Practical Church Leadership Program helps leaders think and grow in new ways

December 15, 2022
The Minnesota Conference group participating in this year's cohort: Leslie Zeek, Dianne Ciesluk, Christa Meland, Cyndy Spear, Hope Hutchison, and Linda McCollough

By: Christa Meland

What does it take to be a good fundraiser? How do we create a culture of transformational giving? How should an organization allocate and invest funds for future success? 

A few months ago, I would have had no idea how to answer those questions. Today, I have a pretty strong understanding of all three topics thanks to the Practical Church Leadership (PCL) Program at Dakota Wesleyan University (DWU) in Mitchell, South Dakota. I began the program in July 2022 as part of the fifth cohort of students, which also includes five Minnesota and four Dakotas United Methodist pastors, as well as clergy from other conferences and other denominations, which adds a richness of diversity.

I’m nine years into my role as director of communications for the Minnesota Conference, and I applied to the PCL program because I was ready to be challenged to think and grow in new ways, and I wanted to get a better sense for the challenges and opportunities facing pastors so I could equip them on a more practical level. This opportunity had just enough proximity to my comfort zone that I decided to go for it—even if I was a bit intimidated to be the only non-pastor in this year’s cohort. 

The PCL program started as a partnership between the Dakotas-Minnesota Area and DWU and has been funded in large part by a Lilly Endowment grant to address economic challenges facing pastoral leaders. Each year, a combination of grant funds, apportioned dollars, and donations cover the vast majority of students’ tuition, with each student and their church or ministry setting contributing the remainder. The program is constantly evolving and expanding thanks to the capable leadership of Dr. Alisha Vincent, who is impressively well versed in nonprofit administration and teaches one of the courses, and to Diane Owen, who serves as Dakotas-Minnesota director of clergy well-being and has championed the program from its inception. 

I'm only 40 percent of the way through the program, and already, I have gained a deeper understanding of how churches and nonprofits can function at their best, been given incredible tools and ideas that would benefit any nonprofit, and gained insight into how I can better collaborate with other functions of the conference in meaningful new ways that help move our mission and vision forward. 

One thing that’s unique about the PCL program is that the professors are experts in their fields who have vast firsthand experience leading initiatives around the topics on which they are teaching—which range from stewardship to strategy to governance to communications. Some of the learning is through live lectures, some is through reading and videos, and I believe some of the best learning comes from discussions with other students.  

The full 2022-2023 Practical Church Leadership Program cohort
Rev. Matt Morrison, a fellow student who serves as associate pastor at Asbury UMC in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, probably said it best when he told me: “The thing that I appreciate about the program is the ways in which the learning objectives are really built around concepts and principles that apply to ministries of just about any size or context. Having the peer input has been really valuable as well since we are able to process what we are learning from the academic side and from what we are discovering about our ministries in an environment with people we are growing to trust and who can relate to our situations.” 

Practically speaking, he said one of the things he learned in class and immediately took back to his church was how to better manage its investments and savings.

Meanwhile, Rev. Hope Hutchison, a deacon who serves at Richfield UMC in Minneapolis, leads her congregation’s Church and Society Ministry Team, which periodically collects funds or items for various causes. She told me that our financial development class helped her realize just how important it is to tell impact stories that illustrate the difference those gifts are making because it can help people grow as generous givers and deepen their faith. 

In addition to taking six seven-week classes throughout a year-long span, each of us is also working on one or two applied projects that enable us to take what we’re learning about project management and create positive change within our own churches or organizations. My project is creating an online communications hub where church leaders in the Minnesota Annual Conference will be able to access on-demand communications templates, ready-made resources, and best practices to assist them in effectively communicating within their congregations and communities. 
The Practical Church Leadership Program's current cohort kicked off with an in-person gathering at Dakota Wesleyan University in July 2022.

Other applied projects run the gamut. Rev. Dianne Ciesluk is helping her congregation, La Crescent UMC, recast its vision and strive to re-engage with people who have become disconnected with the church through both connectional events and small group discipleship. Rev. Quaya Ackerman, who serves Rapid Valley UMC in Rapid City, South Dakota, is creating a plan to support neurodiverse children and youth at Dakotas-Minnesota Area camps. Rev. Cyndy Spear, who serves St. Charles and Dover UMCs, is helping her churches launch community meals to engage with the community and meet a vital need. 

A major benefit of the PCL program is that each of us has a coach from the business world who provides feedback on our applied project, checks in with us on how our classes are going, and supports us as we navigate the program. My coach is a change partner at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota who has significant experience with complex projects, and I always look forward to her input. She is a trusted companion on my schooling journey and helps me feel supported and encouraged along the way. 

There are three, two-day, in-person gatherings throughout the course of the year—and I am excited for our January gathering, at which we’ll present on our applied projects and hear guest speakers talk about topics like resiliency and handling conflict. 

In case I have not made it abundantly clear by now: I would absolutely and wholeheartedly recommend this program to all ministry leaders. When I’ve been asked about it, I have found myself telling people, “If all pastors knew how valuable this program was, every single one of them would be signing up!” 

I’m not alone in my endorsement.  

Hutchison said she would recommend the program to other deacons in particular. “A lot of deacons are appointed beyond the local church and asked to do nonprofit administration when our seminary degree gives us little to no training in that,” she told me. 

Morrison also wouldn’t hesitate to tell others to apply.  

“I would tell colleagues that are considering the program that the term ‘practical’ really applies as it gets into the nuts and bolts of areas of ministry that are present in just about all of our ministry settings but that we may feel we lack the tools to navigate effectively,” he told me. “There is a lot of work involved, but much of what is built into the program has the ability to be integrated into projects and systems that you might want to be considering anyway because they will make your ministry healthier.” 

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.



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