Stewardship, next to preaching the Gospel and making disciples of course, is arguably the most important aspect of church ministry. One, however, can make the argument that successful discipleship and effective preaching of the Good News hinge on a church’s ability to steward well the commission that Jesus imparted to the believing community thousands of years ago.
In other words, no aspect of ministry will be successful without proper stewardship.
For most churches across America, stewardship of the mission, vision, and values, as well as the overall operations of the church, usually land in the laps of senior pastors. Because of the workload that senior pastors assume, burnout, stress, and family strains have usually been the result of senior leaders taking on more than they can handle. Whether managing the bulk of the ministry operations was forced upon the senior pastor by his congregation or was self-induced, attempts to steward well the life of the church ends up falling short.
I’m a prime example of a church leader who took on more than he could effectively steward.
I led a church plant, between the years of 2014 and 2020, in the heart of one of the most poverty-stricken areas in Long Beach, California. By many accounts, we were significantly successful when measured against growth and community impact. We ministered to many of our houseless friends, as well as families who were below the poverty level. Our church adopted laundromats throughout the city to help alleviate financial pressures that many individuals faced. We partnered with the local food bank to facilitate weekly food distributions. In addition, our church picked up trash and swept square blocks at a time to help keep our neighborhood clean. We also assisted many individuals and families in getting off the streets and situated in Section 8 housing. On top of that, I preached most Sundays, conducted board meetings, did ministry leadership development, sought out new rental facilities when a move to a new location was inevitable, and oversaw the finances of our church.
I was exhausted to say the least.
The result: I entered a season of depression, anxiety, and suicidality. My family time suffered. And I lost the joy of doing God’s beautiful Kingdom work in a city that embraced me as one of its own.
Though we had a solid team and a highly skilled associate pastor, I battled an unspoken expectation of feeling as if I had to be at the center of it all.
That’s where an executive pastor comes in.
The Business of the Church
The executive pastor of a church exists to ensure that the congregation can execute its mission with excellence. He or she is charged with the responsibility of implementing organizational management in a church setting. Executive pastors focus on the business side of church operations, mainly stewarding the finances, properties, and organizational development of the ministry.
The presence of an executive pastor essentially frees up the senior leader to focus on pastoral care, vision casting, and teaching.
“The role of the executive pastor is amazing because you’re making business decisions that impact the people in the seats,” Lisa Penberthy, Executive Director of Operations at The Rock Church in Point Loma, California, said during a recent Facebook Live panel discussion with Dr. Ed Stetzer of Wheaton College. “I want to be able to have conversations with our congregants, as donors and givers, to assure them that every dollar that comes in is going toward Kingdom expansion.”
The relief an executive pastor provides a church is something we didn’t have when I was leading the church plant in Long Beach. I’m from the tradition that preaches senior pastors need to pull up their bootstraps and keep on laboring for Jesus even if they’re beat to the ground while doing it. So that’s what I did. I pushed and pushed until I felt as if I was beat to the very same ground we were trying to till for growth.
The role of the executive pastor, in hindsight, was a presence I desperately needed. While I knew megachurches thrived with executive pastors, I didn’t quite know that position could exist for a church as small as ours.
If a church is not managed well, it cannot carry out its mission well.
The Leadership Partnership
As new of a concept as executive pastors were to me at the time, they have played a key role in the success of megachurches dating back to the late 20th century. The position isn’t new to church life. Executive pastors, however, have been more synonymous with larger and more entrepreneurial-minded churches. The vitality and the success of megachurches is due to the role of the executive pastor. Although churches have a spiritual mission to carry out, administration and management are part of the whole that make up the church’s existence. If a church is not managed well, it cannot carry out its mission well.
“What I’ve seen over the years is almost this Paul and Barnabas kind of relationship,” Nathan Elson, Executive Director of Marketing and Business Development at CDF Capital, said during the Facebook Live discussion. “It’s when you have 2 people working in concert with each other who play on each other’s strengths. As the complexity of the church increases in size, to multiple locations, and with a larger staff, the ability to share that responsibility becomes increasingly important.
“In churches, both in the larger churches and in some of the smaller churches, the financial decision-making has been passed down to the executive pastor to work with the elders or the deacons of that church,” Nathan continued. “It becomes more and more about the relationship between the 2 sharing that responsibility.”
Though our church plant barely hovered over the 100 weekly attendance mark, what we were involved with during the week made our church rhythms complex. The complicated operations of our church were a great task to accomplish. Tackling the various components from a unilateral direction made my experience tiresome. I didn’t allow myself the sharing of responsibility as Nathan describes, and perhaps I was holding the flourishing potential of our church back.
“The best way for executive pastors to learn is to learn from each other.” –Nathan Elson
Connecting Executive Pastors
“We’ve been running the XP Summit for 20 years now,” Nathan said of CDF Capital’s XP Summit recently held in Colorado. “We gather executive leaders of churches because the best way for them to learn is to learn from each other. Every church has a different complexion. Every ministry leader has a distinct way that they are wired.
“What we have found is that executive leaders of churches fall into one of several categories,” Nathan continued. “Either they came up through ministry and have to learn the business side. Or they were in business and have to learn the ministry side. Either way, it’s a very different reality. There are few people who have done both at the same time.”
In reflection, knowing there is a place where executive pastors can go for renewal and learning would have made our church plant even more successful than it was. I may have been more aware of the need for an executive pastor and would have pursued filling that role early on.
“The executive pastor role is probably one of the most underrated roles in the church,” Christopher J. Harris, Executive Pastor at Crossover Church in Tampa, Florida, added in the Facebook Live discussion.
As underrated as the role is, there has been a rise in executive roles in smaller churches in more recent years. Like our experience in Long Beach, smaller churches across the country, especially since the pandemic, have become just as complex as larger churches. They have been forced to master livestreaming Sunday services, to create opportunities for meaningful community service, and have even shifted part of their focus toward daily activities that benefit the city as a whole. All of these require management and administration skills that senior pastors don’t necessarily possess.
One organization that has many complex moving parts is a small church in Culver City, California, called Vintage Faith. They learned to stream their services during the pandemic on the fly. From shifting financial investments to their thrift store, starting a food pantry, and building a coffee shop, they work hard to provide for their community.
“We average about 150 on a Sunday,” Senior Pastor Matt Kladnik said. “As a small church, pastors end up doing everything. They are kind of a round peg that’s forced to fit into lots of holes. Our executive pastor is not to be the vision creator but to be the vision runner. It’s provided a way for me to not have to be ‘all things,’ leadership wise.”
Since my stepping down from leading the Long Beach church plant, the congregation has continued to flourish. Looking back, had we empowered our associate pastor (who is leading the church now) to operate in the executive pastor role, I believe our church would have made an even greater impact. Executive pastors, as unknown as they may be, truly are crucial to the success of a church of any size.
“Because the unsung role isn’t in the public eye, executive pastors often feel like they’re on an island,” Nathan said. “Holding the XP Summit year after year reminds us that people come, not because they want to hear speakers speak, but because they have conversations with other people who are dealing with the same things they are—day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out.
XP Summit Leadership Cohorts are a yearlong small-group experience for executive pastors. The XPs are paired up with expert ministry mentors and coaches for a year, culminating with a free pass to XP Summit in the spring.