Businessman invests his future in pulpit

Switch: A successful Wall Street banker becomes a minister in Towson.

October 16, 2003|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

Eight years ago, Lindley G. DeGarmo was making $1 million a year, traveling around the world putting together multibillion-dollar deals as the head of Salomon Brothers' global power group.

This month, significantly poorer but wiser, DeGarmo was installed as the pastor of the 925-member congregation at Towson Presbyterian Church in a ceremony filled with well-wishers.

The leap from business to the ministry was a huge one for DeGarmo, 50, who is married and has a 9-year-old daughter.

For Towson Presbyterian, DeGarmo - with his financial expertise and managerial skills - seemed heaven-sent.

"We liked the fact that he had this prior business experience and has an idea of money and how people deal with money," said Jennifer Kleeman, who was a co-chairwoman of the church's pastor-nominating committee.

"The problem in churches, especially in Presbyterian churches, [is] we don't like to talk about money ... we don't like to ask people for money."

Towson Presbyterian is not alone in bringing on a pastor with a business background.

A growing number of churches have pastors with corporate experience.

Financial right arm

Some churches are choosing to provide their minister with a strong right arm in the form of a chief operating officer who oversees the day-to-day operations so the pastor can preach and tend to the needs of the congregation.

Business skills are increasingly important, especially in larger churches that offer a multitude of outreach programs and services - from feeding and housing the poor, to running shelters for battered women, day care, Web sites and mass mailing operations - all on shoestring budgets, experts say.

Despite the growing organizational and financial challenges presented by many large churches, relatively few ministers, priests and rabbis have formal business experience.

"Frequently, pastors have not been trained, nor do they have much interest in that side of a church's life, which I think is a disgrace," said Loren B. Mead, founding president of the Alban Institute, a Bethesda-based church research, consulting and publishing firm.

"A local church is a very complicated organization. It is a human organization. It has all the complications of a business ... but it also has very deep historical connections to a body of faith," said Mead, who is also the author of numerous books on the future of religion.

Although he left investment banking in 1995, DeGarmo hasn't given up the trappings of Wall Street. Dressed in a charcoal suit, monogrammed shirt and black shoes, he looks like an investment banker. His salt-and-pepper hair is neatly trimmed.

His mission, he said, is to do Christian work and help people learn about the Gospel and "ways to live that out in their personal lives and their lives as social people in the community."

"I think the church has a very important role in helping people to remember that we needn't despair about the condition of the world," he said.

Useful experience

His experience at Salomon Brothers and as a financial analyst and strategic planner at Exxon should suit him well heading Towson Presbyterian, he and others said.

"Every organization works with limited resources, but churches especially have much more that they want to do than they have money in the bank," DeGarmo said.

"Getting people to see the possibility and support what we are doing, ensuring that we are running the organization part of things efficiently and honestly, is important."

Much to manage

Towson Presbyterian is not a small operation. It has an annual budget of $709,000 and 17 employees. It also has an endowment fund, 10 committees, a board of trustees and numerous outreach programs.

But the church hasn't been operating with a permanent pastor for more than a year, and membership has been slipping.

The church's search committee sifted through more than 150 resumes before deciding on DeGarmo. Committee members liked his demeanor, conversational style, ability to preach, and his organizational, communications and financial skills.

Phill Martin, director of education with the National Association of Church Business Administration in Richardson, Texas, said more churches are looking for pastors and assistants with business management experience.

"Being able to manage a team is probably up there with being a good preacher," Martin said. "The complexity of congregations, large facilities, legal and tax issues are becoming more complicated for congregations. There is significantly more litigation."

Some seminaries are also offering students a master's degree in divinity studies and a master's in business administration, Martin said.

"We see more and more of those degrees being bundled," Martin said. "I would say that is the exception and not the norm."

Joseph C. Hough Jr., president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, who knows DeGarmo, said pastors like him "bring ... a sense of realism of the fact that those bills are going to come due and you have to plan ahead to meet them."

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