Every growing church reaches the point at which they need to take the bold step of hiring an executive pastor. Being seminary trained, most pastors don’t even have a category for this. Where does the executive pastor exist in the organizational structure of a growing church when a church administrator and lead pastor cover the bases of operations and leadership, broadly conceived?
The attitude a church takes toward the idea of an executive pastor will likely predict whether they will grow or die. In the business world, a company would never think of hiring a CEO and an HR director without hiring a COO—a chief operations officer. That’s because the operational elements of a company deserve a voice at the table of stakeholders.
If the operational voice isn’t given an equitable hearing among the senior leaders, they will inevitably over time see the operational needs of the company as less and less important, yielding to a creep in diminishing quality, efficiency, and as a corollary, increase in cost of customer acquisition and operational inefficiency.
Growing churches need an executive pastor just as much as corporations need a COO. What that executive pastor does—and what is skill sets are—will vary from church to church. Here, we’re going to delineate the exact issues your church leadership team should be thinking through to make sure that you make the right choice in your executive pastor hiring process.
1. Nail down an executive pastor philosophy.
This will help you pull the trigger on a budgetary decision to pay a bigger salary for a role that can be superficially reasoned away. The felt need of an executive pastor often requires a bit of squinting to see clearly, and not everyone on your staff and volunteer teams will understand this decision.
This is why it’s important to have your own reasoning — along with the specific cost and benefit to your own church — hammered down clearly so that it can be expressed in a soundbite. Even better: find a way to state your decision to hire an executive pastor in terms that are familiar to your church’s mission statement. Tie the decision organically to your key vision and rationale for existing as a church so that when you announce your search for an executive pastor candidate, the church has a clear path to buy in on the decision.
2. Perform a SWOT analysis of your church’s leadership team.
SWOT is an acronym that represents a 360-degree analytical overview of your position as a church — Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It’s important to perform this analysis, because it will give you two key insights.
First, you will have an understanding of your greatest needs as a church. Where are you failing? What potential vulnerabilities does the prospect of growth reveal? What is the personality architecture of your team—who would fit in, and who wouldn’t? Get as much data as possible about your own team before you make an important decision about who else should step into an executive role on that team.
Second, you will have a better sense of what kind of people—distinct from their job skills—will fit on your team. If you have 3 hammerhead sharks on your team, and you need a softer personality with more temperance to balance them out, that could work—it could also be a disaster, leading to the new team member being crushed. It’s important to implement some third-party personality assessment in the interview process to get a sense of what kind of person your team needs in order to set yourselves up for the best team culture possible.
3. Ask other big churches what their process was.
For churches hiring their first executive pastor—or even churches who are hiring an executive pastor to replace someone else—you should consult with churches that have a thriving executive pastor and healthy leadership culture. Ask them what their hiring practices were. Ask them how many candidates they interviewed. Ask them what personality assessment they utilized. Ask them what questions you should be asking that you might not even think to ask.
Other churches will be eager to help you with this path. Some pastors might be embarrassed to ask for help, but the truth is that church leadership is a hard job and you owe it to your church to hire the best person for the executive pastor position—and one way to ensure this is to get help identifying the systems and procedures you need to put in place to make the right call when the time comes.
4. Search for industry-tested talent.
Don’t look to seminary graduation classes as your primary hiring pool. Those institutions don’t supply church leaders with the kind of skills that primarily relate to the essential tasks of the executive pastor.
Look for business-tested talent who can fulfill the “executive” portion of the Executive Pastor position. This doesn’t mean you can’t look at seminary-trained talent, such as seasoned pastors with a business sense. But most churches don’t make the mistake of hiring executives who need to grow into being pastors—most churches hire pastors who are ill-equipped to be executives.
But you don’t need to anchor yourself to a long onboarding process. Look for resumes that strongly indicate industry-relevant competence. This means that you should look for strong evidence of operational management experience, team leadership gifting, a metrics-oriented personality, and an ability to set a corporate tone in the church office.
5. Be disciplined and patient in your hiring process.
Don’t pull the trigger on the first candidate. What seems like a first-round draft may be a charismatic wild card. Give yourself the gift of experience by interviewing at least 5 candidates.
Whoever you hire will tremendously shape the culture of your church staff team with both their personality and their skills. Make sure the person you hire brings assets in both domains that you want grafted into the DNA of your team.
6. Pitch the role as a partnership.
While there is no equity sharing in a 501(c)3 such as a church, the core leadership team should still have the same mindset as equity sharing partners: “We are a team, and we’re in this together.”
This means that hiring an executive pastor deserves just as much time, forethought, analysis, and prayer as hiring a senior pastor. This role will carry tremendous authority, power, and responsibility. Your congregants will either have a good experience or a bad experience at your church because of who you hire for this position. Make sure that the person you hire understands that they are taking on a “the buck stops here” kind of responsibility. They will not be able to excuse themselves when systems fail—they are responsible for the operational success of the church.
This also means that the other executives on the church leadership team—whether they be other pastors, elders, or staff—need to be comfortable trusting this new hire. For this reason, you ought to make trustworthiness a significant variable of analysis in your hiring process.
7. Ordain your executive pastor to your leadership team.
There is a difference between an executive administrator and an executive pastor—the administrator has no spiritual authority or responsibility per se in their role, whereas the executive pastor position must take vows before God to serve the church in certain ways and to maintain a certain level of spiritual and moral credibility.
Hiring an executive pastor is no small thing. Use these seven principles as a guide to ensure that you not only make the right hire, but that you ensure your sense of confidence in your hire after the papers are signed. Remember these seven principles:
- Nail down an executive pastor philosophy.
- Perform a SWOT analysis of your church’s leadership team.
- Ask other big churches what their process was.
- Search for industry-tested talent.
- Be disciplined and patient in your hiring process.
- Pitch the role as a partnership.
- Ordain your executive pastor to your leadership team.