Home Christian News Are Today’s Seminarians Tomorrow’s Corporate Leaders?

Are Today’s Seminarians Tomorrow’s Corporate Leaders?

Students attend class at United Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Sept. 5, 2019. Photo by Angela Jimenez

(RNS) — Some corporate culture experts point to Black Lives Matter. Others say it is the soul-wringing work-life decisions forced on CEOs during the pandemic. Still others date large companies’ engagement with social justice issues back to the early days of the #MeToo movement.

Jeff Stoner, an executive coach in Minneapolis, said he has been fielding deeper questions from his corporate clients for years about purpose and priorities. “I was finding in so many of my coaching engagements that we were talking about things that could be defined as spiritual or faith-centered,” said Stoner, a senior vice president at a large corporate leaders consultancy firm.

These leaders aren’t asking these questions for themselves alone. What’s best for the bottom line is no longer found only on a balance sheet, but in ethical calculations that impact a company’s ability to hire top talent from a workforce brought up on volunteerism, social engagement and notions of corporate responsibility in areas such as race, climate and even partisan politics.

While #MeToo caused self-examination in boardrooms and human resources departments, it was the George Floyd summer of 2020 that brought much of corporate America’s alignment with the Black Lives Matter movement, setting a new precedent for social engagement. The awareness carried into the fall of 2021, when Bumble, Lyft and Uber made headlines for positioning themselves against a new Texas abortion law. In between, staffers at East Coast publishing houses killed books that offended their employees’ politics.

Executives are looking for help in deciding what matters, to their companies, to their staffers and to them.

Several American seminaries, long training grounds for aspiring pastors and rabbis, have begun to answer the need.

United Theological Seminary, a Christian seminary open to all religious and spiritual perspectives, has been offering a Master of Arts in Leadership program since 2015. The two-year program combines theological training with practical leadership skills that can be applied anywhere, from congregational meetings to corporate boardrooms.

The program is an evolution of an earlier master’s program the seminary offered in religious leadership. Kyle Roberts, dean of UTS, said the school dropped “religious” from the name to signal that the program was open to those with nonreligious vocations. “It was a response to the market at one level, and at another level, it was an expansion of our own call and sense of vocation as a seminary,” he said.

While the degree has been popular among leaders of nonprofit organizations, Stoner, the executive coach, was one of the first to arrive, three years ago, from the for-profit corporate sphere. Stoner said he didn’t expect to apply his theological training to his work; he initially enrolled to grapple with spiritual and social issues after the killing of Philando Castile, a Black man shot by a Minneapolis police officer, as well as with events in his personal life.

Justin Sabia-Tanis. Courtesy photo

Justin Sabia-Tanis. Courtesy photo

“They gave me this permission to really explore my faith, my relationship to spirituality, social justice, racial justice and social transformation in my context of corporate America,” said Stoner.

A generation ago, corporate leaders were more likely to have grown up in a faith community. But spirituality and its values are still relevant. “Spirituality has not been decreasing,” said Roberts. “It’s still very much part of the human experience and human condition and values.”

Students in the MAL program tend to be spiritual rather than religious and come from a wide range of fields, according to Justin Sabia-Tanis, director of the social transformation program.

As much as seminaries are responding to a need in corporate America, they are also adapting to what the decline in institutional religion has visited on them. In today’s more spiritually diverse religious landscape, there is less interest in traditional church ministry.