The following is a dissertation written by a Senior Pastor. To aid in making the information more readable on the web, the footnotes have been removed. To view footnotes, tables, appendices and the bibliography, please view the PDF found beneath the article.

Chapter One

From a human perspective the outcome of the redemptive drama being played out on planet Earth will be determined by how well church leaders lead. —Bill Hybels, Courageous Leadership

Leadership works best when it is provided by teams of gifted leaders serving together in pursuit of a clear and compelling vision. —George Barna, The Power of Team Leadership


Living and confessing churches are clear in their purpose. To the glory of God they obey His command in mission: make disciples, mature them, and get them to repeat the process of evangelism, discipleship, and reproduction. Whatever the local church uses for a mission statement, if they are serious about biblical ministry, these mandates are held to, at least in theory if not in practice. They expect their leaders to support and direct them into fruitful mission. Senior pastors are key influencers in this process.

The senior pastor is an accepted icon in the multiple-staff church. The executive pastor, on the other hand, often meets with a quizzical, “What does he do?” On the church scene for over twenty years, there is still no common definition or job description for the executive pastor, nor is it universally accepted that an “executive pastor” is biblically permissible. The meaning of the title ranges from church business administrator to traditional assistant pastor to a full senior associate pastor. Various leadership and relational analogies have been used to try to explain this executive pastor officer. Most executive pastor positions have come to exist through church travail, and their job descriptions have been invented from within the organization.

This exploratory study seeks to contribute to a growing but limited body of literature dealing with the particular church leadership team comprised of a senior and an executive pastor (SPEP). Specifically, the focus of this study is the contextual and relational factors involved in legitimate creation and maintennance of an effective SPEP team. Church environments and leadership giftings and limitations, are factors in the deployment of this paradigm for team leadership. The unique relationship between these two senior leaders is critical to the local church’s vision implementation, operational success, and overall satisfaction.

Leadership experts agree that working relationships either enhance or diminish personal and organizational health. “Leaders are enriched in terms of what they can accomplish through the quality of relationships they have developed with each other,” says leadership researcher, Bruce Avolio. Consequently, the quality of the working relationship between the senior pastor and the executive pastor is vital to the success of the team, and also to the team’s potential to successfully shepherd, lead, and manage the growing church. The present study is designed to discover the contextual factors and relational dynamics at work around and within the SPEP team.

This study presents findings from four focus groups conducted in four different cities in the United States (one city from each of the Western, Southern, Midwestern, and Northeastern regions). The groups were comprised of executive pastors from large churches, i.e., with attendance in the range of 1,000, to around 5,000. Phone interviews with the corresponding senior pastors were conducted, as well as supplemental interviews with several high-profile executive pastors from around the country.

This chapter provides an overview of the study. A brief review of the problems that led to the rise of the SPEP team, the specific purpose of the study, and the primary research questions are presented. The significance of this study’s contribution is given, along with definitions of terms, and a brief overview of the remaining chapters.

Statement of the Problem

As churches in America grew and added staff, the senior pastor suddenly became the chief of staff, chief fund raiser, mentor and coach, and he just ran out of steam. And so churches experimented with associate pastors to help, but that just didn’t work. What those churches needed was a point person who was responsible for managing and leading the whole church.

As the church grapples with growth, appropriate systems are needed to manage the congregation’s ministry. Spiritual leaders with management skills are in demand. The executive pastor is a solution that churches are increasingly utilizing. Whereas executive pastors were once an underground movement, David Fletcher, in an interview on the subject of the executive pastor, comments, “I think things are changing now. The position has been accepted.” Churches have launched this contemporary team leadership paradigm, with or without clear guidelines for it or knowledge about it.

There are several compelling reasons for the present study. Overburdened senior pastors and inadequate church leadership structures will continue to give rise to solutions such as the SPEP team. There is insufficient extant knowledge about the SPEP team. Especially of interest, there is a research gap regarding the contextual factors and relational dynamics affecting the viability of this paradigm.

The problem facing the typical senior pastor of a successful ministry results from the growth which occurs because of his faithful labor. Inevitably, problems arise: ever-growing expectations are often unintentionally placed upon him; burnout or a sense of inadequacy moves in; and the church, in need of leadership, plateaus. Dr. Fletcher’s interviewer comments,

It is no secret that pastors of large and growing churches are overburdened with tremendous pressures, and the executive pastor, according to Fletcher, serves as a gatekeeper and helps relieve stress on the senior pastor so they can focus on what they do best—preaching, teaching and casting vision.

Here the pressure results from a limitation of gifts, abilities, and capacities in relation to the growing size or systems of the church. One church leadership researcher who works with executive pastors through Leadership Network puts it this way:

What’s driving this issue at your church? At the root, there are two basic, interwoven answers. Growth and/or pain. The system has outgrown the team as it is currently structured and gifted. Staff, whether Senior Pastor or other team members, is feeling the stress. Often the board makes note of this and wonders: Is there another way? Also, it is usually a Senior Pastor’s initiative to seek a solution such as an Executive Pastor.

One contributor to the tension is the gift mix of most senior pastors. Christian researcher George Barna has discovered that while 69% of the pastors of effective churches have preaching/teaching as their primary gift emphasis, administration and leadership are found in only 15% of these pastors. The result is that these churches tend to supplement this lack with a gifted leader.

Some churches seek to meet this vital need for leadership by the creative development of a split pastoral office: the SPEP team. The strategic delegation of a large part of what was traditionally the senior pastor’s role to another faithful leader can “save” the senior pastor from being overtaxed, return to him the time and energy he needs to invest in his primary tasks, and bring about a healthier direction and accountability for the ministries of the church. The importance of complementing the senior pastor has been found to be a recurring theme in studies of executive pastors. Wes Kiel, in one of the few circulated unpublished papers on this subject, comments about the executive pastor’s job description:

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.

Compensating for the senior pastor’s weaknesses or limitations is critical. Most senior pastors initially sense the call of God to shepherd, and especially to teach the word. If they are successful in these areas and God sovereignly blesses, growth will occur, bringing with it a management crisis. An appropriate organizational mechanism is crucial if a growing church is to break through this growth barrier to her mission of fruitful ministry in the world. Is there biblical warrant for the SPEP team model? Theologians agree that there is room for creative structural forms within the general framework of Scripture. This application of delegated authority and oversight is consistent with the principle behind the New Testament diakonos, whose role was to bring relief to the elders’ workload.

This contemporary paradigm has been illustrated by various analogies, one of which is that of a marriage. The home is managed by two leaders, sharing the load with differing roles, with one carrying the ultimate responsibility for the leadership office (the senior pastor). This allusion to marriage, referenced by both ecclesiastical and marketplace writers, illustrates the power, trust, and community involved in the best of SPEP teams. This team has also been referred to as a “leadership couple.”

It becomes obvious, then, that the position of executive pastor is entrusted with a lot of responsibility and a great deal of power. The senior pastor shares power and authority in the fullest sense to enable the executive role to truly work. If he does share it, the executive pastor must be a faithful steward of that trust. Therefore, to be effective, the SPEP team needs to be highly relational. Further, the church must be ready to follow this contemporary design in staffing. Poor choices in motives, gifting, personalities, and timing could easily contribute to the failure of such a team, and consequently create loss for the church of God.

In summary, though the executive pastor’s role may appear unclear to many parishioners, his deployment is a reality in many of America’s megachurches. This need-driven office is particularly connected to the abilities of the traditional primary leader of the church’s staff, the senior pastor. The executive pastor’s role is to fill in the management side of the pastoral office to ensure the accomplishment of the church’s mission while avoiding overtaxing the senior pastor.

Statement of the Purpose

In an effort to effectively lead the people of God in the fulfillment of their God-given mission in the face of church growth and cultural change, larger churches are increasingly deploying this contemporary paradigm for senior leadership. Currently, there are only a few guidelines for doing so. With the critical need for church leaders to guide their congregations into successful kingdom advancement, and with the team ministry model having support in Scripture, the SPEP team paradigm is vital to the effectiveness of the church of Christ in fulfilling her mission. David Fletcher’s study proved his hypothesis via multiple case studies confirming that, “there is a functional need for an Executive Pastor to facilitate policy and vision implementation in Elder-led churches and that the position of Executive Pastor administers a church government that represents Christ and His teaching.”

The purpose of this study is to add to the knowledge base regarding the executive pastor. It explores the factors, contextual and relational, that make for a legitimate and successful SPEP experience. Drawing from the actual experiences of executive pastors reported in focus group interview settings, and supplemental interviews with their senior pastors and several other high-profile executive pastors, this study seeks to discover: How did the executive pastor office evolve? When is it appropriate for a church to move to an SPEP leadership team model? What are the core spiritual, attitudinal, and pastoral- administrative competencies? What is the job description, and what adaptations were made? What are the “rules of marriage,” the relational boundaries and overlaps of each team member’s domain? What are the primary causes of success or failure for the senior pastor and the executive pastor in their work? Is there evidence among senior pastors and their executives that the team model has been a success?

There has been little formal literature directly addressing the office of the executive pastor (EP) until the present year, 2004, which saw significant research on this subject. Nor is there any published manual on the philosophy of ministry or guidelines for executive pastors. Wes Kiel’s unpublished work, referenced earlier, comes the closest to this. While job descriptions for executive pastors continue to evolve, the essentials appear to include: supporting the senior pastor in the implementation of the church’s vision and being accountable directly to him; overseeing the functioning of the church staff (or at least part of the staff); and helping formulate and administrate the strategic plan for the church (which might include financial management). Can we confirm the validity, main functions, and essential relational dynamics of this office?