What is an Executive Pastor? Ten Brief Thoughts
When you look at most church websites, you’ll notice the typical roles of the pastoral staff. There’s the senior pastor who functions as the primary leader and preacher of the church. There’s the associate pastor whose role is fluid and pretty much does whatever the senior pastor needs. And more often than not, there are the various life stage pastors (Youth, College, etc.) that oversee a particular age group in the congregation.
However, one pastoral position that’s been gaining prominence in the church these days is the role of the executive pastor. According to Thom Rainer, the trend of executive pastors has been growing in Western churches for the past four decades. And while traditional pastoral roles have clearly defined expectations, “the role of executive pastors has been nebulous and changing.”
So what exactly is an executive pastor (XP)? How are they supposed to function in the church? And if you’re a pastor or church member, does your local church need an XP? Here are ten brief thoughts on this modern yet confusing role.
Note: Special thanks to Tim Beltz (Sojourn Network), Michael Lee (All Nations Church), and Jamie Dunlop (Capitol Hill Baptist Church) for pretty much providing all this information for me.
1. What is an Executive Pastor? From my understanding, the XP is a person on pastoral staff who oversees all the “executive work” of the church. This pretty much entails the organizational aspect of ministry (e.g. staff, budgets, facilities, ministries, etc.). This is supposed to free the senior pastor (SP) to focus on what he should probably be focusing on: preaching, praying, and vision-casting. So while the SP leads, the XP manages; the SP inspires, the XP organizes; the SP proposes, the XP implements.
One friend illustrated it this way: The church is like a ship. While the elders and senior pastor point to where the ship should be going, the XP tries to make sure the ship makes it to its destination.
2. The Role of the Executive Pastor Looks Different in Every Church. The role of the Executive Pastor looks different based upon the gifts and needs of the senior pastor that he’s working with. Below is a very helpful chart on how the XP role may look like depending on the SP that he is working for.
So if the SP’s main gift is vision-casting and teaching (like most SPs tend to be), then the XP needs to be more strategic and offer managerial support for your church. So a lot of the XP’s function actually depends on the gifts or desires that are lacking in the senior pastor.
3. What Executive Pastors Are Supposed to Do. From my understanding, true XPs are supposed to oversee all the executive work within the church. This includes overseeing staff, ministries, facilities, budgets, etc. This doesn’t mean he literally does everything; rather he oversees it. As a result, the XP ends up knowing more about what’s going on in the church than even the senior pastor.
Now if the the XP oversees facilities and ministries while the SP oversees staff, then I think they’re both functioning in the executive role. And I think this is fine if the SP wants to do this. But he needs to realize that he is also technically doing executive work, which makes things a little confusing.
4. A Lot of Churches Get the Executive Role Wrong. I think a lot of churches throw the label “Executive Pastor” around without really considering if this is really an XP role. For example, if your XP is mainly emailing people and taking care of logistics, he’s probably functioning like an administrator. If your XP is mainly overseeing your church’s volunteers, he’s probably functioning more like an operations pastor.
And nothing’s wrong with this. But you probably shouldn’t call him an XP because it’s a misapplied title. It’d be like calling someone an Education’s Pastor when they’re only overseeing the 1st graders. The title doesn’t match the role.
5. How to Tell If You’re a True Executive Pastor. Again, this role is fluid based upon the strengths of the SP, so the XP at one church may look different than the XP at another church. However, there are two things that I consistently see in churches with true XPs: a) The XP is overseeing staff b) The XP is in the elder meetings. If one of these two are missing, then I’m not sure if your XP is a true XP.
6. Why Asian Churches Don’t Have Executive Pastors. While most mainstream churches are starting to hire XPs, I don’t see many predominately Asian churches following this trend. Why so? Well, I think it’s largely because senior pastor’s are used to overseeing everything. The SP is supposed to lead, organize, oversee staff, meet with ministry leaders, etc. But are SPs really supposed to be doing all of this?
I think this is based more on our perception of what a SP ought to be doing rather than what a SP is supposed to be doing.
7. I Don’t Think Hiring an Executive Pastor is a Liberal Trend. I think some pastors and churches get scared of the idea of hiring an executive pastor. For some of us, this all sounds very business-like and the church isn’t supposed to be a business. And so when we see that it’s mainly megachurches that have XPs, our suspicions are heightened.
However, I think this is a somewhat ignorant way to look at the church. Yes, the church functions as the body of Christ. But let me ask you a question: does your church file taxes? If so, then it also functions as an business. Does your church receive tax breaks? If so, then it also functions as a non-profit. So yes, the church in its essence is a royal priesthood, a holy nation, etc. But in its context, the church functions as many other things. And this is where churches may need XPs.
8. Conservative Churches Have Executive Pastors. If you still don’t believe me and think that this is a flaming liberal trend that only church-growth tribes adopt, just know that John Piper hired an executive pastor. So did Mark Dever. And Tim Keller. While this shouldn’t validate the XP role, I think many of us will find this strangely comforting.
9. When the Executive Pastoral Role Goes Wrong. I think the XP role goes wrong when the church emphasizes the business-side of church over the spiritual side of it. How does this happen? Well, I think it’s most often seen in the type of XP they hire. If a church hires a businessman for this role because of his business background, then the church is probably losing sight of who they are.
Instead, churches should hire a pastor for this role because he brings a theological and shepherding element to this role. So yes, it’s nice if XPs know how to read financial statements. But I think it’s more important that they’re spiritual and aren’t just organizing but shepherding through their organization.
10. Not Every Church Should Have an Executive Pastor. By no means am I saying that every church should hire an executive pastor. In fact, some SPs probably shouldn’t have one because they’re fine without one or quite frankly too controlling to ever work with one. But man...some SPs desperately need a XP and can probably never move their church forward until they get or.
However, if a pastor or church does decide to create this position, I do think it’s helpful to know what you actually want from this position. After all, the XP is supposed to bring organization and clarity for your church. But if the XP’s role itself isn’t clear and organized, then you’re probably hindering his work before it even began.