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The Spirit of Community

A new program at Pepperdine aims to develop the leadership skills and enrich the souls of early-career pastors.

When 16 Los Angeles-based pastors in their first five-to-10 years of practice gathered on Pepperdine’s Malibu campus this January, they came together to begin exploring different ways to better engage their faith communities. Some were searching for practical tools to impact their communities in great ways. Others were looking to better understand ministry in the 21st century in order to break from certain outdated models. And some were simply interested in networking with local pastors to build a community of peers.

Nurturing these diverse goals was precisely what the Lilly Endowment had in mind when they approached Pepperdine in 2013 with a new initiative focusing on the needs of early-career pastors and the unique challenges that they face, such as navigating the transition into a new stage of leadership. The program, named the COMMUNITAS Pastoral Leadership Program by Pepperdine, was designed to enhance their leadership skills; deepen their engagement with significant issues facing their communities; build networks with local civic, business, and political leaders; and develop a strong community of support with each other.

“The Lilly Endowment’s invitation inspired our thinking about an underserved community

of church leaders,” says Rick Gibson, vice president of public affairs and church relations at Pepperdine and a COMMUNITAS advisor.

“As a Christian university, Pepperdine has a vital role to play in the overall well-being and health of the local church,” Gibson continues. “We have many resources to offer that can strengthen and encourage the church and its mission.”

Pepperdine, as well as a small group of universities, colleges, seminaries, and affiliated organizations around the country, accepted the Lilly Endowment’s invitation to participate in this initiative, and each institution was encouraged to define their own program differently.

John Barton, associate director of Pepperdine’s Center for Faith and Learning, and Stephanie Cupp, program coordinator, were inspired by the University’s proximity to the Greater Los Angeles area and determined the program’s focus to be on serving, resourcing, networking, and lifting the imaginations of local ministers. Another priority was to identify some of the key social issues that are especially relevant to local ministries and determine how they can benefit from the areas of expertise that are available at Pepperdine.

“Pepperdine aims to be a resource to Christian leaders around the country and the world, but especially starting at home,” explains Barton. “COMMUNITAS helps us more intentionally play a role of leadership in Christian communities, outreaches, and efforts in the Greater Los Angeles area.”

Each session is designed to utilize Pepperdine faculty and staff who have particular expertise related to the topic under discussion and/or a relationship with the selected business and community leaders from Southern California to engage in direct conversation with the cohort of young leaders.

The first session held earlier this year was led by Gary Mangiofico, associate dean of executive programs and executive professor of leadership and management at the Graziadio School of Business and Management. Cohort One explored servant leadership principles, the role of emotional intelligence in leading others, identifying and leading change in one’s congregation, and strategies for affirmative leadership. Mangiofico applied his years of executive and academic experience to assist the participants in further developing the skills to better lead and manage their churches.

“Many of them know their faith and faith practices, and divinity school trains them to minister, but when you take on the responsibility of managing and leading a parish or church, that requires a set of professional skills that are not taught,” he explains.

“The opportunity to develop executive and leadership skills to effectively influence and engage people, and then developing their abilities to lead change as the environment changes, is critical.”

Over the next few years, and throughout the next phases of the program, COMMUNITAS will tackle more culturally relevant issues, including domestic violence, education, sustainability, mental health, prison reform, and poverty, and plans to partner with nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles to broaden the participants’ imaginations. Cohort One will attend eight sessions over the course of the 21-month program, including an opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., where the group will have the opportunity to meet in between sessions.

“We live in an increasingly post-Christian world, and there are many challenges to the callings of Christian ministers and pastors,” explains Barton. “It is a critical time to make sure that they have broader visions of what Christian ministry can look like in their current cultural environments. COMMUNITAS provides them eye-opening experiences and exposure to certain issues to help them understand and imagine what their Christian witness and leadership can mean in their local context.”

The diversity of Cohort One surprised even the program coordinators and contributed to a variety of perspectives represented in the group. Some participants have been involved in ministries of different kinds for decades, but have only been in more formal pastoral roles in their denominations or congregations for a few years. Others have been out of seminary for four or five years and are just getting their start in ministry.

Cupp adds that the group was committed to exploring the resulting dynamic in ways that would further bring them together in their shared mission.

“One of the things we prayed about in our opening session was to enter into our differences with love and respect, to try and understand each other, and to try and benefit from each other’s different perspectives to see where that takes us,” she says.

Cohort One participant Naima Lett, copastor of Hope in the Hills in Beverly Hills, California, who is also an actress and author and cofounder of Lett’s Rise! Productions, explains how the diversity of the group added to her overall experience at the first session.

“When we’re able to dialogue and hear different perspectives and share contrasting views based on our various backgrounds, we are all enriched,” she says. “As we learn more about our communities and can collaborate together, we should be able to work wonderfully together to love, serve, and advance God’s kingdom in our city.”

For Bryan Schackmann, preaching minister at Glendale Church of Christ in Glendale, California, COMMUNITAS has helped broaden his perspective of how his ministry can influence his community.

“In any job you can start to have tunnel vision and lose your imagination for the impact your work can have,” he says. “This is especially important to regain in ministry, because you need to enter into any situation with an imagination of what God can do. COMMUNITAS has helped me already expand my vision for what God can do through me and my congregation.”

While most Christians think of their faith relative to the birth-life-death-resurrection of Christ, Mangiofico explains that Jesus started his ministry by forming a community—a mission that COMMUNITAS strives to live out.

“Christ called on individuals to become disciples,” he says. “There’s a meta-lesson in that great leadership recognizes the need for a community to carry out ministry. COMMUNITAS is truly doing that.”

Learn more about COMMUNITAS from the program hosts and advisors: