February 22, 2024
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Guest commentary: The challenges of the “business” responsibilities of pastors and senior church lay leaders

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By Paul Witman 

Cal Lutheran University

Most businesses have someone designated as the CEO – the person in charge. In a church, that is often the pastor, tasked with not only the spiritual leadership of the church but also managing its business operations. 

Ask almost all pastors, and they describe their administrative training in seminary as “random days sprinkled throughout a four-year program, or as a segment tucked into a class here and there.” 

Theology, in all its aspects, is the task that dominates their education. Like pastors, successful CEOs in for-profit businesses are passionate about the work their company does. 

However, for-profit CEOs invariably describe their training to find the work that engages their passion as “random days sprinkled throughout a four-year program,” or as a “segment tucked into a class here and there.” 

Running a business is the task that dominates their education.

Pastors, and other religious leaders, are led to their roles via a higher calling, and prepare for the role through years of theological, counseling, preaching, and other training in the spiritual leadership elements of their tasks. 

But as the functioning CEO of their local church, just like other not-for-profit organizations, they also need to manage their “business” responsibilities; e.g., understand financial reports, organize volunteers for the work of the church, create marketing materials to draw new visitors and members, create and maintain a myriad of business-oriented policies that govern the church’s budgeting, finances, fundraising, pledge/donations strategies, planning activities, and the list goes on.

Fortunately, there are a variety of resources available to help provide or reinforce a pastor’s administrative skills. 

These include seminars for church leaders, such as Cal Lutheran University’s Executive Skills for Pastors program, and numerous other programs led by denominational organizations, theological seminaries, and universities. 

One such resource is the Church Administration and Finance Manual first published in 1998. 

A mainstay of practical “how to be your own CEO” guidance for pastors, this Manual has guided their business responsibilities for decades. 

It has always been a comprehensive administrative resource, with over 500 pages, covering all aspects of church administration. 

The most recent update, published in September of 2023, totally refreshes the storehouse of knowledge in all prior editions. It now also contains links to a variety of online resources.

I had the privilege of working with three other recognized church leaders (one pastor and two lay people) to update this plain sense manual for church pastors/CEOs of all denominations. 

As a result of two years of research and “field testing”, you will find practical guidance on today’s changing outreach tools, such as websites, online videos and news reports, strategic uses for e-mail, the impact of social media, and the evolving challenges of church security.

Be it a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, one can argue that there are certainly some valid parallels between religious organizations and businesses. 

Both employ staff, buy supplies, pay bills, and operate facilities, and need to live within their means. 

Unlike businesses, though, churches often make powerful use of mission-minded members and friends who volunteer for the work of the church. In addition, most of a church’s “revenue” comes from gifts freely given by those who believe in the church’s mission. 

These aspects of the business side of all Christian denominations also apply to other religious groups, as well as secular non-profits. Happily, business administration resources are available. Today’s clergy and church governance lay leaders, now more than ever, will benefit enormously by acquiring CEO expertise to understand how to manage the business side of their church.

Paul Witman is Professor Emeritus in Information Technology Management at California Lutheran University and has held senior lay leader positions, including chairing church governance entities, for over 3 decades.