Viewpoint: Church management

Viewpoint: Church management: How is it different? What brings success?

Legitimate adaptation of corporate management principles to church leadership

Paul Cone, Ph.D., was head of business administration, graduate, and executive programs at the University of Southern California.

Lawrence Downing is senior pastor of the White Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Los Angeles, California.

Recently one of us held a strategic-planning seminar for leaders of a major U. S. denomination. At the end, the denomination's president stood and expressed appreciation but said, "You are from the corporate world, and you just don't understand that your ideas will not work in a church."

End of conversation and of any prospect for constructive change.

The leader's response was not uncommon. Church executives often tell business leaders that because of the differences between them, the principles of business do not apply to spiritual entities.

But what are these differences, and do they change the fundamental way in which human management is to be applied? Do the differences justify dismissing as not applicable skills and tools by which management operates? Should leaders in religious organizations ignore well-documented management literature and successful organizational practices developed in other sectors of human society?

Our observations and experience say No. Although there are distinct differences between faith organizations and other entities, the manner in which human beings manage and direct their function has universal applications.

Skills must be learned

Authorities commonly agree that managerial skills are essential if any organization, corporate or religious, is to demonstrate superior performance.

Administrative training does not negate, nor work in opposition to, the gifts of the Spirit described in the New Testament. One may be a recipient of the Spirit gift of administration (1 Cor. 12:5) yet benefit from formal training in management and administrative techniques. Divine appointment and divine guidance are certainly to be desired by leaders, but a divine call does not negate the need for modern management skills and techniques.

Appointment to a position does not automatically endow competency.

Nor is observing the administrative practice of one's superior an assurance of success. In addition, the extent and rapidity of change requires new approaches, knowledge, skills, and tools. Professionals find that they need regular retraining to cope with advancing technology and information. Keeping up with the changes in communication and information systems taxes the most astute mind. All of us need to update our knowledge and skills in order to achieve and maintain superior performance. We believe that such performance is possible in all types of organizations, even those that operate in hostile environments. Skilled leaders make that difference!

There are many definitions and lists of characteristics for successful leaders in all organizations. We use the following universal critical factors: vision, resources, skills, and performance standards. Each is important. One alone is not enough for successful leadership and administration.

Do secular and spiritual organizations have management factors in common?

In management development programs for a single company or a single industry, the response we often hear is similar to what we hear from religious leaders: The proposed management principles will not work in their company or industry. Theirs is different. Yet it's not uncommon for someone from the same industry to speak up when someone says this and say that their company has successfully used the method for years!

We have found that all decision-making steps and management-process functions are essentially the same for all types of organizations, in the private and public sectors. We base our findings on the following:

1. Literature search of the major management books and articles through 1992.

2. Management practices: executive programs (25 executives per year) from all types of organizations domestic and international at Claremont Graduate School and University of Southern California.

3. Management consulting and CPA practices with a variety of clients including universities, business, government, hospitals, medical groups, churches, and other profit and not-for-profit organizations.

4. Own experience: as executives and board members in business, service, profit, non-profit, and government organizations.

These management functions and successful practices can be learned through quality standard educational degree programs and through executive training programs, but applications should be adapted to organization types, especially in distinctly differing environments.

Church administrator---minister or business professional?

Hospitals and medical groups today tend to employ professional administrators from business rather than from medicine. Although there may be some problems with this model, the management skills are considered more necessary to medical management than an extensive medical background. More physicians are taking MBA degrees and becoming hospital and medical group administrators. We believe that for the purposes of church management, the generalist degree has advantage over that offered by a program specifically designed for church administration. Several factors influenced this position.

Not only would it be very expensive to start and sustain a Master of Church Administration (MCA) in a seminary, but there is a reason why placing church administrator participants in a general cross-industry program is more desirable. Participants in MBA programs come from all types or organizations. They provide a breadth of expertise that enhances the learning experience. When a variety of participants are in class, there is high probability that some of them already utilize managerial approaches and tools that church administrators initially might reject as having little or no application to their organizations.

Serious consideration should be given to adding experienced and successful church administrators to existing MBA and executive program teaching teams. This opportunity will be a valuable learning experience that will enhance church administrators' skills and provide others a glimpse into the church environment and its management needs.

Because successful ministers are not automatically good administrators, we recommend that select ministers be given the opportunity to learn additional administrative knowledge and skills. Investment in their administrative development will return many times over through more effective and efficient administration.

For example, we know of church organizations where only about ten cents per dollar given is directed to the primary mission the rest (90 percent) is used in overhead and to administer church business. One could not envision informed donors nor quality volunteers who will continue enthusiastic support should knowledge of these conditions be known. Skilled management ideally will set a course to turn these figures around. This action will improve organizational performance and increase confidence among the supporting members.

In short, we present two basic recommendations that we believe would greatly strengthen church administration. First, that minister administrative leaders be given opportunity to attend cross-industry executive programs to further develop executive skills and successful practices. Second, that ministers with administrative potential and interest be encouraged to attend nearby MBA programs to learn management skills, processes, and successful team operation.

However well-intentioned a denominational leader might have been in his rejection of the application of corporate principles for church administration, all our years in this field have convinced us that good management skill can benefit churches as much as they do businesses.

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Paul Cone, Ph.D., was head of business administration, graduate, and executive programs at the University of Southern California.

Lawrence Downing is senior pastor of the White Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Los Angeles, California.

March 1998

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