The proliferation of “megachurches” has been described as one of the most significant social developments of the decade of the eighties. That trend shows no sign of subsiding, indeed it seems to be accelerating. Lyle Schaller in his book, The Multiple Staff and the Larger Church, and elsewhere, has made the point that large churches and mega churches are different than small churches in management. Someone told me recently that Peter Drucker has said that the management style and structure of any institution, including the church, undergoes significant change every time there is a forty-five percent increase in size.

The Adjustment Route

Small or middle-sized churches which are becoming large churches soon discover the truth. Usually the first attempts at finding a management style more suited to the new size of the church are by the adjustment route. Eventually however, large churches discover that a more revolutionary or reformational approach is required. It simply doesn’t work to add on to what was effective in the small or middle sized church, a little more or a little harder or a little more effective.

When a church moves from having one staff member to two or three, there are obviously significant changes in the way the church is administered. However, such changes are usually not the changes in kind which are required at the point where a church has a staff of seven or eight or more full time program people and several part time staff members as well. At this point the coordination, supervision, and management of the staff so that all are contributing toward the larger goal, pulling in the same direction, doing their share of the work, having access to their share of the resources, experiencing a sense of being cared for and important and given the opportunity to use their gifts in the most fitted slot, becomes a very large and very necessary task.

The Administrative Senior Minister

Some Senior Ministers like that kind work. It’s almost a first love for them. Even for such persons, the load continues to get heavier as the church grows in membership and programs. Those who are most gifted for such administrative work may well be able to continue to carry this load, along with the other expanding roles of the Senior Pastor of a large and growing congregation. Even they may risk burnout or damage to family relationships. Those who are not so gifted will find it close to impossible.

What has also become clear to many observers of the current ecclesiastical scene is that the gift package and temperament which suited the pastor to be a church planter is quite different from the gift package and temperament required for leadership of a large church. Again, the qualities which enabled the pastor to plant a church or lead it to large church status may not be suitable for the leadership which is required to bring it to or maintain it at the mega church level.

For a growing number of such churches, and such Senior Pastors, the best alternative has seemed to be the establishment of the role of the Executive Pastor. The position doesn’t always have that title but the job descriptions, the responsibilities, the objectives, and the place in the organizational structure have enough similarity to justify treating them as being the same kind of job.

Scope of the Research

Within the past couple of years, three eventualities came together which led me to pursue a study of this emerging role in large and mega churches:

  • I was assigned to an Executive Pastor role in the church I serve.
  • Through Leadership Network I met a number of other persons in similar jobs.
  • I was offered the opportunity by my church to take a three- month sabbatical study leave.

During the sabbatical, I traveled approximately eleven thousand miles by car with some additional air travel. I visited churches and interviewed pastors in fifteen states. Before, during and after the trip, I interviewed in person, by phone or corresponded with pastors in over sixty churches. I met with Executive Pastors singly and in groups. In some cases, I was able to interview the Senior Minister and several other members of the staff, as well as the Executive Pastor. I talked with lay persons about the Executive Pastor role individually, in committees, board meetings and retreats. I was able to talk not only to persons who were satisfied and enthusiastic about the role and function of the Executive Pastor but also with some that had had a negative experience with it. I also visited some large and growing churches that had selected or devised different administrative responses to the organizational and program demands of the mega church. In addition, I conferred with a number of denominational executives and church consultants. It was an exciting and rewarding study. I learned a great deal.

I am very thankful to those of you who were willing and able to participate in the study with me. I was the recipient of extraordinary hospitality along the way and great ecumenical fellowship. Congregations of several denominations and many independent churches were a part of the itinerary. The ecumenical nature of the experience was one of the richest and most treasured elements for my wife as well as me. I hope that the sharing of some of my findings will be an effective way to express my appreciation for the opportunity which was afforded me and the hospitality and cooperation that was shown.

The Executive Pastor: When?

“I don’t think I like the idea of being an Executive Pastor,” one Executive Pastor said to me. “It sounds too professional, too administrative, too much like a business model.” It wasn’t his title but it was his job.

Job Descriptions

In some churches the Executive Pastor is called the Assistant Pastor, in another place, the Executive Assistant, elsewhere, Ministry Director, or Administrative Pastor and even Business Manager. With all these titles and others, how shall we decide who is filling the position of Executive Pastor? The working definition under which I operated contained the following elements:

  1. Has primary responsibility for coordination and supervision of the staff.
  2. Is seen as being “second in command” behind the Senior Pastor.
  3. Has some program responsibility of his/her own. Although I tried to locate churches with female Executive Pastors, I was unable to do so. I met a female Executive Pastor before the idea of the sabbatical study was even born but before the study got underway, that relationship was terminated.

This is obviously a very sketchy “job description,” and even at that I suggested that if the person’s role fitted two out three of the items, they should consider themselves included. What I found among the Executive Pastors I interviewed was a clear sense of identity with each other within that description.

Another Executive Pastor listed four broad responsibilities in his job description:

  1. Planning
  2. Staffing
  3. Prioritizing
  4. Evaluating

That, too, would fit most of the Executive Pastors I interviewed.

The answers to three questions will be most helpful in getting a more complete picture of who an Executive Pastor is and what s/he does:

  1. How did the church come to the point of establishing the position?
  2. How did the Executive Pastor come to hold this position? What previous experience of ministry or administration has s/he had?
  3. What model or image best describes the role of the Executive Pastor and his/her relationship to the Senior Pastor?

The office of the Executive Pastor has been around for a good long time. It is only its widespread application which has come on the scene more recently.

Size of Staff

The office is quite obviously liked to the large church and large churches have existed for a good long time, just not in such abundance as they do today. My research would indicate that, as a general rule, the churches who have implemented this position in the last ten to fifteen years have done so when the staff of the church has reached six to ten full time positions, or the equivalent in part time and full time staff persons. It is, therefore, the size of the staff and the program, more than the size of the congregation, which most directly leads to the establishment of the role or the hiring of the person to fill it.

The growing tendency to expand staff by adding part time people, often from within the congregation, argues for the position of an Executive Pastor since more people require more supervision and administration. In some cases the decision to employ an Executive Pastor has come at the suggestion or even the insistence of the governing board. If the resistance of the Senior Pastor to this change has been deep rooted, then the early experience may well be unfavorable or at least uncomfortable.

Reasons for Creating the Position

One Senior Pastor gave as one of his reasons for eliminating the position of Executive Pastor the fact that the former Senior Pastor had the position forced on him by his board, resulting in an unhappy experience. Often the board has pushed such a proposition to save the Senior Pastor from burnout. Sometimes they have done it to save the church.

The reason most frequently given by lay persons for encouraging the employment of a Executive Pastor is the lack of time or giftedness for administration on the part of the Senior Pastor. Another reason given was the conviction that the Senior Pastor did not have sufficient time and energy to do all the staff management and be able to give adequate attention to his/her primary task—preaching and teaching the Word.

Some saw the addition of an Executive Pastor as a way to address the plateau in growth which had been experienced by the church. In one way or another, the question needing to be addressed was: What is the Senior Pastor’s greatest value to the church and how can we assure that value is realized?

When the Senior Pastor Is Ready

To the question: At what point in a church’s life does it become advisable to add an Executive Pastor? One Executive Pastor answered succinctly: “When the Senior Pastor is ready for it.” That’s probably the best summary of the process. Whether the Senior Pastor has been made ready for it by her/his own sense of being overwhelmed and needing help or by the advice or insistence of the governing board is not crucial. The Senior Pastor’s readiness is crucial. I did not find much evidence of deliberate undermining by reluctant Senior Pastors but I did find some evidence of failure because the Senior Pastor did not know how to utilize or relate to an Executive Pastor. I am convinced that it would be very profitable for Senior Pastors who are anticipating the hiring of an Executive Pastor, or even those who already have one and would like to make it a better or more effective relationship, to consult with a church where the position is well established or to attend a seminar or forum addressing this management issue.

Largely, Senior Pastors whose support for the change was reluctant or half-hearted because they were unfamiliar with the concept or didn’t know what to expect were pleasantly surprised when they began to get a feel for working with an executive. “Pleasantly surprised” is a significant understatement for the response of some Senior Pastors. They use terms like life saving and tremendous relief.

Senior Pastors who have had large denominational responsibility or who have a national reputation and a sizeable ministry through writing, conferences, retreats or outside speaking engagements, have often come to recognize more quickly their need for an Executive Pastor, because they see the necessity of having someone to be in charge during their frequent absences from their local office. The spread of this administrative arrangement has been promoted by contacts between Senior Pastors in formal and informal networks. Several of the Senior Pastors I interviewed cite such contacts as the primary stimulation of their interest in and support for the concept in their own churches.

Who Becomes an Executive Pastor?

The majority of Executive Pastors are ordained clergy. Some of them have served in a variety of functions away from the normal parish, as wide ranging as military chaplaincy, counseling ministry, urban planning and the national political arena. However, the majority of the Executive Pastors who are ordained clergy have had most of their previous experience in one or more local congregations.

Exceptions to the Standard Path

Before we look at the configuration of the more normative profile of an Executive Pastor, I want to briefly describe some of the exceptions. The most frequent route, according to my research, by which a non-ordained person becomes an Executive Pastor, is through the role of Business Administrator. There are some examples of good working relationships between the Senior Pastor and the Executive Pastor which began in this way. However, this route is also the most frequent example of an Executive Pastor relationship which didn’t work out well. One such person was described to me, “a very fine person but he just didn’t have good people skills and the management and morale of the staff suffered.”

Business Manager or Executive Pastor

One Senior Pastor who has an excellent working relationship with both a Business Manager and an Executive Minister, and who had at first attempted to promote the Business Manager to Executive Pastor, said:

If I had it to do over again, I would look for a Ministry Manager (Executive Pastor) right after the Music Director and Youth/Education Director. I would ask that person to do the business administration or I would arrange for that area to be taken care of by a volunteer or a part-time employee.

His wisdom was affirmed by an Executive Pastor in another church who cited as one of his major problems, dealing with the Business Manager who had preceded him at the church by a number of years and was a bean counter whose major concern was to keep a tight grip on the purse strings.

I believe that the gifts that make a person a good Business Manager are quite different than, even opposite from the gifts which make a good Executive Pastor. The Business Manager needs to be the kind of person who naturally keeps close control of everything under his/her jurisdiction while the Ministry Manager should encourage people to go for it. Good Business Managers have an eye for details while good Executive Pastors need to be able to see the big picture. One Executive Pastor who had successfully moved from the position of church Business Manager said that he had to learn to shift from tight control to light control. This is not to say that it is impossible for a Business Manager to become an Executive Pastor. Some have made that move very successfully.

Some persons who have had previous management experience in an organization other than a local congregation have been utilized effectively in this role. Most of them however, have served in other voluntary organizations and some have been ordained clergy persons. As management experts have told us, the church, and other voluntary not-for-profit organizations, presents a totally different set of management dynamics and challenges than the usual business. The crossover from management of a for profit company to a church is possible but not easy. It would probably work best with someone gifted in management who had also been a lay leader in the church for a number of years and was familiar with the differences.

Paths to become an Executive Pastor

There are two major paths for the Executive Pastor who is coming out of the more usual parish or local congregation experience:

  1. The experienced generalist who has spent ten to twenty-five or more years as a solo or Senior Pastor her/himself.
  2. The young pastor who came to the church directly out of seminary, usually served in another staff capacity first, and now has been promoted to Executive Pastor.

Promoted to Executive Pastor

This second category, which I’ll address first, has two sub-groups:

  1. Those who believe they will some day become the Senior Pastor of a large church themselves.
  2. Those who feel called to be the Executive Pastors, at least for the foreseeable future and perhaps for the rest of their ministry in the church.

Those in the first sub-group find a great deal of their job satisfaction in working under and learning from a successful Senior Pastor.

There exists in these cases a very intentional mentoring relationship. In some cases, the church and the Senior Pastor have recruited the young associate with the understanding that mentoring was to be a part of the package. One of the potential advantages for such an approach is that the Senior Pastor has the opportunity to shape the Executive Pastor in his/her own image, so to speak. Of course, this might well turn out to be less an advantage that anticipated.

The second sub-group of young pastors who have grown into the role in the church in which they serve as Executive Pastors, is made up of persons who have come to the conclusion, at least for the present, that they are not suited for and/or do not wish to become Senior Pastors. At the same time, they have discovered that they have administrative and relational gifts which suit them for staff and program management in a large church.

Former Senior Pastors

The other path to the position of Executive Pastor is through a couple of decades of service as a Senior Pastor or the sole pastor in one or more churches. I refer to such persons as generalists because they have experienced most if not all of the roles that a pastor is called upon to play, while those who have grown into the role through a staff position or positions in the church have served more as specialists. Their experience tends to qualify them to handle all of the demands of the Executive Pastor role since that role can be thought of as one half of the Senior Pastor’s task.

Crucial Qualities

I would be hard pressed to say that one of these paths is superior to the other, although the direction of my own bias would not be hard to discern. As one Executive Pastor said in answer to my question:

What are the crucial qualities of an Executive Pastor?”—“It all depends on the Senior Pastor.

It does all depend, not just on the Senior Pastor but on a number of variables. Probably the selection will depend on who is known to the church and available at the time the decision is made to hire someone. If there is a likely candidate already on staff in some other capacity, his/her familiarity with the church and ready availability would tend to make her/him the logical candidate. If not, then the experienced generalist or the experienced Executive Pastor who will not need a lot of on-the-job training or supervision will probably be the better choice.

Age

The age of the Senior Pastor does seem to be somewhat critical. The younger Senior Pastor may well benefit from a partnership with an experienced generalist. I saw a number of such teams which seemed to be working very effectively and providing good job satisfaction to both the participants. By the same token, a younger Executive Pastor candidate may receive more ready acceptance if working with an older Senior Pastor and may be drawn to that association.

Again, there were some instances where the Senior and Executive Pastors both seemed to be appreciative of the fact that they were of the same generation. This was true particularly of those who were in the fifty to sixty year age range. It was as though they spoke the same language and were naturally comfortable when together.

Models for the Senior Pastor-Executive Pastor Relationship

While the three functions described earlier—staffing responsibilities, second in command, specific program responsibilities—do provide a framework into which all the Executive Pastors I interviewed can fit, job descriptions and role descriptions do not tell the whole story. Images, models and analogies will often communicate more effectively than definitions and descriptions. From the people interviewed, from reading, and from reflection on the relationship of the Senior and Executive Pastors, a number of such comparisons emerged.

Challenges of Being a Pastor

E. Mansell Pattison in his excellent little book, Pastor and Parish—A Systems Approach, says that one of the most frustrating experiences for the pastor in this age is the expectation of being competent in many areas, traditionally pastoral roles, where the pastor is now expected to compete with secular specialists—counseling, social work, education, community organization, etc. Pattison (page 50) suggests that rather than compete by becoming a narrow specialist oneself or trying to meet the expectation by being all things to all people, the pastor needs to see him or herself as, a shepherd of systems.

The pastor functions to nurture and guide the subsystems of the church. The pastoral role is determined by the pastor’s systemic identity. For pastors, doing and being go together. And pastoral care of the church as a living system.

He goes on to describe shepherding as substantially leadership, and lists seven qualities of leadership necessary to system shepherding. I like the concept for pastors in general and am convinced that it is even more applicable to the Executive Pastor role. The Executive Pastor is, to a significant degree, the shepherd of the systems of the church. It is a role that is shared with the Senior Pastor, especially since symbolizing is on