Executive Leadership Certification Program teaches tools for real change

Leading the merger of a small church with a larger church is not your run-of-the-mill pastoral assignment, but Ann Gibbs is well equipped to navigate this challenge thanks in part to her experience in the Executive Leadership Certification program offered by McCormick Theological Seminary. Drawing on contemporary leadership theory and practice, the one-year program emphasizes the development of adaptive and transformational skills in pastors and other leaders of Christian institutions confronting the challenges of 21st ministry.

Last year, Gibbs used her pastoral continuing education stipend on the program to assist her in the work of merging Zion Church in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, with neighboring Delafield Presbyterian Church. She and Pastor Bob Jensen will be leading the new congregation.

Since her classmates were also experienced leaders working in different settings, Gibbs gained valuable perspective on how others might experience her leadership style – which is especially important in a co-pastorate.

In one interactive exercise, participants were given blocks and asked to build a church. It was an interesting learning moment for Gibbs and the group, as she became frustrated when her notion of church seemed to clash with others.

“When I saw people simply constructing a building, I became frustrated, because I see church as the people of God rather than just a structure,” Gibbs said. “But when I picked up a block and suggested that it be more than just a tree or piece of the parking lot, I realized that what I thought was calling people to a different vision of ministry was received in a threatening way as taking apart something that they had built. As a leader, it’s important to know how you come across.”

In addition to readings and lecture, the course offered videos, group process time, and experiential activities that leaders can use in their own congregations and workplaces.

Likewise, Barbara Smith, General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Lackawanna in Northeast Pennsylvania, said that the program enabled her to get a better sense of how her individual personality meshes with the personality of the presbytery where she serves. She  enrolled in the program just as she began in her first executive position and learned how to emphasize points of connection between her personality and that of her staff in order to engender broader commitment to the mission.

“The focus is not on fixing, but encouraging others to take responsibility,” Smith said. “Change comes from within, not from the top down.”

Others agreed that the focus on adaptive leadership rather than technical leadership was quite helpful. While technical leadership involves addressing individual problems within an organization – such as an inefficient filing system or mail delivery that isn’t effective – adaptive leadership refers to a more holistic approach and encourages the organization as a whole to find new ways of functioning.

Smith said the course helped her enact adaptive change in a world where everyone wants technical change.
“People want to be able to do this, this and this and have a new church, but it doesn’t work like that,” she said.
Granada Cartwright, who serves on a strategic development team at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago, said she also appreciated the adaptive leadership aspects of the certification program.

“It explores the reality of change occurring in multiple ways from multiple perspectives,” Cartwright said. After taking the course, Cartwright says she feels less inclined to drive a stake in the ground and take charge and more willing to negotiate, while maintaining realistic goals and embrace the differing ideologies of those with whom she works.

She appreciated the seminar’s cohort method of instruction, which focused on the exchange of ideas among the course participants rather than lecture. Each participant was asked to complete readings and share their reflections with the group. Between 15 and 20 people leading at local, regional and national levels attended each of the modular course sessions. Those in the program gathered four times – for two and a half days - between September of 2009 and April of 2010.

Though Rob Fohr has been thinking about pursuing an M.B.A. for year and also considered a Masters program at a seminary, neither option seemed like a perfect fit. The Executive Leadership Certification Program at McCormick Seminary provided the precise blend of business, leadership and administration that he needed. 

Fohr found the course helpful in both his formal position as a manager of seminary relations in the Office of Theological Education for the PCUSA in Louisville as well as his work with the non-profit organization South Louisville Community Ministries, where he sits on the Board of Directors as treasurer.

The question of chemistry was, again, central. Participants were asked to complete the Myers-Briggs personality inventory for both themselves and their organizations. Fohr said a good leader should be able to adapt to serve the needs of the organization and focus on the overall strategy of organizational leadership and not get too caught up on the common technical problems that every organization will face.

“The program has influenced me in every way as a leader,” Fohr said. “I go back to our conversations and readings and try to think more adaptively.”

Pastor Gibbs has great hope for the team model of leadership in her newly merged congregation. She anticipates less focus on maintaining an old church building and more on reaching out to the community. Also, the pastoral staff and active members can work together according to everyone’s strengths to form a “church full of leaders” according to a model inspired by the certificate’s first course session on leadership identity.

Gibbs is eager to delegate responsibility to those who have strengths in areas where she is weak or unable to devote adequate time to necessary tasks.

“I’ve learned to question myself less frequently, but to ask better questions,” Gibbs said. “Instead of beating myself up because I lack certain skills, I find people who are strong in those areas and build a team.”   

Course Sessions

Foundations for Leadership: What is Leadership?  Who Are You as a Leader?
The culture of leadership is changing quickly - transformational leadership must begin with the transformation of self. Sept 16 – 18, 2010 –Cohort II, Jan 27 – 29, 2011 –Cohort III. Facilitator: Rev. Jeanne Porter, PhD, Assistant Pastor, Apostolic Church of God, Chicago, IL.

Developing a Vision:  Where Are We Going? How Do We Know?
Identify and explore emerging models and practices in adaptive leadership. Nov 18 – 20, 2010 –Cohort II, Mar 24 – 26, 2011 –Cohort III. Facilitator: Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Japinga, Associate Dean, Doctor of Ministry Program, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL.

Systems and Contexts: You’re Not in This Alone
Learn organizational culture; group dynamics; systems theory; and how to step outside systems in order to view them objectively. Feb 24 – 26, 2011 –Cohort II, May 19 – 21, 2011— Cohort III. Facilitator: Rev. Carol McDonald, Co-Executive, the Synod of Lincoln Trails, Presbyterian Church (USA)

Change, Collaboration, and Conflict:  Addressing the Challenge
Transformative leadership through adaptive change. Apr 28 – 30 2011—Cohort II; September 15 – 17, 2011 – Cohort III, Montreat, NC. Facilitators: Rev. Dr. Virstan Choy/ Rev. Sarah Moore-Nokes. McCormick administrator and faculty member / Associate Executive Presbyter, Presbytery of Winnebago Presbyterian Church (USA).

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