The Marketers Who Started Their Careers in Ministry

And what their stories say about hiring candidates from unconventional backgrounds.

Written by Hal Koss
Published on Sep. 08, 2021
The Marketers Who Started Their Careers in Ministry

A little more than a decade ago, in the southern edge of metropolitan Portland, Oregon, Aaron Orendorff served as the pastor of a local church. He preached sermons, taught Bible lessons, counseled people, managed church staff and coordinated various ministry initiatives. He completed his Master of Divinity degree at a nearby seminary too.

And then two years into his tenure as pastor, “I had a wrecking ball of an event that came into my life that was outside of my control,” Orendorff told me. “[I] responded by essentially getting really resentful at what I’d been handed. And that is not a great recipe for working in ministry.”

Soon, Orendorff left ministry for good.

He landed on his feet as a communications instructor at a nearby college, where he taught for a couple of years. He also started a blog and picked up occasional freelance writing gigs through word of mouth. 

“I can write pretty,” Orendorff said, “and pretty writing covers a multitude of sins.”

He eventually cobbled together enough bylines in publications to get hired as a content marketer at Shopify Plus. Over the course of two years, he worked his way up to editor-in-chief. Today, Orendorff is the vice president of marketing at Common Thread Collective, an agency for e-commerce companies.

The Marketing Job Outlook

  • Nearly 75 percent of the 3,025 tech candidates surveyed would like to apply to a new role within the next 12 months, according to a study Built In conducted with Brandata.
  • The 2021 CMO Survey showed that tech (14 percent) is one the sectors adding the most marketing jobs, tied with education (14 percent) and trailing only behind consumer services (24 percent) and healthcare (18 percent).
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of marketing managers is projected to grow 7 percent from 2019 to 2029.

Orendorff’s twisty career path could probably serve as a parable for a few trends, from the attrition rate of clergy to the surging demand for marketers. But mostly, his journey throws light on the heightened realization that marketers can come from anywhere. And tech companies — many of whom are scrambling to backfill roles amid “the great resignation” — are missing out on talent when they fail to recognize it.

After I connected with Orendorff over Zoom this past spring, I soon learned of more stories like his. Stories demonstrating that ministry backgrounds — or, rather, the skills and sensibilities such backgrounds cultivate — uniquely prepare people for marketing careers.

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The Empathetic Worship Leader

Brent Stutzman is the owner of Brand Your Practice, a boutique agency just outside of Chicago specializing in digital marketing for mental health professionals who start their own private practices.

Many people who come to him are desperate for leads, Stutzman told me. They’re looking for someone with marketing chops who can help them get more people through the door — or to even find their website and fill out a form.

“Sometimes my clients will ... just pour their hearts out to me, like very personal stuff,” he said. “We had to talk a lot about their problems, what they are struggling with as a business and how I can come in and help them.”

“Sometimes my clients ... will just pour their hearts out to me, like very personal stuff.”

The dynamic reminds Stutzman of when he was an associate pastor at a local church, where he led worship ministry for more than a decade. It was a role he dreamed of even before he enrolled in the sacred music program at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, an academic institution founded specifically to equip students for ministry.

While working for the church, Stutzman would regularly encounter people who would come up to him asking for help making sense of their difficult circumstances. He’d listen empathetically, identify with their pain. He’d offer to be their guide too and help them find their way forward, reminding them “we can help you get through this” and that he’s “been there before.”

Stutzman ultimately left ministry because he felt burnt out. But in hindsight, he sees a lot of pastoral ministry principles he applied during his work for the church paralleling the marketing and branding concepts he later learned from the StoryBrand framework.

StoryBrand is a marketing methodology taught in workshops and outlined in Building a StoryBrand, one of the most popular marketing books of the past decade. It was created by Donald Miller, who in 2003 wrote the New York Times bestseller Blue Like Jazz, a collection of essays on Christian spirituality.

StoryBrand teaches marketers to “always be the guide, never be the hero” — to demonstrate encouragement, empathy and authority to the people they’re serving as a way to guide them toward the right path.

“That’s how I see the bridge between the two,” Stutzman said of his current career and his former one. “There’s so much pastoral ministry crossover.”

To reach customers for his own business — and help clients find customers for theirs — Stutzman uses the empathetic listening muscles he relied on during his years in ministry.

A shared trait between effective marketers and ministers is the ability to listen deeply to the needs of other people, Daniele Mathras, an associate teaching professor at Northeastern University whose research examines the connection between cultural belief systems and consumer behavior, told me.

“You think about how much individual counseling [pastors] are doing for members of the congregation, they’re phenomenal at listening,” Mathras said. “And that is one of the best things that marketers can do, is actually listen to consumers: What do consumers want? What are the pain points? What are they looking for? What do they need? What do they need to hear our brand can do for them to get back on track, or in order to buy things from us, or become part of our community?”

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The Conceptual Youth Pastor

Andrew Faris is the chief executive officer of 4x400, a holding company that launches and grows e-commerce companies. He previously held a couple of vice president positions in growth marketing. And just a few years before that, he was a youth pastor.

Faris grew up a pastor’s kid. He got an undergraduate degree in biblical studies and a master’s in New Testament. For about seven years, he led student ministries at two different churches.

When he left ministry in 2014, Faris wasn’t exactly sure what options were available to him. With the help of his friends, he got a job at an e-commerce company. He packed orders at a fulfillment center until one day, a friend pulled him aside and taught him how to do Facebook ads.

Soon Faris was handling the company’s search engine marketing and pay-per-click advertising and was put in charge of a multi-million dollar advertising budget. Within two years he jumped into an agency setting. There he began overseeing agency-wide strategy and quickly worked his way up to VP of growth.

It’s at this point where Faris noticed the similarities between pastoral ministry and marketing.

“The higher up you go [in marketing], it becomes more conceptual,” Faris said. “And the more conceptual it is, the more background it has with what are some of the core ministry skills.”

“The higher up you go [in marketing], it becomes more conceptual. And the more conceptual it is, the more background it has with what are some of the core ministry skills.”

For Faris, those skills include preaching and teaching from the Bible. And that requires careful interpretation of complex passages of text, connecting the dots between various allusions and symbols scattered throughout its pages — and figuring out how to package and communicate its meaning in ways that can be easily grasped and applied by others.

The hours Faris spent learning and teaching biblical text — both in a church setting and at his alma mater, where he taught theology as an adjunct professor for a year — helped him become a deeper, more synthetic thinker. It’s this type of thinking that helped him pick up marketing strategy — advising brands on how to position themselves and what avenues to pursue to unlock growth — despite no formal marketing training.

“The storyline of scripture ... it can’t possibly get bigger, conceptually, than the creation and meaning and ending of everything,” Faris said. “I think that sorting through gigantic themes like that has an ability to sort of enliven somebody’s imagination and thoughts. ... It also gets you sorting through things like human motivation and what drives people. All of those things — storytelling, conceptual communication, sorting out why humans do what they do and what they care about — that’s all pretty core to marketing.”


The Multiple-Hat-Wearing Executive Pastor

Josh Taylor runs his own marketing consultancy in Mobile, Alabama. He works with small businesses to create messaging, set up sales and nurture funnels, and build websites and landing pages for lead capture.

When he opened up shop back in 2017, his very first client asked him to build a WordPress website. Taylor had never done that before, but he took the job anyway. He taught himself how to do it.

Taylor picked up some of that scrappiness from his previous career. Prior to launching his consultancy, Taylor spent over a decade in church ministry. First as a worship pastor and later as an executive pastor, where he handled administrative and operational duties.

The church started out small. Early on, half the staff was just Taylor. But even as it grew, Taylor still found himself thrown into projects where he was doing things for the first time.

“I was wearing a lot of different hats,” he told me.

Taylor earned a college degree in theological studies and a master’s degree in pastoral ministry. But he often advises students who aspire to ministry to study business in undergrad because it’s likely they’ll be tasked with doing more than just expositing the Bible.

“When you’re a pastor, especially a pastor at a smaller church, you’re the CEO, you’re the guy looking for real estate, you’re the guy managing the bills, the bookkeeper, the human resources guy, all that stuff,” Taylor said.

Working at a small, growing church forced him to exercise the sort of hustle and generalism that’s often required in marketing roles at early stage startups.

“During that span of 10 years, I learned how to build something from scratch,” Taylor said. “We couldn’t afford to hire somebody to build a website or graphic design or anything like that. I just kind of learned how to do it.”

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The Persuasive Storyteller

Orendorff, whom we met in the introduction, liked to consult his clients using a very simple — and visceral — process for getting their marketing and messaging on track.

He would ask them to identify “the hell” their ideal customer was experiencing, as well as “the heaven” into which their solution would deliver them.

“I used to love using that language, because not only was it from my previous life, but I love formulas like PAS.”

The PAS formula — which stands for “problem, agitate, solve” — is a classic copywriting technique used by marketers to get people to take direct action. Basically, it works by stating the problem, agitating the problem by showing data or telling a story that makes it feel even more urgent or painful, and then delivering the solution.

Orendorff said giving this exercise that hell-and-heaven bent helped his clients grasp the concept as it related to their marketing, even if they weren’t religious. And it was a helpful lens through which he, too, came to understand marketing.

“I was doing the exact same thing that I used to be doing on a Sunday morning,” Orendorff said. “It’s communicating to effect change.”

“I was doing the exact same thing that I used to be doing on a Sunday morning. It’s communicating to effect change.”

When he was still in ministry, Orendorff followed closely the work of Timothy Keller, an author and pastor of a church in Manhattan. In his teachings on apologetics (the exercise of defending one’s faith through argumentation), Keller articulated a principle that was instrumental not only in Orendorff’s ministry, but also later in his role as a marketer.

It was essentially the “logos, ethos, pathos” framework. Logos refers to the use of data and statistics. Ethos refers to the expertise and credibility martialed in an argument. And pathos refers to the emotional resonance and storytelling aspect.

The idea, Orendorff said, was to apply this framework in preaching and evangelism. By using sources the religious skeptic respects, you can show them more persuasively how their belief system doesn’t actually support the things they say they want in life — and that, by contrast, the worldview being preached in the pulpit does.

When he transitioned to marketing, Orendorff realized that the job operated under many of the same principles he used in ministry.

“[Keller] taught me so much of ... how I think about marketing and writing to communicate and persuade,” he said. “Even if it’s just ‘read this article, open this email, click this link, download this white paper, buy this, like, whatever it is.’ You’re communicating to effect change — and the principles are the same.”

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The Unlikely Marketer

Companies need more marketers. According to the 2021 edition of The CMO Survey, there was a 9 percent overall increase in marketing jobs added this past year. And more than 72 percent of marketing leaders said that marketing became more important to their companies during the past year (jumping from 62 percent the previous year).

But what sort of experiences and pedigrees will these companies look for and prioritize when reviewing candidates?

Wayne Sutton, founder of the consulting firm Change Catalyst, previously told Built In that finding a job in tech is still largely about who you know and where you went to school, a dynamic that “will probably never change.” 

And Marketing Brew recently pointed out that some companies still require college degrees for marketing roles, even though traditional criteria like these run counter to commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion.

So perhaps employers will play it safe and scan for familiar signals of success, prioritizing marketing degrees and previously held marketing positions.

Or maybe they’ll choose to be receptive to candidates from overlooked places, knowing that talent doesn’t always take a straight path.

After all, careers work in mysterious ways.

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