A Seat at the Table


I love my job.

Almost every day I get to sit across the table from pastors and church leaders. I hear about their dreams. I listen to their stories. We talk about what’s next for their families.

Many of them are meeting with me because they’re considering leaving their church. They are thinking about moving to another ministry opportunity. There are many reasons I hear:

I need a new challenge.

I feel like my ministry season is finished here.

We want to move closer to family.

But there is one common theme. I hear it over and over. And it comes from leaders of all stripes:

I just want to have a seat at the table.

Influence. That is what they want. They usually have a lot of responsibility over a specific area. They typically feel very trusted to lead, as long as they stay in their lane. They may even get paid well for what they do. But what they desire is an opportunity to influence the entire church.

When the big decisions are made, the door is closed and they are not in the room. They don’t get to weigh in on the discussions that determine which direction the church as a whole is going.

I met with a campus pastor who said, “I lead a campus with 1,000 people. I marry and bury and lead a team of ten staff and 250 volunteers. But when the executive team gets together to decide what series we are going to launch for Easter, or whether we should start another venue—I’m not trusted to be in those conversations."

A student pastor said to me, “I take hundreds of kids to camp, keep them alive, introduce them to Jesus, pour into scores of leaders, but my voice isn’t heard when it comes to directional decisions at the church. I need to find a church where I can have a seat at the table.”

I know what you are thinking. There are only so many seats at the table. If everyone who wanted a seat at the table got what they wanted—we’d have so many people in the discussion that we’d never get anything done.

This isn’t an easy problem to solve, is it? If there were an easy answer, it wouldn’t be such a hot-button issue. But from my experience being at the table for many years, and being outside the room for a few—as well as hundreds of conversations with pastors and church leaders—I believe there is room for most our churches and organizations to grow, and this applies to every organization, not just churches and pastors.

Whether you call this your Executive Team, or Senior Leadership Team, or Directional Leadership Team, or even if it has no name—there are some things you should consider…

  • If you don’t have a table, you need one. In other words, if the Senior Pastor or CEO makes all the decisions and doesn’t have a team around him or her—then you need to develop a senior leadership team. You have no idea the value you are missing by not having people around the table with you.

  • There are some people who shouldn’t be at your table. Many times, you have someone at your table who is only there because they have been around a long time. They aren’t contributing much of value. In fact, they are kind of dead weight. You actually look forward to getting things done when they are not in attendance. Make a change. Fix that. Your cause is too important to be walking with a limp.

  • You can’t let everyone in who wants a seat at the table. I get it – it’s not practical to expand the table based on those who wish they could be there. However, you should always be thinking about leadership development. And one way to develop leaders is to pull them close around other leaders. I worked with a church that has five on their leadership team, with two others who rotate through—just so they can continually develop new leaders.

  • You have to figure out how to give influence to great leaders who can’t fit around your table. You may need to create some significant alternative tables where high-level staff has voice and influence. Example: As a church, if you have nine locations, it probably doesn’t make sense to add nine campus pastors to your executive team. But, perhaps you can create another key time each week when the campus pastors spend time speaking into decisions and in close proximity to the senior pastor and executive team.
  • You must accept you will lose great leaders because your table size is limited. That is a fact of life. You may have rising leaders with no place to go. There is a lid on their leadership at your church or organization because the seat they could occupy at the table is already filled. Sometimes you can fix that. Sometimes you can’t.
  • Be honest! If you know you have a rising leader with a lid on his or her leadership, let them know! Tell them they will likely not be able to use their gifts to the fullest with you—and give them space to look for a place to use them elsewhere. Lend them your credibility and networks to help them find a ministry where their gifts can be maximized.
  • If the people around your table all look the same, it probably needs to change. You may have all men, and it would benefit you to bring some women to the table. You may have all staff members who have been on the team a long time—and you should consider bringing some newer blood to the table. You may have all 50+ year olds, and you may need some younger leaders around the table. Diversity is a positive!  

And to those who I meet every week who are wishing they could have a seat at the table…

  • You need to earn the right to have a seat at the table. Sometimes I’m talking to a 24-year-old leader at a large church who can’t understand why he doesn’t yet have a seat at the table. To you I would say—wait. Be faithful. Be patient. Do the next right thing. Build your credibility. Be a learner. Do everything you can to add value to those around you. Lift the weight off the shoulders of those who are at the table. Live a life with integrity. Grow your ministry area—and eventually God will broaden your influence.

  • Have a conversation. After you have served for a few years, pray for the opportunity to talk to your lead pastor or CEO and have the “seat at the table” conversation. Ask whether they see leadership qualities in you that would be necessary to have a seat at the table someday? Ask if they believe you are still growing in your leadership and influence, or if they believe you’ve reached your capacity. Share your dreams and ambitions—and ask whether they see those dreams being possible in this context. That conversation—at the right time and with the right people—could go miles in helping you find peace and direction.

  • It’s okay to leave. A few years ago, Henry Cloud wrote a book called Necessary Endings. In summary, some things are meant to end, and that’s okay. Bill Hybels wrote a book called Holy Discontent– sometimes God begins working a dream within you that comes out in discontent with your current surroundings or structures. That doesn’t mean the stimulant is wrong. Maybe God is using that to take you to a new place. Your leadership capacity may never be realized in your current context. You can leave with your head held high, with a good attitude, and without saying anything negative about your current environment—and lean into what’s next.

In summary—if you are the keeper of the table, consider some of these changes so you can keep high-capacity leaders around longer. And if you are one who wishes you had a seat at the table—don’t let it turn into bitterness. Lean into that desire, check it for pride, consider whether you are ready, and then have a conversation with someone about what could be next.

Adapted from an article I originally wrote for Vanderbloemen on 9/27/17.