ASU Lodestar Program Teaches Church Leaders Skills to Navigate a New Future

April 14, 2022

Custom certificate program teaches marketing, communications and volunteer management

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

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

Best Skills Best Churches, a six-module certificate program from ASU’s Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation, teaches clergy and lay leaders how to communicate, manage finances, and market their spiritual communities.

More importantly, the program provides hope, Farrell said.

“There have been clarifications on 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 is help for us. The church will not die.

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

“It is not enough to want things to be better. There has to be a strategy behind it, and these classes have given me ways to effect change beyond just prayer,” said Farrell, who works as a corporate communications consultant.

“You have to pray. But there are tools given to you to help churches that are stuck. Some of the churches are large and vibrant. We have a small church with an older congregation, and it takes a certain level of compassion and patience to walk them through to that next vision we may 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 Saguaro Professor of Civic Enterprise at the School of Community Resources. and Development of ASU. .

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

“But they discovered that they were running a non-profit association at the parish level. They have a building, a congregation, volunteers and they need to generate income.

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

The bishop contacted the Lodestar Center, which had the knowledge and 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 nonprofit Institute of Management at the Lodestar Center, and retired last year, Ashcraft said.

“It wasn’t top-down college, saying, ‘You need it. It was not just socially integrated, but co-produced at the community level,” he said.

Seth Wispelwey, acting pastor of Rincon Congregational United Church of Christ in Tucson, Ariz., had experience with faith-based nonprofits before he joined the clergy, but he agreed that seminary training is not generally does not emphasize practical skills of functioning – nor do congregations seeking dynamic spiritual leaders.

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

“The most valuable thing about Best Skills Best Churches is that it makes accessible and highlights the importance of churches and organizations prospering if they put in place best practices in governance and funding. Yes, it requires a little extra work up front (but) the payoff is so profound.

Lodestar has piloted the content of the certificate 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 Northern California Episcopal Diocese cohort that included her priest.

“It gave me the opportunity to ask him about what was going on in our church,” she said.

Wisehart, who works as an office assistant at a senior center, had some marketing experience but wanted to apply it to the church.

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

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

Wisehart said his congregation was also changing.

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

“I’m on a slightly different path than people who have church jobs, but that could be part of the change to come.”

Customizable content

Although originally created in partnership with Episcopal Church leaders, content can be customized for any faith tradition, including synagogues and mosques, Ashcraft said.

“There are differences in language 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 he hopes in-person sessions will resume this year.

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

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

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

“Our ASU presenter gives a variety of conflict management models to understand triangles of conflict. Then the second session with religious stakeholders was to understand the leadership structure of this denomination and who to report concerns to in the event of conflict. »

Farrell found the module on managing volunteers particularly useful.

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

“And there’s a way to tap into them to get the most out of their contributions.”

Older volunteers often have given for decades and want to contribute to their legacy. But they are also looking for companionship.

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

Best Skills Best Churches is one of 10 certified programs from Lodestar’s nonprofit Institute of Management, part of ASU’s learning enterprise, dedicated to resources for people of all ages.

“It’s also part of our mission,” Ashcraft said. “You never grow old out of learning.”

Top image courtesy of Pixabay


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