Pastors' studies are lined with books by John Maxwell, George Barna, Leith Anderson, and Lyle Schaller. Their calendars are punctuated with conferences led by Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. But few have in their files notes from a seminary class on leadership.
That's a need seminaries are recognizing and some are beginning to address.
A three-year study funded by The Lilly Endowment and led by Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary is changing the way seminaries teach future ministers to lead their churches.
"We feel in the next five years this study will revolutionize many of the seminaries, because they're all faced with the same crises with regard to the relevance of the ministers they produce for the churches," said Alan Cellamare, program coordinator for the Center for Development of Evangelical Leadership (CDEL) based at Gordon-Conwell's Charlotte, North Carolina campus.
Recognizing the need for stronger, biblical leaders in local churches, in 1996 Gordon-Conwell president Bob Cooley approached Lilly, the organization that specializes in religious studies. Lilly provided $442,000, and the result was this three-year examination of leadership involving 62 evangelical seminaries.
Catching up and moving ahead
The explosive growth of leadership books, seminars, and training organizations in the 1980s and 1990s—mostly outside seminary and denominational structures—prompted educators to ask what was missing from their curriculum.
Cellamare is candid about the seminaries' track record in this area. "One of the things that seminaries have not done very well is the development of leadership for churches. In many cases, when seminary graduates go into churches they fail, because they don't know how to lead," he said.
The churches' demands on seminaries is changing because their expectations of pastors have changed. "Many of the people in the congregation are educated in secular approaches to leadership, so they have expectations of their pastors in relation to leadership. Many seminaries in the past have not focused on training seminary students to function with the same competencies as the people of the congregation expect."
But leading a church is different from leading any other organization. The seminary leaders brought to this study a trio of unique demands: biblical mandate, evangelical faith, and the distinctive nature of the church.
Designers of the project determined that success in pastoral leadership would depend on three areas: calling, character, and competence. Secular leadership relies particularly on competence, as have some more practically oriented ministry programs. This study started a step—two steps back, in fact—from the evidences of effective leadership. The first year's projects were limited to issues of pastoral call and the vocational nature of leadership. After that foundation was laid, the schools studied character. The final round examined competence in leadership.
"We focused on call and on character before we ever focused on competencies, because being and becoming are prerequisite to doing," Cellamare said. "And if the seminary is not focusing on spiritual formation and shaping the characters of the individuals before they go out to do leadership in the churches, then all we're doing is teaching them the how-to's: how to preach, how to do the functions of the office.
"Leadership comes from who you are. That's where we must start."
In each of the three years, five seminaries had studies funded. Several focused on the spiritual formation of pastor-leaders. Some covered the needs of churches, others curriculum, and others the changes that would be required of the seminaries themselves. "Theological education has not changed quickly because of structure and academic tradition," Cellamare said. "This project has created a whole new discussion on leadership and theological education and the responsibility of the seminary."
Each year five seminaries presented their studies, and ten additional schools were invited to join a roundtable discussion. From these gatherings, some significant changes are already taking place.
Bethel Seminary was engaged in examination of its academic structure when the offer to participate in CDEL's study came. CDEL funded a report on sweeping changes in the seminary's organization. As result, the school now has three divisions, including one dedicated to transformational church leadership.
Capital Bible Seminary in Washington, D.C., altered its focus after the project was completed. The school is in an area undergoing swift demographic changes. Its study on the feasibility of a master's degree in Christian leadership pointed out the need for new courses for African-American pastors and their ministries. Capital is reaching a new constituency and has hired additional staff with responsibility to develop the program based on their Lilly-funded study.
Denver Seminary explored the role of mentors in the development of pastoral leadership. The ambitious program devised established mentoring centers throughout the region and offered training for leadership in varying settings—urban, suburban, and rural.
Covenant Seminary in St. Louis examined its own leadership. After a decade of phenomenal growth, Covenant's president wanted to know if the seminary's leaders had kept up with demands. The grant allowed the school to hire a professional academic consultant. Many of her recommendations were later adopted, and she was asked to return to lead training sessions for seminary staff.
And the project has forged new relationships among schools that previously had little contact. Logos, a small seminary with an international focus, is in dialogue with Bethel Seminary on its cross-cultural ministries. Cellamare is pleased by the relationships that have grown from the roundtable meetings. "Some of the leaders of schools who had never met each other are now in learning partnerships."
Leaders outside the seminaries have led in the study of leadership in the past two decades. Churches have frankly complained that the seminaries have not led. Cellamare contends that's changing. "George Barna concluded that the seminaries are the place for the minister to be trained, as did the Murdoch study in 1992. Even though they don't always get it right, the seminaries are still the best place," he said. "The seminaries must regain the credibility to talk about leadership, both theoretically and biblically. This is an effective start."
The biblical aspect of leadership is important to Cellamare. "One of the things we are creating is a strong biblical theology of leadership," the project coordinator said, one that is not driven by secular trends. Cellamare believes such a theology will transcend societal changes and cultural differences. "A biblical theology of leadership is trans-cultural."
The key to changing the seminaries' approach to pastoral leadership is convincing the presidents of the seminaries of the need. The strongest recommendations speak to the top leaders. "What the seminary does in regard to leadership is dependent largely on what the president of the seminary does. If the president will focus on leadership, then the faculty will focus on leadership and train the kinds of leaders that the church needs."
Getting this message to the presidents is one of the CDEL's goals.
"This has drawn us closer to the church," Cellamare said.
"If we are true to the Word and to the traditions of the evangelical faith, then we should be able to shape the seminary in a way that fits needs of the church."
John Eric McDonald, a pastor and freelance writer in Wheaton, Illinois.