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ASU Lodestar program teaches church leaders skills to navigate a new future

Customized certificate curriculum teaches marketing, communications, volunteer mangement

Church with a tree next to it.
April 14, 2022

Like many churches in the United States, Cheryl Farrell’s congregation is in transition, with a membership that skews older.

Farrell, who is a moderator at Morningside United Church of Christ in Inglewood, California, learned practical skills to keep her church thriving at a unique program offered by Arizona State University.

Best Skills Best Churches, a certificate program of six modules in ASU’s Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation, teaches clergy and lay leaders how to communicate, deal with finances and market their spiritual communities. 

Most importantly, the program gives hope, Farrell said.

“There was definite enlightenment about how these secular principles can apply in this religious setting,” said Farrell, whose role as moderator is to work closely with the minister in a leadership role.

“There’s help for us. The church won’t die.”

Farrell said that the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a general decline in church attendance, has been challenging.

“It’s not enough to want things to be better. There has to be a strategy behind it, and these courses gave me ways to effect change beyond just praying on it,” said Farrell, who works as a corporate communications consultant.

“You have to pray. But there are tools you’re given to help churches that are stuck. Some of the churches are big and vibrant. We have a small church with an older congregation, and that requires a certain level of compassion and patience to see them through to this next vision we can have for them.

“And because the classes were on Zoom, I was able to have a cohort of leaders from all over the country and it reminded me that I wasn’t alone in this.”

Skills not taught in seminary

Best Skills Best Churches began in 2015 in response to a request from the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, according to Robert Ashcraft, executive director of ASU’s Lodestar Center and the Saguaro Professor of Civic Enterprise in the School of Community Resources and Development at ASU.

“The bishop said, ‘We send our clergy off to seminary and they’re steeped in the faith tradition, and the spiritual dimension of their work is spot on.’

“But they found out that they’re running a nonprofit at a parish level. They have a building, a congregation, volunteers and they have to raise revenue.

“They don’t learn that in seminary school.”

The bishop contacted the Lodestar Center, which had the knowledge and the skills to create the content for Best Skills Best Churches. The effort was led by Cindy Thiede, who was director of professional development education for the Lodestar Center’s Nonprofit Management Institute, and retired last year, Ashcraft said.

“This was not top down from the university, saying, ‘You need this.’ This was not only socially embedded but co-produced at the community level,” he said.

Seth Wispelwey, interim pastor at Rincon Congregational United Church of Christ in Tucson, Arizona, had experience with faith-based nonprofits before he became a member of the clergy, but he agreed that seminary training typically does not emphasize the practical skills of operation — nor do congregations who are looking for dynamic spiritual leaders.

“I think a lot of well-meaning people in nonprofit and church spaces believe that having rigorous standards and best practices applied with accountability and transparency will somehow take away from the actuality of the good work, but I believe the opposite is true.

“The most valuable thing in Best Skills Best Churches is that it makes accessible and underscores the importance of just how more thriving churches and organizations can be if they put in place the best practices for governance and finance. Yes, it requires a little extra work up front (but) the payoff is so profound.”

Lodestar piloted the certificate content not only with clergy, but also with lay leaders. Margaret Wisehart is very active in her church, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Woodland, California, and participated in Best Skills Best Churches as part of a cohort from the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California that included her priest.

“It gave me the opportunity to raise questions with him about what was happening in our church,” she said.

Wisehart, who works as an office assistant in a senior center, had had some marketing experience, but was interested in applying it to the church.

“I run into people all the time that I want to encourage to be a part of our church community, and one idea I came up with was that we should have business cards,” she said.

“But I learned that that’s not the way it operates any more. I was updated on the marketing world, which uses a lot of promotion on Facebook, Instagram and direct emails, and not so much business cards anymore.”

Wisehart said her congregation is changing as well.

“Our church is going through that transition where the budgets are lower and some of the expectation of what’s needed is different than in the past,” she said.

“I’m on a little different path than the people that have jobs in the church, but that might be part of the change that’s coming.”

Customizable content

While originally created in partnership with leaders from the Episcopalian church, the content can be customized for any faith tradition, including synagogues and mosques, Ashcraft said.

“There are language differences in different faiths, with things described and discussed in different ways,” he said.

The program has been delivered online during the pandemic, but Ashcraft said the hope is that in-person sessions will resume this year.

The modules cover volunteer management, fund raising, legal aspects of governance, communication and conflict, marketing, financial management and fund-raising.

Program participants have two Zoom sessions for each module, one on a Friday night with an ASU knowledge specialist, typically a senior level leader of a nonprofit. The other session, on Saturday morning, is with a leader from the church who teaches how to apply the principles with a faith-based perspective, according to Cassandra Coburn, coordinator of professional development education in Lodestar’s Nonprofit Management Institute.

“A good example of that is our module on effective communication and handling conflict,” she said.

“Our ASU presenter gives a variety of conflict-management models to understand conflict triangles. Then the second session with faith responders was about understanding that denomination’s leadership structure and who to point concerns to in the event of a conflict.”

Farrell found the module on managing volunteers particularly helpful.

“Volunteers are the foundation of churches, and it’s very helpful to understand that the people you’re working with to advance the mission are there for reasons other than financial compensation,” she said.

“And there’s a way to appeal to them to get the best of their contributions.”

Older volunteers often have given over several decades and want to contribute to their legacy. But they’re also looking for companionship.

“Being a volunteer gives them a social outlet,” Farrell said. “We want to appeal to what their need is.”

Best Skills Best Churches is one of 10 certified programs in Lodestar’s Nonprofit Management Institute, which is part of ASU’s Learning Enterprise, devoted to resources for people across the age spectrum.

“This is part of our mission too,” Ashcraft said. “You never age out of learning.”

Top image courtesy Pixabay