Practical Church Leadership Program offers one-of-a-kind experience for church leaders

July 27, 2023
The 2023 Minnesota graduates: (bottom row) Rev. Linda McCollough, Rev. Cyndy Spear, Rev. Leslie Zeek, (top row) Rev. Dianne Ciesluk, Christa Meland, and Rev. Hope Hutchison.

By: Christa Meland

Leading a complex year-long project. Writing an outcomes-based job description. Developing a strategic plan. Improving the experience for volunteer teams. Creating an effective governance model.
These are just a few of the things I learned while participating in the Practical Church Leadership (PCL) Program at Dakota Wesleyan University (DWU) in Mitchell, South Dakota over the past year. Along with five pastors from the Minnesota Conference and four from the Dakotas, I recently graduated with a Certificate in Nonprofit Administration and a keen understanding of how a church, or any nonprofit, can function at its best.
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 majority of students’ tuition.

Now in its sixth year, more than 160 church leaders have completed the program. It has included participants from six United Methodist annual conferences—the Dakotas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Oklahoma—along with church leaders from other denominations.

The Minnesota Conference’s other 2023 graduates are Revs. Dianne Ciesluk, Hope Hutchison, Linda McCollough, Cyndy Spear, and Leslie Zeek—all of whom are amazing women I’m blessed to have gotten to know and to learn from through this journey we shared.
I cannot say enough good things about this experience. Throughout the year, my cohort took five seven-week classes taught by experts in their respective fields:
· Financial Resource Development (fundraising)
· Financial Resource Management
· Vision, Strategy, and Evaluation
· Governance, Personnel, and Volunteer Management
· Communications and Community Outreach  

Learning took place through a combination of live lectures, reading and videos, and online discussions with other students. Because of my mastery of the communications course (which I’ll be teaching this next year), I instead took Contemporary Marketing—which illustrates just how responsive this program is to its participants’ individual needs. Each of us also worked on one or two applied projects to apply our project management skills and create positive change within our own churches or organizations, and we met in-person three times for shared learning and to present on our projects.

The outgoing and incoming Practical Church Leadership Program cohorts shared an afternoon at Dakota Wesleyan University and heard from author Tod Bolsinger.

My project was an online, on-demand Communications Hub to resource church leaders. Other applied projects ran the gamut. McCollough’s focused on creating outcomes-based job descriptions for all church staff and leadership teams. Zeek worked with her congregation to create and revise discipleship ministries to encourage people to answer the question, “What is our new story?” A participant from a Lutheran church in Brainerd partnered with four other area churches to offer more robust youth and family ministry opportunities than any one of them could offer alone.
I already find myself referring back to readings and assignments from our classes and applying various what I learned to my work. I’m not alone.
Zeek, who serves Cross Roads Community UMC in Spicer, took what she learned in the Vision, Strategy, and Evaluation class and worked with her congregation to develop a strategic plan with concrete ideas that are achievable in their context. But her favorite part was the relationships that formed through coaching groups, in-person gatherings, discussion boards, and online classes.

“Having moved here mere months before the pandemic began, I never really had the opportunity to get to know my clergy colleagues,” she said. “The friendships and connections I have made will be with me long after the end of the program, and learning from my sisters in ministry has made me such a better leader.”
McCollough, who serves First UMC in Red Wing, appreciated an assignment in which we completed a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis for our churches and organizations. She worked on it with others in her congregation, and the document has been instrumental as the church has moved toward developing a new vision and mission and creating a narrative for members around why they would want to invite someone to church.

“At times, the program felt like a firehose of information to learn and grow from, and other times it was a little more digestible bites of ideas,” said McCollough. “We were encouraged, supported, and challenged. Our group coach set meeting times to help one another, and individual sessions for accountability and planning.”
The 2022-2023 cohort graduated with a Certificate in Nonprofit Administration.

The classes were tremendous, but for me, one of the best parts of the program was having a coach who walked alongside me, encouraged me, believed in me, gave me input, and held me accountable with care and compassion. Coaches met with participants every two weeks, and I always valued the time with mine.
I feel deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the PCL Program, capably led by Dr. Alisha Vincent, a professor with a brilliant mind and unwavering dedication to this program and its students. I found the experience so helpful that I decided to complete six more classes over the next year to earn my MBA.

Should you or your pastor participate? If you have the opportunity, I hope you seize it—and my fellow cohort members agree.

“I think this is an excellent program which will give you insight into a wide array of practical leadership tools,” said Zeek. “As someone who holds an undergrad degree in business, I still learned so much about how to lead in the practical aspects of the church, especially around finances, which no one in the church seems to want to talk about.”

McCollough echoed that sentiment, noting that the opportunity only comes around once a year.
“Many of the topics are applicable to the current time of organizational structures in our church culture,” she said. “As we move into a new time and space for the church, what we are evolving into can be imagined and dreamed about through the coursework.”

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

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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