Doing things together is not unusual for husband and wife, Zina and Rev. Warren Riley. The Oak Park couple worship together at the same church, New Mt. Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. Both also hold positions in the West Garfield Park church. And when Zina Riley decided to get an advanced degree, she asked her partner in life to get a Master’s in Business Administration with her.
Rev. Riley admits he was a little hesitant when his wife first broached the idea. He had just finished a master’s of divinity degree from Northern Theological Seminary in Lombard.
“I had just finished seminary [and] I was like I don’t want to do any more school because it was three and half years,” he said. “After I prayed about it, I realized that this would be beneficial in so many ways.”
So in 2013, the couple found themselves juggling work, family, church and homework as graduate students at Concordia University. And after completing an intensive program in leadership and change management two years later, both graduated together from the university with their MBAs.
“Doing stuff together is not uncommon for us, but doing school together was totally different,” said Zina Riley, who works at the management consulting firm Bain & Company.
Rev. Riley quipped that his wife was a taskmaster when it came to homework so much so that he nicknamed her “the homework Nazi.” His wife, he noted, would not let him slack off doing projects or assignments even though he worked a demanding job with the U.S. Department of Energy.
“It was a lot of late night hours,” Rev. Riley said. “I would hem and haw, but I would get it done. Having that built in study partner, someone who had your best interest at heart, was what really helped me get through the program.”
But the couple knew getting their MBA degree would serve them both professionally and within their church community. Rev. Riley serves as New Mt. Pilgrim’s executive pastor and having a MBA can help with the business side of running a church.
“One of the things with the Black church is we do evangelism well,” Rev. Riley said. “We pray for people. We feed people. We can give food and clothing to the poor. But one thing we don’t do well is church administration.”
Business acumen like strategic planning, succession planning and money management are necessary skill sets churches must have. Rev. Riley wanted to bring those skills to ensure his church’s longevity as well to further the pastor’s vision for the West Garfield community. He hopes those skills will help New Mt. Pilgrim’s development arm build a multimillion dollar fitness and health center in West Garfield.
“With the skills I learned, I am able to serve on those boards and critically think strategically how we can best position this community to be vibrant, to be healthy, to be like Oak Park,” Rev. Riley said.
For his wife, however, she wants to parlay her knowledge into the couple’s new marriage counseling business, called 1 Wing: It Takes Two to Soar. Married for nearly 28 years, the couple wants to help people get and stay married to create healthy families and communities.
But little did the couple know that their dual decision to get an advanced degree would have an impact not just on their families but in their workplace. Rev. Riley noted several co-workers were inspired to go back to school themselves even though their jobs don’t require an advance degree.
“Your life achievements, especially when you are serving God, are really not about you,” he said. “It’s all about the impact you have around the people you work with, live around and who operate in your circle. That is how God gets the glory out of your life.”
The couple’s two children were also inspired by their parents’ tenacity to continue their education. Zina Riley completed her bachelor’s degree at Concordia University when she decided to pursue her master’s. Her husband completed his undergraduate in 2006 at Southern Illinois University. The Riley’s children are in college and plan to continue their education.
“We wanted to lead from the front,” Rev. Riley said. “We just didn’t want to tell them to go to school. We wanted to be able to tell them we did it… you absolutely can do it.