a church, Johnson said. And it may not directly help ministers make the kind of difference in people’s lives, that might draw them back to church.
“The changing role of clergy requires that they understand they’re running a nonprofit,” said the Rev. Arne Bergland, director of church relations at CLU, who helped organize the workshop. “That’s not a concept, at least in the Lutheran church, that has been recognized.”
The 18 ministers at the workshop this month ranged from relatively young to gray-haired. The Rev. Steve Herder, a pastor at Ascension Lutheran Church in Thousand Oaks, came to learn about organizational leadership and strategic planning, not subjects he studied when he was in seminary 30 years ago. He left seeing how some business language can apply to churches, but not always directly.
“The church doesn’t use the language of marketing and customers, but we do marketing in the sense of evangelism, wanting to share the love of Christ with everyone,” Herder said. “It’s how we tell the story of what we do, of doing that through social media. We have to translate some of the business language. It needs a different nuance.”
One of the toughest issues for the pastors at the workshop was defining their primary customers: Are they the congregation they serve or the community members outside the church whose lives they could potentially change?
Those discussions can be disquieting because pastors aren’t used to talking about customers or measuring results, Johnson said.
“When you talk to pastors about measuring changed lives, that’s very uncomfortable,” he said. “They’re being brought into a world of accountability, which they’re not used to, and that’s uncomfortable. ... It’s difficult to talk about losses because you take it personally. And sometimes it is personal. It’s people voting with their feet.”
The Rev. Erik Goehner, a pastor at Mount Cross Church in Camarillo, also finds consumer language “a little problematic.” But he sees how business language can apply to theology, just as business mission statements can sound theological when they talk about doing good.
Mount Cross and Ascension Lutheran have taken steps to use social media to expand their reach, both to their congregations and outside the church doors. Ascension Lutheran videotapes Sunday sermons and posts them on its websites. It has a Facebook page, and one pastor has a blog.
Mount Cross recently launched a Facebook page, though it’s monitoring it carefully because of privacy concerns, Goehner said.
But the church would like to do more. Goehner wants to revamp his church’s website so people can tell their stories, through photos and videos, about how the church has changed their lives. He also wants to allow online giving.
“Getting photos out there — that’s an easy way to stir up excitement,” Goehner said. “But we need to expand our Web capacity.”
For all that ministers can think in business terms about what people want, they have to stay true to themselves, Johnson said.
“You don’t give up your core,” he said. “You don’t sell your soul. But you always have to be innovative. The MBA helps do that.”
--- Published in the Ventura County Star on July 30, 2013