I asked Dave Barrett, our Pastor of Operations, out to coffee so I could ask him some questions about executive leadership. Something I’ve been thinking through is that I’ve found one of the most enjoyable areas of ministry for me has been in the operations, planning, and strategy side of things. For example, if I’m talking with someone about a big project or initiative, if that person is all about the vision and big idea, I’m all about how to make that happen.
So I grilled Dave for about an hour and he graciously gave me a wealth of advice and wisdom that he’s gained from years as an executive pastor.
I asked a few questions from Dave; here’s my questions and his responses (not direct quotes for the most part, just ideas).
What do you enjoy about being an Executive Pastor?
Dave: Bringing order from chaos; living in the tension between the organic and the systematic. The heart of executive leadership is finding the balance between letting something grow and function naturally on its own, and developing a system or structure around something so that it will grow. I think through this in three different areas; development, systems, and leaders.
Development: Executive Leadership in the area of development often takes place in relationships. For example, there is a tension between what may be best for you personally, and what will be most helpful for a person’s discipleship and development. Dave cited an example about taking hours to walk a group of people through a project that he had already spent months developing; he asked them questions, went over pros and cons, and basically rehashed with them what he had already figured out. He spent time going over things that he had already decided on so that it would benefit those he was developing. It gave them experience, ownership in the project, and a depth of knowledge that they wouldn’t have if he would have just handed him his finished work.
Systems: As it has been mentioned, another tension exists between the organic and the mechanistic; the natural and the structured. You have to live constantly in this tension – you get to live constantly in this tension. You are always considering what is the most helpful for any given project, process, or person.
Leaders: A balance that Dave personally lives in as an elder is that he is both among a plurality of other elders, and at the same time, working among peers. As an elder, he has authority and responsibility in the church, and yet at the same time he is working with fellow elders and other peers (deacons, staff, church partners). He described this balance as having to live in both worlds and navigate how to be faithful and God honoring in each.
For a smaller, growing church, what is the biggest need? How can you help fill that need as an Executive Pastor?
Dave: The biggest need for a growing church is people. As always, you’re going to have a tension between that very real need, and not wanting to appoint leaders too quickly. What do you do? Things have to get done, but you don’t want the wrong people doing them.
You develop leaders by finding a few men (five to six) to invest in that you see as potential leaders of leaders. You bring these men into your life and into your inner circle, and develop them; spend time with them together, invite them into your home, into your work, into your faith, and spend the best of your time developing those men. Eventually they will be developing other men themselves, and your ability to care for and equip more people in the church will increase.
In the meantime, how do you still get stuff done? You find other who are faithful, available, and teachable, and entrust the work of life on life ministry to them. You’ll be able to develop them as well through the leaders you are developing.
What is the role of an Executive Pastor look like in a very small church? What do you do?
Dave: When you’re small, systems and structures aren’t as needed. During that time you focus on philosophy rather than practices. You put in the long, hard work of deciding what your philosophy is on everything – every part of the life of the church – how you worship, your priority on teaching, how to develop leaders, how to do community, the centrality of the gospel. Build the foundation of philosophy and let your practices flow from that. Otherwise, your practices will drive your philosophy.
Theology -> Philosophy -> Practice
This doesn’t mean that you write a policy manual on every thinkable issue; you figure out the why of your philosophy so that when the question of what arises, you’ll have something that will drive your answer.
How do you figure out when a system, structure, or process is necessary?
Dave: When ministry gets bottle-necked, that’s when the need for a tool arrives. If your church is 50 people on your biggest Sunday, you don’t need a full-featured system for how to track and care for those people. You need a list of contacts in your phone. But when that number grows to 75, 100, 150, that’s when you’re going to start feeling the need for a system to care for them. Then it’s simply a matter of determining the exact need and figuring out what will meet that need.
You use tools to help leaders do what they have already figured out – what they are already doing – not to do it for them. You don’t want to create any system that will simply do the work for them (speaking more in terms of relational work, not necessarily about automating/optimizing a financial worksheet for example). Any system or tool you implement should complement the work someone is already doing. It should enable them to do more, to do it more faithfully, and to do it with more effectiveness.
What I Learned
Simply put, I learned that there’s a lot about executive leadership that I really enjoy. The things I haven’t experienced are pretty exciting to me. As odd as it is, I get excited about all of the hows of ministry, and I’m going to keep pressing towards pursuing being some sort of executive pastor (with some counseling and community stuff thrown in :p). That’s something I’m still processing through, so please be in prayer for me about that.