What is an executive pastor? He is a man called by God to lead a church family to health, mission and effectiveness. He is typically the staff leader chiefly responsible for the health and unity of the church’s members—through community life, counseling, family ministries and outreach—and for the stability of the organizational side of the church—its staffing, strategy, management, finances and so on.
Having served as an executive pastor (or a director of operations, prior to being affirmed as an elder) for about four years now, and having led ministries and served behind-the-scenes in churches and parachurch ministries for ten years, I am deeply convinced that much of the Western church’s fruitfulness in the 21st Century depends on its ability to identify, cultivate and mobilize humble, gospel centered executive pastors alongside its preachers, counselors and youth leaders.
As churches are growing larger (the average size of a U.S. evangelical congregation is steadily increasing), church staffs are becoming larger, and as a result the number of churches hiring executive pastors has continued to outnumber and outpace open positions for preaching pastors. We have a number of young bucks at Sojourn training for pastoral ministry, and I usually tell them: if you feel called to ministry, enjoy leading people, can get things done, and wouldn’t mind a paycheck, you should consider becoming an executive pastor. Plus, learning to lead the church by serving behind the scenes is an invaluable experience for later ministry and, especially if you are young, it also builds confidence within yourself and credibility with others. (For future exec pastors who want to know what to read to prepare for the role: check out my self-directed executive leadership syllabi, XP 101 and XP 201. It’s seminary training, Fidelity-style. Enjoy!)
So what does an executive pastor do? What are his priorities, roles and responsibilities? I’m going to try to answer that main question here in roughly 1500 words—God willin’ and the creek don’t rise.
But, as usual, some explanatory notes first. In anything you read on the role of executive pastor, and there’s not much out there, you’ll find two major models of the role. First, many large churches give the title of executive pastor to the business leader of the organization. His or her job description is essentially that of a Chief Operations Officer or Senior Vice President of any business or non-profit; his/her main concern is the fiduciary stability of the organization. The functions are 100% management, strategy, organizational health and so on. This role usually requires an MBA and experience in the business world, and XP’s in these roles typically have made a lateral move into the position after years in the marketplace.
The second major model is the staff and ministry overseer. This role is called the “associate pastor” in more traditional settings, but that’s an unfair title that is thankfully disappearing. The only thing worse than that is the “assistant pastor”: Am I a pastor/elder called by God to shepherd and steward his flock for the spread of his Kingdom—or an assistant in a multi-layered organization? Please. I’m fine with pastoral assistants, not assistant pastors. Anyway, the ministry overseer type XP will have responsibilities over the church’s staff, lay elders, deacons and ministry leaders, and over the community groups, family ministries and mission of the church. His main concern is the life of the church off the main stage (preaching and music). He will often be the secondary preacher and teacher of the church and a key relational pastor, and will usually oversee the organizational side of the church through one or more mid-level director(s) of operations, finance, etc.
Of these two roles, it seems like the second is becoming increasingly popular, and the term “executive pastor” is really popular among multi-site churches, with the campus executive pastor (my previous role at Sojourn) functioning as the staff and ministry overseer while a centralized operations pastor and team fill many of the organizational functions that a single-site XP would normally handle.
Explanatory note, the second. This essay primarily focuses on the executive pastor of a church of 200+ (and thus with more than one staff leader), but it could also be easily tweaked to describe a number of other roles within the church, including a non-staff volunteer leader of a church under 200, a female director of operations or an associate pastor with several direct reports. On to the good stuff…
There are three essential functions of an executive pastor: shepherding, stewardship and strategy. This is based on a theology of leadership triad—another essay soon to be published as soon as either Sojourn stops growing, or when our children start putting themselves to sleep at 7:30. (I.e., don’t hold your breath.)
Shepherding is, without question, the primary leadership motif of the Scriptures. In the classic Psalm 23, we’re taught to relate to our Father as a good and loving Shepherd who provides for us, protects us and comforts us. In Ezekiel 34, God condemns Israel’s leaders as false shepherds and promises to personally shepherd his people instead. In John 10, we discover how God will personally care for his flock: Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep to preserve their lives. In Revelation 7, we get a majestic view of Jesus as both our sacrificial Lamb and our glorified Shepherd. For more on this, read Laniak’s biblical theology of shepherding.
While serving with one of our church planting teams in the Horn of Africa, I learned that there are good shepherds and bad shepherds. Good shepherds always put the needs of their flock before their own, while poor shepherds care only for themselves and will leave their sheep for rest or food or out of boredom. Specifically, good shepherds do two things: they are present with the sheep and they lead the sheep to pasture. (If you’re looking for a sermon outline for John 10, I got you covered: 1. The Shepherd’s Presence; 2. The Shepherd’s Pasture; The Shepherd’s Propitiation. You know that mug will preach!)
In First Peter, the old Jerusalem pastor calls his fellow leaders to shepherd the flock that is under them—not because they have to but because they want to; not out of human control but with humility and biblical authority; not for personal gain but for the well-being of the flock; not for worldly status or privileges but for eternal glory from the returning Good Shepherd himself (5:1-4). With this exhortation in mind, we realize that shepherding is a broad term that can include be present (knowing the sheep) teaching (feeding), counseling (caring), rebuking or practicing church discipline (protecting), and many other pastoral duties. For more on this, read Witmer’s paperbook on the topic.
Executive pastors are shepherds of God’s flock before they are anything else—managers, equippers, visionaries, etc. (Side note: thankfully the trend of pastors rejecting their God-given titles and calling themselves ‘spiritual pioneers,’ ‘cultural architects,’ and whatever else seems to be trailing off, going the way of the emergent scene itself. Planting a small church and writing three books does not make you an ‘iconoclast’ of Christian spirituality! Side note over.) XP’s shepherd their flock through their presence: preaching and teaching, member care, weddings and funerals, and so on. It’s not always the artistic work of an iconoclastic entrepreneur, but it is biblical and it is rewarding. XP’s also shepherd the church by identifying and equipping staff and non-staff leaders, because he knows one or two shepherds is never enough as the flock grows. The XP shepherds the church through difficult seasons—spiritually, organizationally and financially. That’s why it’s so critically important for exec pastors to remain in one place for longer than most pastors in other positions—second only to the lead/senior pastor, the executive pastor must be the most stable position in the church if it is to remain healthy and focused on mission. XP’s are shepherds of God’s flock.
The second most important biblical theme of Christian leadership? It’s stewardship. And don’t take my word for it, ask Timothy J. Keller if you don’t believe me. Jesus frequently used parables to describe principles of stewardship, and the role was clear in the first century. A steward in the first century was a slave with great responsibility, typically the manager of a large estate. Think about the position: he was a man under authority (he didn’t own the property or the employees and served for his master’s good before his own) yet he also was a man of authority (he oversaw dozens or even hundreds of others, setting up schedules and systems, managing teams and minimizing conflict and making difficult decisions between various groups or departments). What does that sound like? Every contemporary management position! (Keep in mind that slavery in the first century was not race-based or violent; it wasn’t a good system but it was more of a voluntary caste system than the horrors of the African slave trade or modern trafficking of individuals for work or sex.)
XP’s steward what isn’t theirs. The church is not their own; the members don’t belong to them or work for them; the vision of the church isn’t even their own—it’s typically established by the lead/senior pastor. Yet they have massive responsibility over the people, resources and needs of the family. Stewardship of finances is a primary role of the exec pastor, but he also stewards the vision of the church and the staff that furthers God’s mission. This stewardship role includes overseeing/mentoring staff members; setting, managing and enforcing the budget; caring for and equipping deacons and lay leaders; and connecting with the particular needs of the church’s surrounding community. The executive pastor even shepherds his lead pastor’s by protecting his time and freeing him up to lead within his gifting and enjoy his calling. Summary: XP’s are stewards of what belongs to God and his churches.
The third and final role of the executive pastor has fewer biblical passages for us to turn to, but that doesn’t mean it’s an unbiblical role. On the contrary, we see God’s leaders strategically leading people in virtually every book of the Bible. Strategy is the practice of planning and implementing a group’s vision and mission. In this sense, we can see Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, David, Solomon, Esther, Nehemiah, Peter, Paul and John as very intentional, thoughtful, strategic spiritual leaders.
Executive pastors are strategic in using their own time for maximum Kingdom fruitfulness, strategic in leveraging the church’s staff and resources for effective outreach to the community, and strategic in providing leaders and systems to provide adequate follow-up, care and discipleship for the church family’s members.
In one of the strangest parables of our Lord’s, in Luke 16, Jesus seems to support a fictional man’s scheme to rip off his master—stealing the boss’s money after being laid off. Jesus makes the point that Christians have a huge, eternal mission and should be even more strategic and persistent than the nonbeliever in his own pursuit of individual wealth and status (v. 8). To quote my boy K. Jamison, the Sultan of Sling, we need to be schemin’ for the Kingdom.
If you are an ambitious, organized, entrepreneurial man or woman, and you’re a Christian, it can be difficult to get excited about a lot of church life. You’ve probably been told to settle down, to fit in, to stop making suggestions, to get your head out of the clouds, etc. But God has invested these gifts in you to be used for his glory and for the spread of his Kingdom. Serving the church as an XP isn’t the only way to invest these fantastic and rare gifts for good, but it is a very life-giving, rewarding and worthwhile use of them! If you’re going to scheme, if you’re going to strategize, why not align yourself with the greatest cause and the most unstoppable mission in human history? XP’s are selfless schemers and strategists.
So how does this all translate to a job description?
How does the role of the executive pastor change as a church grows?
What are the dozen or so core competencies of an XP that remain the same, regardless of size?
What types of resources should a future or current XP become familiar with to increase his vision and effectiveness?
How can churches, seminaries and organizations partner to provide deep and effective training for exec pastors?
And how can current XP’s find ongoing mentoring and coaching in shepherding, stewardship and strategy?
We’re at 2000 words. Stay tuned, my friends.