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Redesigned Doctor of Ministry centers on congregational leadership

Congregations are ‘where the faith, hope and love of Christ guide us through all the transitions of our lives.’

By Janel Shoun-Smith  | 

Student reading Bible

Matt Burleson, evangelist in the Great Falls Church of Christ in Montana, knows what it’s like when a congregation meets a change head on.

The Great Falls congregation, which has served as a stable resource and leader for churches throughout the Pacific Northwest for decades, needed to move in order to make room for growth, said Burleson, who came to the church in 2018 as an intern.

The church leaders went through a series of options and ended up swapping buildings with a local Baptist church in 2019. While Great Falls maintained its membership through the move, the process was emotionally trying for some leaders, Burleson said. That big change within his congregation is symbolic of what the church overall is facing in 2022: change.

“The place I see the most challenge for the church is all of the anxiety we are seeing surrounding our culture. People are bringing that to church with them. I think people expect the church to be the one area of life that doesn’t move or change, but to be relevant in today’s society, you have to change. Our challenge to help the church remain outwardly focused goes counter to the normal human pull to face inward,” said Burleson.

With church leaders facing ever greater cultural, economic, emotional and strategic challenges, Lipscomb’s Hazelip School of Theology felt the time was right to strengthen the congregational emphasis of its Doctor of Ministry program. This past school year debuted a revised curriculum centered on spiritually grounded congregational leadership within the context of today’s cultural issues.

Carlus - Headshot

Dr. Carlus Gupton (’82), hired as the new director of the program in December 2020, developed the curriculum focused on equipping exemplary Christian leaders with deep spiritual formation and advanced leadership competencies to help biblically-framed ministries thrive.

Nurturing and leading a thriving church in 2022 is no easy task. Certainly God’s Church is struggling, facing complex moral quandaries, declining attendance and often controversial changes, Gupton admits, “but that doesn’t mean we should abandon it. I think the established church is on the frontline of God’s mission. There isn’t an area of spiritual life that doesn’t go back to the Church.”

“The Lipscomb program has really helped me gain the tools to see what God is doing in the world around us, so we can join Him in that work,” said Burleson, a current student in the doctoral program. “It helps me recognize the needs of our community and the strength of our church, and how those align. There is a lot of opportunity for that in the future.”


Gupton, who not only serves as a minister himself but also works through Hope Network Ministries, a group of consultants (also including Lipscomb Bible faculty David Fleer and John York) who mentor and guide the leaders of churches in crisis, said he has seen church elders in tears as they agonize over decisions. Ministers face common strategic quandaries such as how to deal with ineffective staff or under-staffing, conflict between faith leaders and inability to facilitate change due to lack of agency in the leadership systems of the church, he said.

Nationwide, the Doctor of Ministry is the degree of choice for practicing congregational leaders who want to function at the highest level in their current ministry post, said Gupton, who co-led the doctorate program at Harding University before coming to work on the re-organization of Lipscomb’s program. In today’s world that means so much more than preaching or planning worship services.

“A lot of models for ministry governance come out of the corporate arena and are re-engineered for a congregation. These models are helpful, but lack theological direction and spiritual vitality,” said Gupton. “We need to integrate the theological and spiritual with strategic congregational leadership.”

“There are good resources out there for how to lead a business through transition, but we are dealing with people’s souls,” said Burleson. “Lipscomb gives the resources to pastorally care for souls while you are also leading churches missionally into the world.”

Gupton developed his passion for the importance of the church congregation in his young adulthood, when he preached for a small rural congregation outside of his hometown of Mayfield, Kentucky as a 17-year-old and went through a time of conflict in that context.

“Churches aren’t perfect, but it is through the crucible of the ups and downs of congregational life that faith is shaped,” he said. “What other community stays with people and brings God’s presence and faith resources to bear through all the transitions of their lives?”

Through all this experience, one thing has stuck with Gupton: healthy ministry blends both strong academic training and best practices. So Gupton took the strengths of the existing doctorate program—theological grounding, spiritual formation and Biblical justice—and overlaid a “deep appreciation for the role of congregations in God’s mission,” he said.

In its goal of proactive application of theology, the program  includes several courses addressing the complex challenges of contemporary ministry: Culture and Congregational Conflict, Missional Imagination and Congregational Change, Currencies of Influence and Theological Framework for Contemporary Ministry, to name a few. It also leads students through the experience of professional coaching and includes an integrative final project that is based in the student’s ministry setting.

Burleston - COC

Shana Lee, a doctoral student with 18 years of youth ministry experience who now works as a pediatric oncology nurse at Monroe Carroll Junior Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, said that while focused on congregational settings, the lessons in navigating conflict, active listening and spiritual direction encompassed within the program can be used in any setting.

“I find the program applicable no matter what career I am in,” said Lee, who also teaches Bible courses at Lipscomb, including a Bible class for nursing students, and feels she could use her doctorate degree in the future in chaplaincy, ministry, teaching or nursing.

The overlay of the congregational focus did not change one of the doctorate program’s greatest strengths: that all courses are taught through a missional lens, as many Lipscomb Bible faculty have extensive experience and scholarship in this area, said Gupton. For example, Lipscomb’s popular travel pilgrimage through civil rights movement sites of the Southeast remains in the curriculum. An emphasis on spiritual formation, fed by the work and scholarship of Lipscomb’s Institute for Christian Spirituality, is also still a hallmark of the program.

The first cohort in the revamped program is progressing through the program in a cohort, with both online and two 10-day in-person residencies.

“Congregations are the communal expression of God's commitment to us and to the world, and our commitment to Him and His purpose,” said Gupton. “It is where the faith, hope and love of Christ guide us through all the transitions of our lives.”