From pastor to executive

For many urban churches, a social ministry naturally moves beyond feeding the homeless to offering housing and jobs to the neighborhoods they serve. Yet, few seminaries offer the clergy the coursework they need to be succcessful at this ministry. The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania hopes to fill this gap:

Pastor T.L. Rogers, head of a mid-sized church in suburban Maryland, calls himself a “closet developer.”

“One thing that makes my heart beat is the smell of drywall. I love to look at something and see what it can become,” says Rogers, who led his Hyattsville, Md., Baptist church in renovating a strip mall in the late 1990s. The church sanctuary is now a former Soap-N-Suds dry cleaners, the church administration office inhabits a former Domino’s Pizza and a former Duron Paint store is now the church fellowship hall.

Having completed that project, Rogers and his congregation are thinking even bigger: “We want to reach out into the community,” he says. They recently purchased a restaurant, which they plan to tear down, next to their church. In its place will be an adult charter school offering vocational training and English-as-a-second-language classes to local residents, many of whom are recent immigrants.

But for Rogers, whose advanced degree is in Bible studies, meeting with bank executives is sometimes a challenge. “Finance is a whole different language. They use acronyms I’ve never heard of,” he says. “As pastors, the toughest thing for us to admit is when we don’t know something.” When Rogers met Sidney Williams, a pastor and venture capitalist fluent in the languages of both faith and finance, he saw “how things should be done. I realized I needed more than a Finance-101-level understanding.”

Moving development-minded pastors from good intentions to executive ability is the purpose behind a new Wharton executive education program for pastors and other faith leaders. The program is spearheaded by Wharton management professor Bernard Anderson and Williams, who is the founding CEO of EKOS Ministries, a Fort Washington, Md.,-based consulting group that assists churches with development projects. “There have been many efforts encouraging clergy to engage in real estate and economic development, but I cannot identify a program focused on equipping pastors to function in an executive role, and that’s what this one aims to do,” says Williams, formerly a partner in a venture capital fund that invested in urban businesses.

This involvement in economic development is not new to the Church:

“What’s unique about American Protestantism is that when it began, faith-based economic development was at its core. Many of the best hospitals, schools and universities we have today were established by churches,” says Williams, who is pursuing a divinity degree in urban ministry at the Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

This tradition of community involvement is rooted in the First Great Awakening, an 18th century religious revival that made philanthropy an everyday activity for the average believer rather than “a social obligation incumbent only on the most privileged,” according to scholars John Bartkowski and Helen Regis in their 2003 book, Charitable Choices: Religion, Race, and Poverty in the Post-Welfare Era. The tide turned as the country industrialized, says Williams. “The anticipation was that secular capital markets, as well as government, would respond to the needs of society. Churches were relegated to focusing on individual piety.”

African-American churches, however, have been the torch bearers of this initial vision of church involvement in community development. Scholars suggest this involvement has been born largely of demographic reality. “Churches have taken the lead in stimulating and initiating economic development activities in their communities almost out of necessity,” says Anderson. “Many of them are located in economically distressed areas for historical reasons and because that’s where their parishioners are. Pastors have found it necessary to attend not only to [parishioners’] souls, but also to their material well-being.”

Indeed, in urban areas, African-American churches offer more social services programs than their white counterparts, even when they have “less educated clergy, fewer staff, and smaller memberships,” notes a 2004 report on faith-based development from the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, a non-partisan institute at the State University of New York. According to data from 1999 included in the same report, between 60% and 90% of churches engage in at least one community development or social service project.

The focus on the Wharton program is to ensure that the clergy who undertake these projects have the skills and knowledge–particularly in finance–necessary to make this ministry a success:

The goal of The Wharton/EKOS Community Revitalization Leadership Development Program is to bring together up to 50 faith leaders who already have plans for a development project they can implement within the next two years. With its focus on real estate, the program’s goal is for 90% of graduates to access the capital they need for their projects, resulting in the creation of 2,000 units of affordable housing and a 10% reduction of unemployment in the targeted distressed communities.

“We want pastors to be able to have deal-level discussions with developers and investors and to understand the risk-reward trade-offs of real estate development, so they know what they are committing themselves and their congregations to,” says Williams. “The goal is affordable housing, not stronger churches.”

Read it all here.

Past Posts