The Leadership Gap : An Educational Issue for Australian NFPs and Schools

by Paul Oslington
29th April 2019

The not-for-profit sector is hugely important for Australians’ quality of life.  A significant proportion of employment services, social services, disability services, and education are handled by our not-for-profit organisations. The overwhelming majority are religious - over 40% of social services for instance are provided by not-for-profit organisations connected to Christian churches.  Quality of leadership in this sector depends largely on the educational opportunities available.

This is also an issue for the Australian independent school sector, which like the social services sector is dominated by religious not-for-profits, mostly Christian schools (including our large Catholic school system) though an increasing number of Islamic, Jewish and Buddhist schools.  Nearly half of Australian parents choose to send their children to an independent secondary school – even more in our capital cities where this option is more available. One of the most frequent topics of conversation with board members of our independent schools is where the next generation of educational leaders who will guard the Christian mission identity of their schools will come from.  They won’t be from the education faculties of our public universities, nor will they be from our theological colleges. 

Secular should mean neutral between religious traditions, including atheism, but sadly in many of our public institutions secular means stridently anti-religious. The concept of the secular has Christian origins, but perhaps some of the current anti-religious sentiment is understandable as the churches often abused the cultural and political power they have enjoyed for centuries in the West. 

Our religious NFP organisations and schools face new challenges in an environment of escalating social needs and increasing intrusion into their operations by governments which fund the services they deliver. They are large and complex businesses managing multiple stakeholders –their church owners, governments who fund service delivery, and the Australians they serve.

It is largely an educational issue, where education is understood as personal and communal formation not just transferring information.  As part of a project at Alphacrucis College, supported by the Genesis Foundation, I have been interviewing leaders of the Christian not-for-profit sector about their leadership development needs.  The next generation of leaders for the sector need the skills to manage large organisations, the ability to manage church and government stakeholders, and the vision to guard the historic mission and identity of these organisations which has made them attractive to the government, and mostly appreciated by those whom they serve.  As well as these skills leaders also need the personal and communal spiritual disciples to be able to survive and have a long-term impact. Governance is intimately related to leadership., providing the framework for good leadership, and so governance must be part of the educational program.

Where will this next generation of leaders for Christian NFPs and schools come from?   Those who rise up through Christian social service organisations are in touch with the Australians they serve, but often lack the skills to manage the organisations.  So organisations have had to bring in senior leaders from the corporate sector.  There are many examples of spectacular failures where such leaders are unable to grasp the ethos of service in these organisations, or to nurture their Christian mission and identity.  Leaders recruited from the public sector have also spectacularly failed. A reaction against this in some church not-for-profit organisations has been to install an ordained minister of the denomination to guard mission and identity. Such appointments have also often been failures because traditional theological training plus experience of pastoral ministry are seldom accompanied by the leadership and management skills needed, and ministers struggle connect their theological training to the leadership and management challenges they face in Christian NFPs and schools. 

The problem is related to the history of Australia’s higher education system  (see my article in The Conversation “Religion and Australian Universities: Tales of Horror and Hope”   Our university system was set up as a secular system (mostly by devout Anglicans and Presbyterians for religious reasons) quite separate from the training of ministers for the different religious denominations.  This history means that theology and religious studies are largely absent from our universities, and that denominational theological colleges seldom provide any training in leadership or management.

At the moment our Christian not-for-profits boards can choose between a sharp suited MBA graduate who is almost guaranteed to make a mess of mission and identity of the organisation, or an incompetent minister who may make a mess of both management and mission and identity.  

A few universities offer programs in not-for-profit management, leadership, and social entrepreneurship.  The Centre for Social Impact at University of New South Wales founded by Peter Shergold had a lot of potential (  The Crawford School at Australian National University ( or the University of Sydney ( ) offer excellent programs for public sector managers but the challenges faced by public sector managers are different to the not-for-profit sector.  Perhaps the closest in  our public universities to what is needed is the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies at QUT founded by Myles McGregor Lowndes ( However a public university in the current environment is not going to be able to provide the sort of integrated training in leadership/management and theology that is so urgently needed in the sector.  And theological colleges are culturally and materially ill-equipped to provide the quality of leadership and management training that is required.  My institution Alphacrucis is unusual in that it has both a Faculty of Theology and a Faculty of Business, and so we are trying to meet the need with our combined Bachelor of Business/ Bachelor of Theology, and the new not-for-profit specialisation in our Master of Leadership (  These include courses in Christian Worldview, Maintaining Christian Mission and Identity, Spiritual Life of the Leader, as well as the standard offerings in Governance, Finance, Strategy, Leadership and so forth. All have been developed in close consultation with the sector.  

Arrow Leadership ( has for many been running short courses for emerging and executive leaders, including Christian NFP leaders which have had a remarkable impact.  Arrow now partners with Alphacrucis, allowing Arrow students to gain credit into the Alphacrucis Master of Leadership, and utilise FEE-HELP for their studies.

I’d love to see some of our top business schools think about courses that include theology in an MBA program, and most important of all, teach their students how to integrate their theology with the skills in leadership, finance, law, human resources and so forth. 

For one thing it might stop the current bleed of training for the Christian not-for-profit sector to European and North American institutions which combine theological and leadership/management training. More importantly filling this leadership education gap will contribute to maintaining the health of these Christian not-for-profit organisations which serve so many disadvantaged Australians, much more effectively than government bureaucracies. Paul Oslington

Professor of Economics and Dean of Business

Alphacrucis College, Sydney.


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