What’s It Like to be a Lead Pastor?
I always found it interesting how Christian couples are adamant about taking pre-marital counseling and even pre-engagement counseling but don’t care to think about taking pre-parenting counseling. Even though life definitely changes when you go from being single to being married, I think it changes far more drastically when you go from being married to being a parent.
I have similar feelings when it comes to being a lead pastor. You see, there’s a lot of material out there when it comes to becoming a pastor. However, these all seemed to be aimed at young Christians who are thinking about entering seminary. In other words, it’s like premarital counseling. But what happens when you transition to be a lead pastor?
This is a question I’ve personally had recently. A few months ago, I transitioned from an associate ministry to begin a new chapter in the lead role. This was a crazy turn of events that will one day make for a fun, interesting story to write about. During this season, I’ve discovered that this transition is far more challenging than anything I’ve ever experienced. But like parenting, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of material out there explaining what this transition is like.
So what’s it like being a lead pastor? More specifically, what’s it like transitioning from an associate role to the lead role? My perspective is limited, but here are some brief thoughts on what I’ve learned so far.
1) The Best and Worst Part About Being a Lead Pastor. The best part about being a lead pastor is probably the freedom to establish the vision and culture that you feel God has given for the church. The worst part about being a lead pastor is not the work itself but the mental burden that comes with the role. I heard of lead pastors who can’t sleep at night because they feel so burdened about the church. Before, I never really understood this. Now, I get it.
2) It’s Difficult Knowing How to Relate to Others. The lead pastor role often puts you at arms length from the rest of the congregation. They may feel a little more hesitant on what they can share with you, and you may feel a little more hesitant on what you can share with them. On the one hand, you want to live out the gospel by being vulnerable. But on the other hand, how much can you share without being discouraging? How far can you joke without hindering? It’s a delicate dance that I’m sure leaves a lot of lead pastors to die a slow death of loneliness.
3) You Can’t Be Niche Anymore. There’s a reason why fans loved Joey Tribbiani in Friends but didn’t bother to watch him when he had his own show Joey. On Friends, he was that entertaining friend whom you could absorb every once in a while. But to follow him as the main character on a show? He’s just not relatable enough.
As a youth or associate pastor, you can be “the theologian” or “the cultural critic”; in fact, you probably need a niche to help bring balance to your church. However, as the lead pastor, you can’t be as niche anymore; otherwise, your church will become niche. You have to learn to become a generalist that speaks to the masses. It’s a difficult, underrated transition that I don’t think many pastors realize they need to overcome.
4) Preaching Every Week Can Be Surprisingly Depressing. Preaching is great, but I realize preaching every week leaves you quite vulnerable. You’re not only getting spiritually attacked, but you’re regularly putting your heart and soul before the congregation. “Did the message make sense? Were people blessed? Should I have approached it differently?” When you face questions like this once a month, you’re able to recover in a timely way. But when you face this almost every week, it carries an emotional toll.
5) Other Lead Pastors Have Been Amazingly Helpful. One of the biggest surprises I’ve experienced as a lead pastor is how supportive and helpful other lead pastors have been. From pastors of small churches to presidents of large Christian networks, literally every lead pastor I’ve reached out to have made time for me and were willing to share their resources. Perhaps they empathize because they know what this role is like, but I’ve been blown away by how gracious other lead pastors have been.
6) There Are a Lot of Random Things Lead Pastors Need to Learn. What items should be on a staff agenda? What legal bylaws are non-profit organizations supposed to have? What’s proper compensation for a part-time employee? How should you do performance reviews? What kind of insurance should your church have? What are the best apps to conduct a background check on volunteers?
Wait, they didn’t teach you this in seminary? Yeah, me neither.
7) Lead Pastors Need Constant Encouragement. In his book Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon warned how the main reason pastors leave the pastorate is because they tend to get overwhelmed with discouragement. I felt this before. Now, I totally experience it. To be “discouraged” is to literally “lose courage.” I equate it to a diver losing oxygen. You lose enough of it and you’ll slowly drown. And that’s where lead pastors need people to “encourage” (“give courage”) them. It’s like giving them oxygen to keep swimming.
Personally, I will never forget this one member at my church who seemed to make it a point to come up and thank me every Sunday for the sermon or something happening at church. I’d nod and thank her in a calm, nonchalant way, but she had no idea how much her words breathed courage into my heart every week. Encouragements matter.
8) What Discourages Lead Pastors the Most. I learned very shortly that the most discouraging thing a lead pastor experiences is when a member leaves the church. It hurts when they leave for good reasons (“I’m moving out of state”). It really hurts when they leave for bad reasons (“Oh, I just want to check out other churches”). But no matter the reason, every departure is a punch to the gut.
9) You Learn to be More Gracious to Other Lead Pastors. Jesus once said, “For with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Mt 7:2). I’m now convinced that when Jesus said this, He had associate pastors in mind. As an associate, you sometimes wonder why certain lead pastors do things a certain way. But as one author writes, “Be prepared to eat crow for all the critical, quickly arrived at, ungracious feelings and words you had toward the upper leadership.” You cant help but show more empathy and grace towards the shortcomings of other lead pastors and repent of past criticisms.
10) How You End Your Ministry is Far More Important Than How You Begin It. I’ve learned it’s way easier to start and grow a church than it is to sustain one and keep it healthy. That’s why it’s far more common to see a young, gifted pastor starting a new hip church than it is to see an older, godly pastor transitioning out of a thriving one.
Therefore, I’m learning why the Bible describes the Christian life as a “walk,” not a run; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Pastors need to pace themselves not for three years of ministry but for the next thirty years. And while I know it’s only the grace of God that will sustain me, I want to do all I can to help ensure the end of our church’s story will be far more glorious than the beginning.