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.