Churches seeking marketing-savvy breed of pastor

A year ago, the Rev. Scott Schlotfelt was weighing job offers from three churches smitten by what he had to offer.

But they weren't talking about his preaching or counseling skills. What they were seeking, like a number of churches across the United States, was some savvy marketing. And like a growing number of pastors, consultants, and volunteers, Mr. Schlotfelt was eager to do some branding for the Lord.

"I've kind of had a heart for marketing, [and] I think a lot of churches are looking for outreach" specialists, says Schlotfelt, outreach pastor at Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Md. He received his undergraduate degree in marketing, then studied for the ministry and helped congregations build up their images through advertising in Las Vegas and Amarillo, Texas.

"It's the medium of marketing that's used to get a message across [in today's culture], whether it's an election or you're trying to sell a product," he adds. "But in this case, we're just trying to hear the hope of a new life that is eternal."

To succeed, a number of denominations and local congregations alike are seeking marketing know-how, whether among church staff or from from hired experts.

Churches' outreach to potential members as summer winds down. The United Methodist Church, for instance, will make its largest media buy of the year starting Aug. 30 - a four-week, $4 million effort. To get that marketing know-how, they're turning to those who know how to sell cars, houses, and other commercial products.

"The church in more ways than not is mirroring Wall Street and the world and Madison Avenue," says H. B. London, vice president of pastoral ministries at Focus on the Family, a national resource network for evangelical Christians. "We're [lagging] behind them to a certain degree, but we're using all their techniques."

In the past decade, several firms have honed a niche by providing churches with marketing professionals for hire. Aspire!One, a marketing firm in Sycamore, Ill., has branched out to serve church clients - who might need one mailer or an entire brand identity - alongside its corporate ones. At Church Marketing Solutions, Inc. in Centreville, Va., which offers low-cost marketing, 4 out of 5 staffers have masters in business degrees. At the headquarters of Outreach Inc. in Vista, Calif., 120 employees have brought corporate-style marketing to thousands of congregations.

Seeking a snazzy web site

Meanwhile, some churches with sufficient resources are doing as Mountain did and dedicating in-house staff to marketing. Six-month-old Kinetic Christian Church in Charlotte, N.C. noticed what the Rev. Scott Johnson was doing with lively images on the website of an Indianapolis congregation. On that basis, recruiters hired him away to Charlotte.

"They saw what I'd been doing and said, 'What you've been doing there, we want you to do it here,' " Mr. Johnson says. Now an associate pastor, he uses his graphic-design background to create images for outreach marketing campaigns.

The same visuals - for example, a plug in a socket as a metaphor for prayer - light up the big screen when the congregation gathers for worship in a former movie theater. On the side, he teaches church professionals from as far away as Florida and California to use graphic-design software in their own marketing efforts.

More business background

For many in church leadership, corporate-style marketing is nothing new. Among males enrolled in seminary in 2000, the most common educational background was technical science, including business, communications, and computer science, according to a study by the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. (For women, it's social science.)

Another factor: almost 2 in 3 seminarians are over 30 years of age, according to 2003 data from the Association of Theological Schools, which means church leaders often have had business experience.

Thinking in terms of customers and markets, however, might not always bring out the best in a church leader, according to Jackson Carroll, a professor emeritus of religion and society and former director of research at the Pulpit & Pew Project at Duke University in Durham, N.C. He cites the example of Southern preachers who took up the cause of civil rights in the 1960s despite vehement local resistance.

"It didn't help marketing at all," Professor Carroll says. "People left churches in droves when pastors or leaders in the congregation took a strong stand in favor of integration, [but] they did it anyway."

Today, he says, pastors who make marketing a top priority run the risk of fostering "a congregation that refuses to deal with issues of individual or social justice because it might offend someone."

"Go therefore ..."

Others, however, see marketing as a necessary part of Christ Jesus' great commission: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19, New Revised Standard Version).

"Marketing and the church, they go hand in hand [because] we're called to bring our message to a community," says Kristal Dove, operations manager at Church Marketing Solutions. But she says not all church leaders should be involved.

"We basically make it so ministers can focus on people and not have to worry about this stuff," Ms. Dove says.

But in the opinion of Mr. London of Focus on the Family, any church leader's success depends at least in part on bringing the best of corporate-marketing tactics to bear on a righteous cause.

"Nearly every pastor is a salesman or a marketer of one kind or another because ... we have a philosophy to sell," he says. "The best marketers and best salesmen will have more converts, will have more people, will take in more money.... Evangelicals are marketers because they're really passionate about their product."

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