Bill Whitaker, right, is the executive pastor at Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond. Whitaker said he was called into a career in church administration (Photo by Bon Air Baptist Church)
Bill Whitaker, right, is the executive pastor at Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond. Whitaker said he was called into a career in church administration (Photo by Bon Air Baptist Church)

Performing the business of ministry

Recognizing that being a pastor involves more than sermon preparation and visiting hospitals, seminaries are responding with programs to equip ministers to handle the business side of leading a church.

By Jeff Brumley

Pastor Tony Lankford had a relaxing-but-productive day planned for himself on Monday. His plan was to prepare the message he will preach this coming Sunday on Daniel in the lion’s den.

“I was going to go to the coffee shop and actually write the sermon,” he said Wednesday from his office at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta. “But as of this morning, I have yet to work on the sermon.”

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That’s because a usually quiet Veteran’s Day instead was spent handling an “administrative trifecta” --  one plumber demanding payment for previous work, finding another plumber to fix a leaking toilet, and hiring an electrician to replace fuses in the building’s 80-year-old fuse box.

Welcome to the business side of ministry, which Lankford and a growing number of seminaries say has become more challenging than ever in the modern church.

“I’d like to say that all my time was spent helping the poor and finding new ways to proclaim the gospel,” Lankford said. “But the honest truth is, I spend far more time than I expected … on church administration – getting the bills paid, the lawn mowed, the volunteers trained and the plumber called.”

Knowing that many churches today operate with smaller staffs and greater facilities and human resources demands than in the past, seminaries are responding with programs aimed at better equipping future ministers with the administrative, financial and other business-oriented skills they’ll need to succeed.

Those pressures convinced Baylor University regents earlier this month to approve a new dual master of divinity and master of business administration program.

New MDiv/MBA

Linking faculty and resources between Truett Baptist Theological Seminary and the Hankamer School of Business, a university official said, will produce pastors with the know-how required to keep churches and ministries running in the black.

“Churches have always been concerned that their pastors may not know business,” said David Garland, professor of Christian Scriptures and dean of Truett Seminary.

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But given smaller budgets, older facilities and demands for more ministries, Garland said the university felt an increasing interest in producing graduates more capable of multitasking.

“And there is a concern there that churches need not only the pastor with the theological training, but with administrative and business expertise,” Garland said. “That was the primary driver.”

Fast-growing trend

Baylor isn’t alone, either among Baptist or the wider world of Christian seminaries.

Mercer University offers an M.Div./MBA and an M.Div./Master of Science in organizational leadership, among other tracks. Gardner-Webb and Campbell universities are among those who do so, as well.

Combining master’s level divinity and business degrees is a relatively recent trend, but also one of the faster-growing, Dan Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, told Inside Higher Ed in August.

A key reason is that American churches have transformed from Sunday-only places to around-the-clock, seven-days-a-week ministry centers that require business savvy to operate, said Jim Singleton Jr., associate professor of pastoral leadership and evangelism at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston.

Debating the issue

Many seminaries are just now having serious conversations about how and where their students should receive the training needed to be effective administrators, he said.

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Some schools assume students will pick those skills up during internships. Others assume they’ll be learned during stints as associate pastors. Only a few have the topic built robustly into their curricula.

Delegating issues like budgeting, vision statements and HR duties to capable lay people – while a good idea – still doesn’t get pastors off the hook because they still are ultimately responsible for the outcome, Singleton said.

It’s why some kind of stronger business education, including MBAs, is a good idea for ministers.

“There are a group of folks, and a group of churches, out there who would love to have someone with those skills,” he said.

Called to administration

Of course, it helps if a minister has a positive attitude and sees the administrative side of church as a blessing, and not a chore.

Bill Whitaker considers himself in that category.

The newly-installed executive pastor at Bon Air Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., Whitaker said he felt a calling to the ministry back in his undergraduate business school days.

But it wasn’t an either/or calling, Whitaker said. Rather, he felt pushed into roles as church administrator and business pastor at different congregations before joining Bon Air in October.

There, his job is to oversee the staff, finances, facilities and food-service operations at the multisite church. He will also mentor and coach other ministers and perform project management duties.

“Churches have grown, and they have become more complex,” Whitaker said. “I believe the Lord was calling me here.”

More training needed

But it’s not just pastors who need business acumen, Garland said.

The new joint degree at Baylor is also meant for ministers and lay people who operate nonprofit groups. And then there are those headed into business careers, who see their jobs as callings.

Lankford said he sees the logic behind those programs and added he could have stood more training in administration before becoming a full-time pastor.

“Seminaries may be doing that already and maybe I just missed that day,” he said.