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Practical Church Leadership Program reaches church leaders across the U.S.

By: Doreen Gosmire, director of communications, Dakotas UMC

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Diane Owen, director of clergy well-being for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, addresses the graduating and incoming cohorts for the Practical Church Leadership Program. Photos courtesy of DWU.

In its sixth year, more than 160 church leaders have completed the Practical Church Leadership Program. Six annual conferences in The United Methodist Church—Dakotas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Oklahoma, have supported leaders in the graduate certificate program through Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota.

Beginning in 2018, the program launched as a partnership between the Dakotas-Minnesota Area of The United Methodist Church and Dakota Wesleyan University, with funding assistance from a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc.

"We recognize that our pastors, while highly educated and competent leaders lack certain competencies that were not offered through their educational experiences," said Diane Owen, director of clergy well-being for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area. "These competencies are around stewardship of all resources. We talked with Dakota Wesleyan University about building a program around visioning and strategic planning competencies, creating a culture of generosity, stewardship of human resources, fundraising, and strategic communications."

Critical aspects of the program design were creating a flexible, practical, and nimble format to meet the participants' needs. A cohort-based, hybrid format was developed. Students complete courses online and meet in two face-to-face sessions.

Applied projects are part of the program. During the year-long program, participants design and deliver one or two comprehensive projects that can be applied to the context where they lead. Students receive coaching from a professional in the field that supports their project and guides their learning.

"Our program remains distinctive and valuable for attendees, attributed to wonderful coaches and committed teaching faculty," said Dr. Alisha Vincent, Director of the Practical Church Leadership Program at DWU. "Things have evolved and improved immensely since year one." 

Since 2018, 64 church leaders in the Dakotas-Minnesota Area have completed the PCL Program; 30 from the Dakotas Conference and 34 from the Minnesota Conference. Many participants complete a Master of Business degree, five additional graduate courses.

Rev. Quayya Ackerman, Rapid Valley United Methodist Church in the Dakotas Conference, participated in the 2022-23 PCL cohort. Her applied project centered on neurodiversity and camping.  

"We had a neurodiverse kid at a camp, and we didn't have the tools. We didn't have the training," said Pastor Quaya. "I incorporated what's called the buddy bag. It has tools that will help children with attention issues, sensory issues—auditory or visual, or even verbal issues. The tools and resources can be incorporated into the camping ministry. I focused on worship because that's when we're all together in one space. But many of the resources could be utilized outside of worship."

Pastor Quaya shares gratitude for her PCL experience, especially with the instructors and the coaching. "I am very thankful that all the instructors were very graceful. Because if something came up in ministry, they always recognized that's our priority. Ministry is 24/7. If a funeral interfered or conflicted with due dates, then you would work with your instructor and figure it out.

Alisha Speaking

Dr. Alisha Vincent moderates a panel during a joint session of the incoming and graduating PCL cohorts.

Practical application of the learning was something that stood out for Pastor Quaya. "We could apply what we were learning on the spot with our context immediately. Whether it was church leadership or congregational aspects, what we learned in the courses applied." 

Connections to new colleagues from diverse settings are an asset of the program, shared by Rev. Kori Lehrkamp, a Dakotas Conference elder and 2022-23 PCL participant. "It was fun to meet new people from different areas of the country. It was refreshing. A good opportunity to learn new ways and ideas," said Pastor Kori.

Pastor Kori's applied project was creating a vision and plan for Prairie View United Methodist Church in rural Smithwick, South Dakota. 

"We did surveys and crafted a mission statement. We held a Values Discernment Workshop. We worked on defining who we wanted to be coming out of COVID," she said. "I was reappointed to a different congregation mid-project. So that was a challenge."

Four Dakotas Conference clergy completed the PCL in 2022-23 Revs. Quaya Ackerman, Kori Lehrkamp, Jennifer McDonald and Matt Morrison. 

More than 30 church leaders from seven UMC conferences, Western Pennsylvania is new this co-hort, are enrolled in the 2023-24 cohort. Three Dakota Conference clergy are participating in the 2023-2024 cohort Revs. Jen Anderson, Jason Christensen, and Teresa Person. 

The PCL program is a fit for Rev. Jason Christensen. "I talked to my district superintendent in January about participating. I had been invited in 2022, but I had just completed my seminary program, and the timing was off. I presented the idea to my administrative council, and they were supportive. They didn't even give it a second thought," said Pastor Jason.

Group Chat6

Rev. Teresa Person, second from left, by the windows, participates in a group discussion between incoming and graduating cohort members.

Rev. Teresa Person felt a similar welcome. The two pastors completed their Master of Divinity through Kairos University in a hybrid, project-based format. 

"I know the course format will be like Kairos. We completed that program together, so I think that is helpful. One of the challenges we will face as you move into the program will be scope creep. I'm worried about ensuring I can zone in on what I need to focus on and not letting it blossom into this huge thing that becomes unmanageable. What has to be a priority for me is delegating," said Pastor Teresa.

Both are grateful for a smooth introduction to the program, its development, and the support from the conference and Dakotas-Minnesota Area.

"We have had great communication from the leadership in the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, especially Diane Owen, to help us launch. We also have financial support. That is a great benefit," said Pastor Jason.

Owen is building a sustainable future for the program by encouraging ongoing funding. "In the Dakotas-Minnesota Area, we are building financial support for the program through the normal finance structures and fundraising," said Owen. 

The interest in the program continues to grow. "I have three other UMC conferences that I am hoping will join next year. I want to add another cohort of 20, so we can work with 60 plus scholars a year. We want to get other denominations involved," said Vincent. "I look forward to what the next five years holds for the program."

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