Over the summer, I hit a new mile marker in my leadership coaching by working with my 50th SP-XP team. I have had the privilege to spend time in thirteen states, nine denominations, and churches of all sizes. Besides having a nice collection of mini-shampoos, I also have some insights on clear patterns and common challenges that most teams struggle with.

The well functioning SP-XP relationship can be described as a leadership highway that has three lanes. Lane #1 is the primary focus and responsibility of the Senior Pastor. Lane #3 is the primary focus and responsibility of the Executive Pastor. And finally, Lane #2 is the lane that they share as leaders.

Lane #2 is the most challenging to define and then to navigate in ministry. A working definition might be as follows: a set of ministry responsibilities that are most effectively managed as a team—meaning shared authority, responsibility, and shared accountability.

A unique challenge to the SP-XP relationship is that there are certain responsibilities that cannot be placed solely in Lane #1 (SP) or Lane #3 (XP). The truth is that both leaders need to contribute and be responsible for the outcome of certain aspects of the ministry.

For example, take the common challenge of hiring the right pastoral staff. Whose responsibility is it to see that it is done well? Or better, who of the two has the most emotion connected to seeing whether it is done well or not? The answer is usually both.

Many times, the organizational chart is used as a picture of assigning responsibilities and the authority required to fulfill various ministry assignments. However, this can be misleading when trying to understand why two pastors keep bumping into one another. Most org charts do not provide clarity on the shared responsibilities of the SP and XP.

Senior Pastors most commonly complain that they feel confused at times because they do not know what they can and cannot do in ministry because of the possibility of offending or disturbing the role of the XP.

Executive Pastors often complain that their SP won’t stay in his lane. They state that he often meddles in areas of ministry that are not his responsibility, which tends to cause a ministry traffic jam.

Either complaint is a signal that they have built and are using a two lane leadership highway. When I work with a team, we always start with a conversation around their description of how they operate and the type of highway they are using.

Lanes 1 and 3 are the easiest to describe by both the SP and the XP. However, where I usually find a breakdown is when they each make an attempt to explain the middle lane or the regular places in ministry when they both have a vested interest.

I usually put them in a room and start using the questions below to help discover where there might be some opportunities for improvement.

Question #1—Do you have clarity on each other’s leadership lane? Lanes 1 and 3?

Believe it or not, it is not uncommon for me to be at the marker board simply asking this question and find that there is some degree of confusion or disagreement on this first question. They usually agree on about 80% of one another’s list—but the remaining 20% is oftentimes problematic. Frequently, we spend several hours on this question alone.

The goal in answering this first question is to ensure that each leader has a clear understanding of one another’s primary responsibilities and an agreement to stay out of one another’s lanes.

Question #2—Do you have clarity on your shared responsibilities; Lane #2?

The answer to this question usually takes a little work. It can be difficult to work together to discover areas of ministry where the responsibility is shared.

In my experience I have found that it is in Lane #2 where most crashes (some minor and some major) occur in church life at the executive level.

More times than not, both the SP and the XP have a high capacity and ability to understand complex leadership issues. Therefore, both need to approach certain aspects of the ministry using a collaborative approach. This maximizes the talents, gifts, and passions of each pastor.

Most teams have never discussed this issue, let alone created a list of responsibilities that they mutually agree to approach and decide together. Lane #2 provides for a more realistic approach for the SP-XP team to work together and lead together.

The Length of the Relationship Plays a Role

When I work with a pair that is tenured, I often find that they have settled into their lanes and tend to overlook ministry growth opportunities that fall in Lane #2. Many times they live with a false assumption that the other guy is taking care of various ministry responsibilities—and many times they are not. Also, they tend to miss out on opportunities to experience higher levels of synergy that result from working as a team and sharing responsibilities. The “silo” effect is their challenge.

The younger/newer teams have the opposite problem. They tend to struggle to stay in their lanes and are consistently bumping into one another and causing minor crashes on a regular basis. After a while, they begin to tire of running into one another and wonder if they are ever going to make progress and experience a healthy working relationship.

Some Final Thoughts

I would encourage every SP-XP team to schedule a half day each quarter to review and discuss the three ministry lanes. Try to discuss these lanes as openly and honestly as possible. God uses all types of ministries and leaders to advance His kingdom. However, many are missing out on an opportunity to experience their true potential as a team and as a church because they do not have clarity on these three lanes. Share these thoughts with your ministry partner and see if you can become more effective moving down the ministry highway.