Friday, November 14, 2008

Executive or Pastor - In Times of Economic Turmoil

One recurring theme as I’ve talked to executive pastors lately is, “How are you budgeting for 2009 in light of the current economic uncertainty?” The other day, however, the question took a little different shape. One of my friends is preparing a flat budget and a contingency case with a significant cut. He asked, “What’s the difference between how we handle this and the way it’s done in the corporate world? Where’s the spiritual dimension?”

To be perfectly honest, I fumbled for an answer. At the church-wide level, it’s clear that our external communications (with church members and the community as a whole) should be very different. Our security and hope is not in the things of this world, a refrain that many pastors have declared in recent weeks. But for those of us whose primary responsibility is the internal operations and management the question remains: What’s different in the way we handle a financial downturn?

Now that I’ve had more time to reflect, here’s what I would tell my friend:

1. Be faithful and pragmatic. Jesus taught us to have faith, but he also taught about shrewd managers. To me, this means that we can’t approach our finances in blissful ignorance of the economy, because that would be foolishness. Neither should we panic, because God will provide for our needs.

2. Be a good steward. Whatever we’ve been entrusted with should be spent wisely for Kingdom purposes. If we have to cut programs, the pruning should focus on the areas that are not bearing fruit or that have the least long-term potential. This also means that we must have clarity within the leadership team about what our core programs/ministries are.

3. “Rainy day” funds don’t impact eternity. Many churches have an endowment or some other contingency fund. I won’t get into the broader debate about this, but you might consider the “parable of the rich fool” in Luke 12:16ff. For now, I will say that if a financial shortfall threatens a core ministry, it’s time to dip into these accounts.

4. Demonstrate compassion toward staff. One of the biggest differences in the church versus the corporation should be the way we treat our employees. If reductions are necessary for financial reasons, we should treat people with love and dignity. This may include more generous severance packages, longer time for transitions, or other creative arrangements.

5. Rediscover hidden parts of the body. In boom times, some churches may have filled roles with paid people because it was easier or more reliable than using volunteers. God may have just the talent we need sitting in the pews.

We may not be able to escape a certain degree of a business mindset when we’re looking over a spreadsheet and making hard decisions about how to allocate (or cut) funds. If that discourages us, we should remember that a corporation can’t call its constituents together for prayer or expect everyone to make sacrifices for the sake of a higher calling or have confidence that God is in control.

So how do you respond to the question?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Executive or Pastor?

It recently occurred to me that the executive pastor title may actually be a cause of stress. (Even if you don’t have the title, others like me may function as an executive pastor without the title, so keep reading.) How can a title cause stress? The tension arises as we try to decide whether to lean toward the executive or the pastor side of our job.

On the executive side, we’re running the operations, managing people, and making things happen. When there’s a financial shortfall, we’re figuring out where to cut. When a staff member under-performs, we’re giving clear feedback or sometimes letting someone go. When a new ministry is being launched, we’re thinking through the details that will enable it to succeed. And if we’re not careful, it will feel like we’re running a business rather than a Kingdom-minded enterprise.

On the pastor side, we’re caring for people or teaching God’s Word or “equipping the saints” to serve in areas that fit their gifts and passions. In a church that is large enough to have an executive pastor, there are endless opportunities to jump in and “do” ministry. And if we’re not careful, we may fill our schedules with these ministries, only to miss the more strategic opportunities that will help the entire organization function more effectively.

Those who come to an executive pastor role from the business realm need to quickly learn that their valuable skills must be adapted to be effective. The church cannot be run just like a business. Those who come into the role as trained clergy must acknowledge that business has valuable lessons to offer and that their leadership repertoire probably needs to be broadened.

Regardless of your background or how you came into the role, it’s important to understand the tension. In many ways, anyone in congregational leadership needs to wrestle with the question of executive or pastor? Those who are most successful will not choose one over the other, but will blend the two into a both/and solution. I’ll explore some specific applications in future blogs. For now, where do you most feel this tension?

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Sticky Church

It’s hard to argue with a church that has experienced phenomenal growth and that has a sustained 80% rate of participation in small groups. If the senior pastor writes a book about how they’ve made small groups work, it’s worth noting. And that’s the case with Larry Osborne of North Coast Church and his new book, Sticky Church.

Osborne writes in a very readable, conversational style (with a good dose of humor and cynicism). He makes a compelling case for their philosophy of “sermon-based small groups” in the first half of the book. The second half is the nuts-and-bolts of how North Coast puts it into practice. He talks about what a “fly on the wall” would observe in a group meeting, how leaders are recruited and trained, how groups are formed, and more. I especially liked the chapter “Why Cho’s Model Didn’t Work in Your Church,” which helped me understand several things I’ve seen in churches that have struggled to make their groups work.

So what’s not to like? Two things bothered me as I read Sticky Church. I’m a detailed person, and even the practical second part of the book left some questions unanswered for me. I would have appreciated a little more “here’s how we deal with this obstacle” instruction, particularly if I were using this as a textbook for launching or retooling groups. More importantly, I kept thinking, “There must be something more than sermon-based small groups fueling North Coast’s success.” I suspect that culture, leadership, and the worship experience, among other things, are critical factors, but these are downplayed in the book. In his emphasis on small groups, Osborne creates the impression that a pastor with below average preaching and leadership skills can have a dynamic church using this playbook.

Despite this critique, Sticky Church reminded me of a lesson from another great leadership book. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, talks about the hedgehog and the flywheel. The hedgehog concept calls us to keep it simple and focus on one thing we can do extremely well. The flywheel principle argues against looking for a “miracle moment,” asserting that success comes from steadily and relentlessly pushing in a consistent direction. Ultimately, North Coast’s results are clear evidence of these two concepts coming to life. We would all do well to pay attention.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Miserable in the Second Chair?

Not long after the release of Leading from the Second Chair, I found myself deep in a conversation with a struggling executive pastor. Even though he wasn’t failing, he felt like a failure. He had been very successful in other church staff roles, but he wasn’t sure what success looked like in his new role. When I read Patrick Lencioni’s Three Signs of a Miserable Job, I thought back to this executive pastor and many of the other second chair leaders I have met over the last several years.

Lencioni’s three signs – anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurement – are often experienced by executive pastors. Furthermore, for those who have served in other roles in ministry or in business, the trajectory may point in the wrong direction as they make the transition to the second chair. Consider someone who has spent several years as a youth minister. He or she has deep relationships with students and parents, experiences the joy of being part of the students growing in their faith, and can see progress in the ministry over time. In other words, they may suffer from none of the signs of a miserable job.

Fast forward a few years and the same person is serving in an executive pastor role. Because the work is behind the scenes, the opportunities for meaningful relationships are more limited. And because much of their job is managing others, there is little they can point to as the direct result of their ministry. While other staff members are celebrating the success of a program or transformation in someone’s life, this second chair sits in silence. It’s a position that lends itself to anonymity, irrelevance, and immeasurement.

So what should you do if you’re an executive pastor or church business administrator or anyone else who struggles with these circumstances? For starters, realize the ways that you contribute to the overall success of the organization. You may not be able to specifically point to the six teens that were baptized this summer, but you helped hire that youth minister, coached him to succeed, and marshaled the needed resource for his program. And that was just one of the people you managed.

You can also look for new ways to define and measure success. Lencioini’s fable highlights several jobs that would seem to be textbook examples of irrelevance and immeasurement, and he shows that even these roles don’t have to be miserable. The key is to find the right indicators. In your second chair role, what are your unique contributions? How can you track your effectiveness along these dimensions?

Of course, the most powerful solution is to find our reward in the Lord (see my earlier post). But given our human nature, it won’t hurt to acknowledge and address some of the underlying causes of misery.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Three Signs of a Miserable Job

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything I’ve read from Patrick Lencioni, and have found practical uses for what I’ve learned in each book. But for some reason, his latest book sat in my “waiting to be read” stack for several months. Maybe I was afraid that I’d learn that my job was miserable or that I was making others miserable in the way I managed them! I won’t comment on the misery index for me or them, but I will say that I’m glad that I read Three Signs.

Lencioni addresses the issue of why so many people are unhappy and unfulfilled in their jobs. And more importantly, he asks what managers can do to change this. As in his other books, Lencioni uses a fable to present his concepts. And as in his previous work, the concepts are quite simple but have far-reaching implications.

So what are the three signs? The first is anonymity, which is the absence of someone in the workplace (preferably a “boss”) who takes a personal interest in you. Next is irrelevance, which is the inability to see clearly how the work you do is making a meaningful contribution. And last is “immeasurement,” the result of working without clearly defined targets over which you have some control.

Lencioni makes a compelling argument that even people in low paying or seemingly menial jobs can enjoy work if their manager pays attention to these three factors. He also contends that CEO’s, professional athletes and other highly successful people are often miserable because they lack one or more of these key needs.

The book has huge implications for those of us who manage other people, both paid staff and volunteers. For example, do you really know what is going on in the lives of the staff members and key leaders in your church or do your conversations focus on the task at hand? Does the person doing a seemingly insignificant job – entering data, greeting people at the door, changing a dirty diaper – see how his or her work is an important part of a Kingdom-minded enterprise?

Three Signs also gave me some new insights into the struggles of “second chair leaders,” which I’ll address in my next blog. Even thought I’ve “given away” the three signs, you really should read Lencioni’s book to understand how to apply these principles and make sure that you’re not making other miserable!

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Reward of His Presence

In my previous blog, I reviewed Ruth Haley Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. One idea that resonated very deeply for me came from the chapter entitled “The Loneliness of Leadership.”

Throughout the book, Barton follows the story of Moses. In this chapter, she focuses on his conversation with the Lord after the people made the golden calf (Ex. 33:12-23). The key in verse 15 when Moses says, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.”

I remember seeing this passage with fresh eyes a year ago as I was leading a planning process for a congregation. At the time, I focused on the corporate aspect of Moses’ request: do not send us up from here. Clearly, Moses was interceding with God on behalf of the people, but Barton shows a very personal side to this request as well:
What he [Moses] needed now was an experience of God’s goodness, his graciousness and mercy. All of a sudden this was more important to him than any promised land he had ever dreamed of (p. 158).

She goes on to say:
This is a pivotal moment in the life of a leader. It is the moment when whatever the promised land is for us – a church of a certain size, a new ministry, a new building, writing a book, being sought out as an expert – pales in significance when compared with our desire for God. At this point we might realize that we are missing the presence of God for ourselves personally. … there is no promised land we could ever envision that matters nearly as much as the presence of God in our life right here and right now (p. 158-159).

The question for me, and for you, is: do we really believe this? How have I defined the “promised land” in my life and ministry? Am I prioritizing earthly accomplishments for God over my relationship with Him? When I feel frustrated, is it because I’ve put too much emphasis on short-term goals and too little on abiding in Christ (John 15:5-8)?

It’s clear that God gives each of us work to do (Eph. 2:10) and that we are to do it to the best of our abilities. But the next time that I’m feeling beaten up, despite giving it my best, I’m going to try to rejoice in the reward of God’s presence.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership

During the long, hot summers in Texas, I often need the refreshment of a big glass of cold water. And that’s exactly what Ruth Haley Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership offers to the leader who needs to be recharged. (Even if you don’t think you do, keep reading!)

“Strengthening the soul of our leadership is an invitation that begins, continues and ends with seeking God in the crucible of ministry.” These words from the final chapter summarize the central theme of the book. The chapters leading up to it paint a compelling picture of the fruitfulness and joy of leading from a healthy soul that is focused on God, and the risks of soul-less leadership in ministry.

Barton follows the story of Moses through chapters with titles such as “When Leaders Lose Their Souls,” “The Practice of Paying Attention,” “Living Within Limits,” “The Loneliness of Leadership,” and “Finding God’s Will Together.” She talks about her own journey, including struggles and victories. At times she challenges the reader to take stock and at other times she offers practical advice for refilling our souls. And at the end of each chapter, she offers a “practice” that will help readers to reflect on and apply the teaching they’ve just read.

I’m not one to read with a highlighter in hand, but within the first few pages I found myself thinking, “Oh, that’s good,” and marking a couple of sentences for future references. I kept going back to the highlighter as Barton kept taking me to places deep in my spirit with quotes such as:

There is real tension between what the human soul needs in order to be truly well and what life in leadership encourages and even requires.

If spiritual leadership is anything, it is the capacity to see the bush burning in the middle of our own life and having enough sense to turn aside, take off our shoes and pay attention!

Being this reliant on God for the actual outcome of things is a very edgy way to lead. We are much more accustomed to relying partly on God and partly on our own plans and thoughts if the issues at hand are really important.

As satisfying as teamwork can be, spiritual people who come together to lead churches or organizations with a spiritual purpose have a deeper calling – we are called to move beyond teamwork to spiritual community and to have our leadership emerge from that place.

At times Barton’s words were a needed wake-up call and at other times they were a source of refreshment. I’m thankful for both, and I’m sure that you will be as well if you read Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Good or Great

It’s been fun to watch Michael Phelps swim in the 2008 Summer Olympics. We’ve run out of superlatives to describe his performance. He is truly a great athlete. But the thought that struck me this week is that for every gold medal winning Olympian, there are hundreds of good athletes who fall short of greatness.

There are lots of reasons for this, including a less favorable genetic make-up or fewer opportunities to excel. In many cases, however, another factor comes into play. As Jim Collins says in Good to Great, “good is the enemy of great.” How often has an athlete achieved early success due to a combination of raw talent and competitive drive, but somewhere along the way found this wasn’t enough. Continued success at higher levels of competition required a discipline and sacrifice that he or she was unwilling to make. One of the oft repeated statements about Phelps is that he doesn’t do anything but swim, eat and sleep. Everyone admires his commitment, but many athletes who are simply good fail to emulate it.

And so it often is in our spiritual lives and our leadership practices. We experience some measure of “success” – whether that’s spiritual or organizational growth or some other milestone – but we fall short of the “next level.” When we reflect, if we ever make the time to do so, we may discover that “good” has been the enemy of “great.” We agree to lead or participate in another Bible study, but find that our souls are not being nourished by spending time alone listening to God. Or we take on a heavy load of pastoral care, and wonder why there never seems to be time for creative thinking or dreaming about the future.

An endless array of good options is calling for our attention. I’ll be quick to admit that choosing the best can be difficult. But it’s a practice that will benefit all of us. So what about you? I’m sure you’re doing things that are good. But are you choosing that which is great?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian

OK. I don’t really expect any of you to read Wallace Stegner’s 1950-something classic with the subtitle, “John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West.” But maybe you’ll at least read this blog as a challenge to pick up something outside of your normal reading bandwidth in the next few weeks.

When my uncle offered to take me and my 14-year old son on a weeklong rafting adventure through the Grand Canyon, he said that this was the book I needed to read before the trip. I ordered the book out of obligation, and began reading out of a desire to understand what it was like for Powell and company to make that first treacherous trip into the unknown.

Little did I know how much I would learn and how it could even apply to church leadership. Even though the American West was largely an unknown territory in the 1870’s, government leaders had many pre-conceived ideas that were shaping national policy. Ideas such as that the arid regions would suddenly become fertile without irrigation, and could therefore be settled with practices that had worked in the east. It took a persistent, visionary leader like John Wesley Powell to challenge the bureaucracy and begin to reshape some of the laws. I guess we’d never have these kinds of problems in a church, right?

Not only did I find some interesting lessons in the book, I rediscovered a lost personal enjoyment of history. So rather than reading your tenth book on leadership or theology or whatever is your pattern, have some fun with a different kind of reading this summer.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


I was recently in a roundtable discussion with other executive pastor types, and one of the topics of discussion was “how can we get our work done with all the interruptions from staff and other people?” The questions seemed to be about time management, but I think it raises a deeper question: What priority do we give to the people who report to us?

Let me offer a quick disclaimer. I know that people (some in particular) will consume all of our time if we let them. They’ll ask for constant affirmation or hand-holding, or they’ll want to spend 2 hours debating whether it’s better to use 8 oz or 12 oz cups for coffee on Sunday mornings. We must be wise in establishing boundaries to keep these individuals from monopolizing our time.

But I should also offer an honest confession. I’m pretty task-oriented, as are some of you, and I can always find a legitimate reason to put people off until tomorrow. Sure, I’ll meet to talk about the immediate ministry issues – reviewing plans for a fall festival, brainstorming a new communication strategy. In reality, these meetings aren’t about people, they’re just additional tasks on my list. If I’m not careful, the part that gets lost is listening to their hearts, talking about their future, helping them develop more fully as leaders, asking about the state of their marriages and their souls.

I made the time for this blog because it was on my “to do” list. Now I need to clear some space and invite some value-added interruptions.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Need a Fresh Start?

Need a fresh start? This blog certainly does! So, one of my resolutions is to reignite the flame of the second chair blog.

I am currently doing a new series at our Crosspoint Campus,, called "Fresh Start: Lessons from the Life and Leadership of Nehemiah." I have placed the word, "Leadership" in the series title on purpose. The reason? Great question! Simply put, it is because of a lack of leadership in our lives that leads us to the place of needing a "Fresh Start." That lack of leadership could be self-leadership or leadership from an authority in our lives. What I am hoping to convey to our congregation in this series is the entire process that must take place so that a "Fresh Start" takes hold to become a permanent change.

Do you need a "Fresh Start" in an area in your life? Might there be a lack of leadership:
  • physically -- are you eating right and exercising consistently?
  • spiritually -- are you spending time with God on a consistent basis?
  • relationally -- are you investing in key relationships continually?
  • financially -- are you wisely spending and saving, or is there a lack of discipline that is leading to financial challenges or trouble?
  • professionally -- are you correctly navigating the paradoxes of second chair leadership? Are you certain that you are where you need to be in this season or is it time to move on?

If you need a "Fresh Start" in one of these areas, consider this process:

1. Look Back at the Context! There is a context that will inform us of a failure in leadership. For Nehemiah, the context that informed him was the failure of three kings (2 Chronicles 36) that led to the Babylonian invasion of 605 and the desolation of Solomon's temple and the walls and gates of Jerusalem, the city of God. Examine the context of the leadership failure. Allow it to fully inform your reality.

2. Face Reality! Call it for what it is. In Nehemiah 1, this emerging second chair leader called Israel's failure exactly that, sinful failure to keep up their end of the deal. He named it, repented of it, and asked for an opportunity to do something about it.
3. Envision a New Reality! Nehemiah captured God's heart for God's city and began to envision it. As a matter of fact, he envisioned it for 4 months (Kislev or December to Nisan or April) before he set out to approach King Artaxerses. A great read on this discipline is Andy Stanley's book Visioneering (Multonomah, 2000). What could a new reality be for you? Weight loss and health? Savings in the bank? Renewal of a marriage? Dream big my friend, dream big!
4. D.R.I.V.E. -- the Pursuit of the New Reality! We must develop a process of discipline that expresses our faith to successfully pursue a new reality. D.R.I.V.E. is an acronym from Mike Slaughter's book, Momentum for Life (Abingdon Press, 2005), that highlights a process of daily discipline that will sustain our momentum forward. Frankly, that is what we need, sustained momentum. I know it is what I need! What about you? Is there a process that you own and live by that will sustain your momentum of a fresh start that it might become a permanent fixture in your life?

If you are at all interested in listening to the audio of this series, click and follow this link. The messages are accessible on the bottom right portion of the web page. The message link is:

Happy Fresh Start!