A CEO of the Spirit
photo by Patrick O'Connor
As the first African American— and the first woman—called to lead the 150-year-old First Baptist Church of Needham, Debora Jackson ’89 moves easily between worlds of business and religion, trying to help each learn from the other.
The steeple of the First Baptist Church is the tallest structure in the town of Needham, Mass. Some might look to it as a symbol of pride or inspiration—but to the Reverend Debora Jackson, it is a source of revenue. When she first came on board as senior pastor in 2004, the church was reaping the benefits of cellular transmitting antennas concealed in the tower. Concerned that consolidation in the telecom industry might depreciate that asset, Jackson did some research. When some brokers came calling with a proposal to purchase the access leases, she had already run the numbers.
Jackson still laughs when she recalls their astonishment. “You could just see them looking at each other, saying ‘I thought she was the minister!’ They thought I was just there to offer the so-called ‘sandwich prayers’ at the opening and closing of the meeting.” She shot down their initial offer and came away with a lump-sum payment more in line with her analysis of market value.
The unflinching negotiations hardly came as a surprise to the church members. They had already seen Jackson in action when they first invited her to be their spiritual leader. She immediately renegotiated her compensation package, line by line—and that was while she was still a seminary student. Her parishioners knew full well that she came to the table with an undergraduate business degree from Indiana University, and two master’s degrees from WPI, in engineering management and manufacturing engineering.
At the heart of Jackson’s ministry and her consulting work is a surprising assertion: Like businesses, churches must be concerned with the bottom line and realize a return for their investments. Like churches, businesses can’t thrive unless they look out for their employees’ spiritual needs. Spiritual, she is quick to point out, doesn’t have to mean religious.
Jackson’s first calling was sudden and deep. “I’m going to be a computer programmer,” she declared at age 12, on a sixth-grade field trip. She began her career in software development and soon moved into management. She was leading the start-up of an e-commerce platform for utilities when Enron crashed, taking the energy industry with it. In the aftermath, she was forced to lay off half her staff, and then found herself jobless when her company folded. Her religious vocation grew out of a lifetime of church involvement. “It was in December of 1999 that I acknowledged my calling. I felt like God had said to me, ‘This is where I want you to go.’ It was an overwhelming, troubling, frightening sense. I just thought, ‘I can’t do that!’” But in the fall of 2000, after completing her second master’s program at WPI, she entered seminary at Andover Newton Theological School. As she was serving an internship at FBC, the church’s senior pastor retired, and Jackson was asked to succeed him.
While her church reaps the benefits of her business acumen, Jackson also helps businesses leverage the power of spiritual engagement. “I know that gets into touchy language,” she says. “It doesn’t mean I’m proselytizing. It’s about what drives you, what your passions are, and how those passions get manifested in your everyday life.” She is a partner in Executive Soul, a group consultancy that helps organizations and their leaders connect to their spiritual core. Before joining FBC, she had her own agency, The Renewal Group, which specializes in revitalizing workers and organizations after the demoralizing effects of downsizing.
Disengagement can also be an issue for churches. “The engagement is about being on fire for God,” she says. “If you are, you recognize the commitment to build the ministry, share the Gospel, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. In the Northeast, particularly, church is seen as a nice-to-do, nice-to-have kind of activity. It’s always at the periphery. You have people who only want to give an hour, on Sunday, and start to squirm when it takes a little more than that. And it always does—when I’m preaching!” she adds with a laugh.
“I use my WPI education every day here, from launching a marketing campaign, to active recruiting, to meeting with business leaders,” she says. “It goes back to process, organizational development, and capacity planning—the courses I took at WPI. The church is an enterprise. How do I, as CEO, structure it so it can reach its goals and objectives?
“I know that some people don’t like this comparison, because it seems too secular. Our objectives are not dollar driven—but they still have to be measurable and tangible,” she continues. “The reality is, so many of our churches are in trouble. If you don’t have a broader hand, you may not be able to achieve your desires.” During her tenure at FBC, attendance at worship services has doubled.
In the larger Needham community, Jackson’s energy galvanizes a wider audience. Her outreach to schools and civic organizations sometimes involves breaking down barriers. “People put clergy in a box,” she says. “They think I’m going to pull out a Bible and start telling them how Jesus needs to be in their lives, or something like that. But I’m thinking about strategic alliances and partnerships.”
Whether it’s bringing the town together to help Hurricane Katrina victims in Mississippi, or shedding her clerical robes for blue jeans to sing rhythm and blues on teen band night, Debora Jackson knows how to win over her target audience and get results. “What saps my energy is mediocrity,” she says. “There’s always a higher peak, and I want to climb it. My family is supportive of that, because they know that I function best when I am challenged and stretched. I can’t imagine it any other way.”
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