Perception Equals Reality: A Lesson from a Church’s First Executive Pastor

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Perception Equals Reality: A Lesson from a Church’s First Executive Pastor

“Had I known then what I know now!” How many times have you heard that famous phrase? Hindsight truly is 20/20, but normally we do not get to enjoy it, unless we learn from others who have gone before us. That is my hope with this short article, that other Executive Pastors, including those who happen to be the first XP of their church, can learn from my experience. A great quote from one of my favorite books on leadership says, “However gentle your style, however careful your strategy, however sure you may be that you are on the right track, leading is risky business” (Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002, p. 2).

This church was ready for an XP. Known throughout the Assemblies of God for her longevity of staff, First Assembly of God in Cedar Rapids, Iowa also had the distinction of “the church that survived the revival.” Having gone through a similar set of experiences to that of Brownsville Assembly and the Toronto Airport churches, First Assembly did not face a crisis when the revival ended. The church did not split, and our Senior Pastor is still in place. This is really quite remarkable, I am told. The church had experienced phenomenal growth since our current SP arrived, from some 600 regular attenders to over 2,000.

After years and years of consistent growth, she plateaued. Our SP was puzzled, so some church consultants were brought in to assess the situation. It was thought that a fresh set of eyes would see the forest for the trees. After a thorough survey of staff, leadership and church body, several recommendations were made. “First and foremost,” they told our SP and senior leadership, “you need an XP!” Phrases like “How did you get this large without one?” and “This is a true testament to your SP’s leadership” rang out. Most churches, they stated, get an XP around the 1,000 attender mark. This number can vary by church and experience set, but it’s not far off. I know of churches with 300 that have an XP. However, most with the traditional definition and role in mind seem to develop a real need at the 800-1,000 mark. They were astounded that this church “made it” to 2,000 without one, though they had a Pastoral Administrator who took care of many business-related items for the church.

They interviewed several candidates and finally landed upon yours truly, a freshly minted MDiv out of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Formerly I was an executive in the music (instrument) business, most recently with Guitar Center. I was what they called a “second-career” student, one of hundreds at the seminary. The combination of “Executive” and “Pastor” seemed to be a perfect fit for my schooling and experience. It was a match made in heaven. I was coming into a church really ready for an XP, ready for change, ready to go to whatever level God had in store for her. When we candidated, it really felt as though the decision had already been made for us, and that the weekend full of interviews and meetings was just a formality. This was a tremendous, yet odd feeling.

I hit the ground running. Fueled by excitement, energy and empowered by the Senior Pastor and senior leadership, I set to work. I had a short list from the consultants on suggestions and ran with the ball. I also received directives from our SP and the Deacon Board on initiatives, such as initializing annual performance reviews, empowering lay leaders to run ministry teams and freeing up the SP to focus on vision-casting and preparing messages for our two Sunday services, he being the main pulpit supply. I brought with me my skills from the marketplace, as well as my experiences from several churches along the way in three states—some large, some small. But remember, this is the first XP for this church. Ever. I had been here before, the first person in a new role in an organization. While it is true that you get to define much of the role, the responsibility that goes with it for future people in your position can be weighty.

We exercised extra care in rolling out the role and title. There was some debate early on with the title “Executive Pastor.” Was this appropriate? We could go with something like “Executive Director of Ministries.” The SP and I met; I explained to him that XP was the usual title. I stated that it would help me in my communications with those who understood that title and role. He agreed, so we very carefully rolled this out to the congregation, taking pains to make sure that they understood that the XP reports to the SP and the rest of the staff reports to me. Most got it, some did not, and some are confused even today; hence this article.

Cultural exegesis, they taught me at seminary, is a most useful and important skill. I was now in Iowa, and Iowa is not identical to anywhere I had lived (New York, Wisconsin or Illinois), nor is it like the coasts. For instance, people here are enormously friendly—I would argue the friendliest on the planet, at least the friendliest I’ve met thus far. They are polite and honest, sometimes too honest as they tend to tell you everything they are thinking.

About a year into the position we had started to hear rumblings of what we now affectionately call, “The Perception Issue.” You see, I had rolled out a number of changes in conjunction with senior leadership (defined by us as Pastors, Elders and Deacons). Some of these changes were very minor, some were colossal. We made so many changes that we put out an FAQ booklet, categorizing them by area of the church! Part of my charge was to protect the SP, as any good XP would, right? So, I put my fingerprints on all the changes and the bullets came at me. I was fine with this, as in my former life I’d been a purchasing executive. I already had thick skin! The theory was simple: If anyone in the church body was unhappy, let them be unhappy with the XP so they can continue to hear the Word from the SP. Sounds good on paper, anyway.

Back to the rumblings. Bill Hybels has an axiom: “When something feels funky, engage!” It means that little issues most often do not go away; in fact, they will turn into larger issues if they go unaddressed. The rumblings started small but then started to get louder and multiply. Rumors such as “Our SP has abdicated his authority to the XP!” or “There’s been a hostile takeover of our church!” to “Who’s in charge now?” started to surface. You know, when you hear one or two comments, it is easy in church life to dismiss them. When they start coming at you with some thematic consistency—and from long-term members as well as leaders in your church—it’s time to stop and take notice. When a few senior leaders also start to ask the same questions, it’s time to take action.

You see, I have a different leadership style than our SP. This is not uncommon, as I’ve seen this in several church environments. I was brought in to complement the SP’s leadership style, as most XPs are. Our SP is man with many years of ministry experience under his belt. He’s probably seen it all. Remember, we survived the revival under his leadership. Who else can say that? He is quite the man of integrity, let me tell you. He’s also a man with the mercy gift, and I mean buckets of it. I have a little less of the mercy gift … okay, a fraction of what he has. I’m known as a straight shooter—I call a spade a spade. I have this phrase that I brought with me from seminary, “Chicken Ranch.” It means second rate, below par, amateur—basically that we can do better. I’m afraid I’ve infected our poor church with this phrase as it blurted out during my first year on the job. To the credit of our very understanding staff, I don’t need to say it much anymore; we’ve all worked very hard to shoot for excellence in all we do.

The combination of variance in leadership style, all the changes, and the fact that I was their first XP really sent some in our church body into a tail spin. I had taken a very public role in the church—doing announcements (growing into video announcements), running town hall meetings, putting out memos, shaking hands at the double doors of our sanctuary after services, etc. Some thought that our beloved SP had been reduced to a “mere” Teaching Pastor! Even though we told folks at the beginning that the SP is the CEO and the XP is the COO, this was quickly forgotten, given the circumstances.

I’ve witnessed this type of confusion before in the marketplace, especially in larger companies. For any larger firm, ask the senior leadership (COO, CFO, CIO, VPs, EVPs, SVPs, etc.) who runs the company and they will tell you the CEO does. But go down the org chart a spell and keep asking. It will not take long for you to find that many believe the COO runs the company. It’s an easy mistake to make. He/she’s the one hiring and firing, authoring policies, turning out memos, managing by walking around, etc. Of course, the CEO is ultimately in charge and the COO reports to him/her. But the CEO has a different role to play and the COO is concerned with the day-to-day management of the organization. Without clear explanation or established culture, this misunderstanding will only continue.

So, what to do in our case? It’s funny, the SP and I were both completely surprised and aghast by this development. We were both secure in ourselves and each other; it never occurred to us that anyone would believe “The Perception Issue.” It was preposterous to us! Our SP is not threatened by me; frankly I don’t want his job. I’ve been called to be an XP and this is not a stepping stone for me. He knows that, so we’re all good. But we needed to address this to the church body. We met and decided that since we created this perception we can change it, and changing it we are. Here’s how: first, our SP is returning to a more prominent role in our Sunday services, from praying for the nation, praying over our congregation, to doing announcements on rotation, to meeting our newcomers in the hospitality suite. I’ve taken more of a backstage role, now co-leading the town hall meetings with him, stepping aside from video announcements, and proclaiming any chance I get that he is in charge.

In my zealous desire to protect the man, I have unwittingly demoted him in some people’s eyes. This is unacceptable and, as my mentor told me, an XP can lose his/her job over this. Don’t make the same mistake: be conscious of how your actions affect others. Perception, after all, does equal reality to most. Make sure, at every turn, you affirm your SP and play your role as it is designed, leading from the second chair. With a little care, we can complement skill sets without jeopardizing the way our SPs are viewed.

By | 2016-10-12T11:01:20+00:00 December 6th, 2012|Church vs. Business, First Six Months, XP-SP Relationship|

About the Author:

Garrett Lafferty