I worked in the same church for 20 years, the bulk of that as the Executive Pastor. Those 20 years gave me a very diverse experience.
I served as an Executive Pastor in a small church – when we had less than 300 people. I also served as an Executive Pastor in a large church—when we were averaging more than 6,000 regular weekend attenders.
Through most my tenure, I served as an Executive Pastor in a growing church—when we averaged more than 23% growth per year for 15 years. But I also served as an Executive Pastor in a declining church—when we were losing more than 5% a year.
I served as an Executive Pastor when we were adding ministries and campuses and couldn’t keep up with hiring the right people. I also served at a time when we were laying off staff and cutting budgets.
For many years, my relationship with my Senior Pastor was incredibly healthy. We led together, vacationed together, and hung out together. I also served for a few years when my relationship with my Senior Pastor was really difficult. We weren’t seeing eye-to-eye, and no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t fix it.
There may be no more important of a relationship in the local church than that between a senior pastor and an executive pastor. If this relationship is humming, the church can thrive. If it’s not—then every aspect of the ministry and staff will feel the disconnect. A close ministry friend once explained it to me this way: Just like kids will sense if something isn’t right between mom and dad, every person on the team knows when something isn’t right between you and our senior pastor.
(Click here to read more about the Executive Pastor Coaching Network that I'll be leading this spring and the Lead Pastor Coaching Network led by my colleague, David Whiting.)
He was right. Over my tenure, I learned some things about how best to serve my senior pastor—both from my successes and my failures. I have also learned a great deal over the past two years as I travel from church to church working with senior and executive pastor teams.
If you are a senior or lead pastor, I believe there are 5 things your executive pastor needs from you:
1. Clarity. This is critical. If the executive pastor doesn’t know what you want, he can’t serve you very well. If you bring in ten ideas today, and a different ten ideas tomorrow, without any clarity on what is most important—you are going to frustrate your executive pastor. It’s okay to function in blue-sky thinking space, but occasionally you must land the plane if you don’t want to cycle through executive pastor’s every couple of years.
2. Authority. If you hired an executive pastor, but have difficulty letting them make decisions—perhaps you really should have hired an administrative assistant. An executive pastor who is wired like a high-functioning leader should be leading the team and making decisions. If they feel like they can’t make decisions without running it by you, they will get frustrated.
3. Loyalty. Once your executive pastor has been in place for a while and is leading the team on your behalf, he or she needs your support. That means there will be times when you’ll need to be visibly loyal to a decision that they made that you wouldn’t have made. Tell your executive pastor behind closed doors. In public, they must have your support.
4. Access. They need to have semi-regular time with you in order to hear your heart, know what’s going on in your head (it’s not as obvious as you think), and be able to lead on your behalf. Consider a weekly lunch meeting that is two-parts relational and one-part agenda-driven.
5. Spiritual Discernment. Your executive pastor needs you to be tuned in to where God is leading the church and the staff. They need you to have a strong marriage and be leading your family well. Your walk with God provides a rudder for the church and the leadership team. Without it, insecurity is introduced into the system and it makes it very difficult to move forward. This is expected from all leaders, but is modeled at the highest levels.
Next week I’ll focus on the 5 Things Every Senior Pastor Needs from the Executive Pastor.
Credit: Doug Slaybaugh was an executive pastor at Saddleback Church for many years. Now he spends his time with the Paterson Center helping leaders focus on what is important in their churches and in their personal lives. We recently spent some time together talking about the critical nature of the relationship between the senior pastor and executive pastor. It is from that conversation that I wrote this article.