In August of 2004, I planted Praxis Church in Tempe, Arizona with a small group of friends and family. More or less since that day, I have been a Lead Pastor. I have planted churches in San Francisco and Seattle, and have coached dozens of lead pastors along the way. Now, for the first time in my life, I serve my church as an Executive Pastor.
Over the years, I worked with a number of different Executive Pastors and Directors, with varying degrees of success. Now, as I sit in the “second seat,” I am learning all over again what it means to lead a church. I won’t lie, it has been difficult at times to know when to lead and when to follow, when (and more importantly, how) to disagree and when to simply execute.
Over the past several months of my role, I have learned a lot, and am going to split my lessons into a series of blog posts.
For today, it’s that every Lead Pastor needs someone who can help differentiate between good and bad ideas.
Most Lead Pastors (LP) that I know generate a hundred ideas a week. Some of them are useful, most of them are not. Every LP needs someone around them who can help them differentiate between the good ideas and the bad ones. Some ideas are good but poorly timed, some ideas are good but the church doesn’t have the resources to pull them off successfully. Some ideas are just straight up bad and need to be treated as such. Most Lead Pastors struggle to identify the difference.
This is where an Executive Pastor (XP) can be really helpful. A good XP will help differentiate between these categories and help lead the church forward.
How do they do this? By following this process:
My experience working as and with a lot of LP’s is that many ideas are half-baked musings ill-suited to be spoken out loud, let alone executed. However, instead of hearing an idea and immediately shooting it down by saying something like, “We don’t have the money for that,” “We couldn’t pull that off with our staff,” or “That’s literally the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” I suggest that you start by asking questions.
One of the greatest contributions a visionary leader makes to their church is idea generation. Responding immediately with negativity can shut down the flow of ideas and damage the trust that is necessary between an XP and an LP. Maybe your LP is just thinking out loud, maybe they aren’t suggesting that the idea be executed this year or even this decade. Or maybe this time, they thought it through and the idea has some legs. In any case, asking questions not only helps you get to the bottom of the idea, it helps prevent unnecessary conflict. Start with genuine questions, get to the bottom of the idea, and then, if it still stands, move on to the next step.
Once you establish that the idea is one worth pursuing, the next step is to make sure it aligns with your vision, mission, and values.
First, if you haven’t gone through the process of clearly identifying your vision, mission, and values, stop reading this immediately and do that first. No church can thrive in the long run without having a crystal clear vision for the future, a detailed mission that describes how you will accomplish that vision, and practical values that govern the way you will lead and live together. Don't know where to start in this process? Check out Pastor Guide for a whole series of curriculum on vision planning and more.
Assuming you have done this already, the next step in the idea process is to make sure that this new idea squares with your vision, mission, and values. This is where a good XP can be really helpful or completely fail their LP. One of the most common mistakes I see churches make is to either write a vision and mission that is so broad that literally anything godly falls underneath it, or they write the vision and mission clearly and narrowly but rationalize the inclusion of good ideas as “what the Lord is doing.” Now, don’t get me wrong, the Lord is doing things and can disrupt our plans at his whim, but this should not be the norm. If you take the time to prayerfully and patiently write a vision and mission statement as led by the Spirit, then 99/100, your future ideas should submit to that process.
So, the helpful XP should ask:
While this process may seem tedious (and I guarantee it will feel tedious to a visionary leader), it is an invaluable part of the leadership process. Any organization that doesn’t abide by its own stated Vision, Mission, and Values is an organization that will fail to accomplish any of them.
Step Two answered the question, “Should we do this?” Step Three answers the question, “Should we be doing this right now?”
I will make the same caveat as I did above, if you have not gone through an annual planning process that included clear goals, metrics, and timelines, stop reading this and do that first. An entirely Spirit-led, thorough and systematic Vision/Mission/Values process will never be realized if it is not governed by an annual planning process that dictates clearly when things are going to happen. So, go do that first, because otherwise you will not be able to answer the next question.
Annual Planning - when done well - is the process of humbly and prayerfully establishing what things can get done in a given year. We cannot predict or control the future, which is why the process needs to be prayerful and humble, but we have much greater control over what we do. Annual Planning will help you decide what activities to prioritize so that you can allocate resources (time, people, money) towards those ends. You cannot accomplish your entire vision this year, but you can begin and make progress. Annual Planning helps you decide what progress you will pursue.
So once you determine that the idea is a good one and that it falls within your stated VMV, then you need to ask whether it is something that should get done this year, or some time in the future. If the idea has emerged at some point during your annual planning process, you can simply add it to the plan and get it done. But if the idea emerges in the summer or shortly after Easter, you may have to decide that the idea, while good, has to wait until resources can be properly allocated to it.
We all have a finite amount of resources that we are working with and we have to be disciplined enough to use them strategically. A good XP will help the LP and the rest of the team decide whether this good idea should wait or if it fits into the annual plan and can be executed immediately.
Great leaders are often extremely disciplined people. They organize every aspect of their lives, often down to the minute. But when it comes to ideas for the church, they need someone to rein them in. That’s where an XP can be really helpful. In many ways, the role of the XP is to be the anchor in the storm. This applies to outside challenges as well as inside change. A good XP doesn’t flinch when times get hard, but rather reminds people that there is a plan and it simply needs to be executed.
Similarly, when good ideas are coming in a mile a minute, it is the job of the XP to be disciplined enough to hold themselves and everyone else around them accountable to the plans that were made and goals that were set. Discipline isn’t a “step” in the process per se, but rather a virtue that needs to be exercised over and over. At each point in the process, there will be pressure and temptation to expand the vision, fudge on the mission and reinterpret the values to allow an idea to go from pitch to execution. It’s the job of the XP to be disciplined for the sake of the team, even when it is unpopular (and it will be unpopular).
One of my first Executive Pastors really struggled with all of my ideas. He was good at his job and a longtime friend but not a future-oriented-vision-guy, and it was a source of conflict early on. I would have an idea and he would inevitably tell me why we couldn’t do it. In the early days of the church, he was absolutely right. We had few people and no money. But, as the church grew, so too did our ability to execute on ideas. One day, after pitching an idea that he turned down reflexively, I sat down and said, “Listen, we are big enough now that there are very few things we simply cannot do. I understand that there are things we shouldn’t do and other things that would require sacrifices in other areas in order to do. If an idea is possible but costly, I need you to respond by saying, “yes, if.” “Yes, if” became a phrase on our staff that meant, “Yes that's possible, if we are willing to make these sacrifices.”
Often, XP’s learn to flinch negatively because the LP’s they serve are constantly optimistic and future-oriented. They see themselves as a check and balance to the LP, which is certainly necessary at times. But as a long time LP, I can tell you that the quickest way to frustrate a visionary leader is to tell him no all the time. Sometimes our ideas are outlandish and need to be shot down, but when this isn’t the case, I’d encourage you to flinch positively and say, “yes, if.” Lay out the necessary changes and sacrifices that would have to be made in order to make an idea into reality and let the LP and his team decide if those sacrifices are worth it. I promise, it will go a long way towards building and maintaining trust in your working relationship.
I have already learned a lot in my short time as an XP and look forward to learning more. In the meantime, I’ll keep passing on what I’ve learned. I hope it’s helpful!