Creative Leadership

The Most Misunderstood Role in Ministry: The Executive Pastor

After decades working with churches around the world, I’ve discovered one of the most difficult challenges pastors face is finding the right “Executive Pastor.”  Smaller churches don’t usually need one, but as churches grow, a leader in that role becomes more and more important.  But in a significant number of cases, local pastors don’t really understand the job. In my opinion, one of the best XP’s in the country is Mike Buster, Executive Pastor at Prestonwood Church in Plano, Texas. He’s worked with Pastor Jack Graham for 28 years, and they’ve become a remarkable team. In fact, in my opinion, Jack Graham is one of the greatest leaders in the church today, therefore the standards at Prestonwood are high.   So I asked Mike to tell me about the purpose, role, responsibilities, and challenges of being an XP. Here’s what he said:

Phil Cooke:  What’s the purpose of an “Executive Pastor”?

Mike Buster:  The Executive Pastor should know the heart, vision, goals and desires of his pastor. He should have the fortitude and wisdom to take the skeleton vision provided by the pastor and put flesh on it. He is to be a steward of the church’s resources and the pastor’s vision. The XP should be able to see the big picture but at the same time must pay attention to minuscule details. It is a challenging and complex role that involves long-range planning and specific strategies. From the church’s spiritual maturity to parking space availability, the executive pastor must be both deep and wide. He flies at 30,000 feet but notices a shrub that needs to be replaced. Always keeping the mission of the church at the forefront, he must look at every problem or opportunity though the eyes of his pastor. The XP should be focused on fulfilling the mission of the church through the vision of the pastor. Daily prayer for wisdom and discernment is paramount. An executive pastor must be first and foremost a spiritual leader with a heart for serving his pastor, staff and congregation.

Phil:  What are the 3 most important abilities a good Executive Pastor needs?

Mike:  In an ideal world, this person would have a seminary degree and experience in all aspects of church ministry including students, children, singles, married adults, missions, music, recreation, business, counseling, pastoral care, deacons, education, personnel, denominational work, and the list goes on. He should be analytical, have wisdom and discernment as well as a spiritual leader with excellent people skills. An effective XP would also have a great relationship with his pastor, with trust and confidence that has been built over many years

Phil:  How should a Pastor and Executive Pastor divide their roles, so there’s no conflict?

Mike:  An executive pastor should be able to represent the church and pastor in any setting. Simply put, he is an extension of the pastor, relieving him of most administrative responsibilities and management of staff so that he can focus on the critical aspects of the ministry—pastoring, shepherding, preaching, and teaching. The XP should take the leadership burden from the pastor without undermining his authority.

Phil:  What’s the area where most challenges happen between a Pastor and Executive Pastor?

Mike:  Trust is paramount but takes time to develop. Pastors often have a difficult time letting go and truly delegating. A pastor must have great confidence in his executive pastor. At the same time, the XP must have a “second chair” mentality, always seeking the best interest of the church as well as the pastor. I think of John 15:13 in paraphrase: “Greater love has no one than this, that an executive pastor lays down his life for his pastor.”

Phil:  Many pastors hire executives right out of secular business to be their Executive Pastor and that often fails. Why should an Executive Pastor also understand the world of ministry?

Mike:  An executive pastor is not the administrative pastor nor is he the CFO. Above all, he is a minister of the Gospel with a wide variety of ministry experience within the church. He must be a servant leader. Business and finance should only be 10% of what he oversees. While there are business aspects in a large church, the church is a body of believers and not just a corporation.

Phil:  On the other hand, do secular business skills help an Executive Pastor?

Mike:  Yes, business and financial skills are important but are only one aspect of overseeing a church. I would rather a church hire a spiritual leader to oversee the business aspects of the church than a business leader to oversee the ministries of the church. A true XP oversees all aspects of the church and business/finance is just one of those areas. Now, I do think it is important that he has a grasp of the business end of the church but if not, he can always hire a CFO. Those are actually much easier to find than a good executive pastor.

Phil:  In your experience, why do you think so many Executive Pastor’s fail?

Mike:  One reaction is they try to manage spiritual problems and spiritualize managerial problems while neither should be attempted. I also believe they fail due to a weak prayer life; a lack of humility and servant leadership. Another reason is the inability to see the forest for the trees-they don’t delegate well, don’t know how to lead people, staff and laymen. However, not having a good working relationship with a pastor who trusts you is probably the biggest cause of failure.

Phil:  How important is the ability to lead a team?

Mike:  The ability to lead is crucially important. I wish every executive pastor would take time to read two books, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Oswald Sander’s Spiritual Leadership. Master the concepts in these two books, spend time daily in the Word and on your knees, and you will be able to lead a team. Influence is paramount in the role of executive pastor and is reflected in building strong relationships with staff and lay leaders. In the process, the vision is spread to others, thus expanding the foundation of leaders and followers. The XP must be capable of leading the staff and lay leaders to effectively carry out their respective ministries. He should not be concerned about his own success but focus on making others successful. The executive pastor should encourage, empower, and provide resources to the various ministries and staff. In essence, instead of driving just one bus, he creates a fleet of busses with drivers all moving in the same direction as they fulfill the mission of the church.

Phil:  What do you attribute your long relationship with Pastor Jack Graham?

Mike:  The grace of God. Jack’s expectations in me have driven me to be the best I can be. Even after 28 years with my pastor, I am still learning but each year gets better, more fulfilling and hopefully more effective. From early on, I felt he had great confidence in me, trusted me, believed in me. I always knew I had his support and he had my back. Even when I made mistakes he found a way to encourage me.

Phil:  If there was one encouragement you’d give to Executive Pastors who are struggling in their job, what would it be?

Mike:  I would tell struggling executive pastors to take the time to develop a good working relationship with your pastor. There is no substitution for the time it takes to build confidence, trust, and loyalty. Continually remind yourself of what John 3:30 says: “He (Jesus) must increase, I must decrease”. Zig Ziglar said it this way: “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want”. Executive pastors will struggle until they grasp the importance of building trust among their team and focusing on facilitating their ministries in conjunction with the pastor’s vision.

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  1. This is a very interesting interview. The “Executive Pastor” can’t be an easy role. For example, PowerPoint is a wonderful ministry and just one aspect of what this church is able to produce. Pastor Jack, Mike, and team must be a very dynamic group. You gotta appreciate an Executive Pastor who can move from Dale Carnegie, to the Bible, to Zig Ziglar. It is that blessed synergy that moves a church forward. Smart, passionate individuals giving their best in service.

    1. In most cases, one. An executive pastor is like the COO of the church. He or she manages the day to day leadership and operations. There may be multiple department heads, but they usually report to one executive level pastor.

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