Businessman invests his future in pulpit


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."

"You need people who know how to operate these things," Hough said. "Most of the people who come to us from business, they bring an enormous amount of life experiences ... and they also bring some skills to church leadership that is harder to find."

Courses for pastors

He expects that eventually every theological school will have to help pastors get business management skills.

"Can you imagine running a megachurch with 20,000 people?" he said. "That is like being a mayor of a large town. These kinds of skills are going to be in great demand."

Willow Creek Community Church, an interdenominational church outside Chicago, has 8,000 members, 17,000 people who attend weekly services, 417 employees, 10,000 volunteers and a $20 million annual budget.

MBA from Stanford

The church's executive pastor, the Rev. Greg Hawkins, who is second in charge, has a master's degree in business administration from Stanford University and was a corporate consultant at McKinsey & Co., a global consulting firm, before joining Willow Creek full time.

Hawkins oversees the daily operations and strategic planning of the sprawling church, said Tammy Kelley, a church spokeswoman.

"It is a seven-day-a-week operation ... that hosts many services and support groups for the community," she said.

Hawkins also frees up the Rev. Bill Hybels, Willow Creek's senior pastor, "so he can really focus on teaching and strategic leadership," Kelley said.

Finance and money were something DeGarmo quickly became interested in as a young man. After earning a bachelor's degree and a master's in public affairs from Princeton University, DeGarmo planned to work at the Office of Management and Budget in Washington.

Better paycheck

But the federal government froze hiring, and Exxon lured him away with a salary that was three times his prospective government pay.

He left Exxon in 1984 and joined Salomon Brothers, where he worked in the firm's energy group and later its global independent power unit.

"It was good, interesting stuff," DeGarmo said. "It was very fast-paced."

Although his job was going well, DeGarmo was unsettled.

"There was a base level of discontent," he said. "Always 'What am I going to do when I grow up?' Each time I grabbed a brass ring I'd say, 'This is supposed to make me really feel good.' It left me feeling not as full as I hoped."

Time away from home

He also began resenting the time he was on the road away from his wife, Sarah Finlayson, a bond saleswoman whom he married in 1989.

The turning point came in 1994, after the DeGarmos had a baby, Ellie. DeGarmo spent two weeks at home with his family, helping his wife and getting to know his daughter.

But he was quickly on the road again on a 10-day mission to Pakistan with then-Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary, energy company representatives and investment bankers from other firms.

The conditions in Pakistan were inhospitable, he said. DeGarmo couldn't even get a phone line out to call his wife.

The trip "got me thinking. It got me thinking pretty hard. Maybe this is not what I am supposed to be about," he said.

Shock to his wife

When DeGarmo thought about his life, it wasn't negotiating deals that came to mind, but ministering to people.

He told Finlayson about his interest in changing careers. She didn't understand; she thought she had married an investment banker.

"I didn't quite get it, and I didn't believe it was real for a time," said Finlayson, a senior vice president at Raymond James Financial, who says she is happy with her husband's decision. "I suggested when he was thinking about this that he go to a career counselor."

DeGarmo took her advice, but the counselor thought he would make a fine minister.

DeGarmo's radical career change was made easier in 1995 when Salomon Brothers reorganized and let him go. Other companies called to hire him, but he had no interest.

Back to school

In 1996, he enrolled in the three-year program at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He earned a master of divinity degree and graduated first in his class.

He was interim associate pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in New York City from March 2000 to June 30.

Although he is happy, DeGarmo and his family have made sacrifices. He makes a fraction of the salary he was paid on Wall Street, he stopped renting a vacation home in the Hamptons, and he traded in a Mercedes Benz for a Volkswagen.

"The truth is, there is very little I want for," DeGarmo said. "I can honestly say I never miss Wall Street except that week in December when the bonuses are paid. It was always a very good feeling to do your Christmas shopping knowing you just put that slug of money in the bank."

DeGarmo was installed as Towson Presbyterian's pastor Oct. 5. More than 35 members from First Presbyterian Church in New York attended the service. The Rev. Jon M. Walton, pastor of First Presbyterian, delivered the sermon.

Change in course

"Finding your vocation in your life is discovering why you are here," Walton told the congregation.

He said DeGarmo had a calling that "wouldn't be silenced."

"There you were, working as an investment banker," Walton said. "Your change in course, Lindley, was a big one. What an amazing journey."

After DeGarmo was installed as pastor, the choir sang "Abide With Me," and he walked to the back of the church to greet each member of the congregation. Asked how he felt, DeGarmo threw back his head and smiled.

"Euphoric," he said.

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