The Pastor as CEO

Steve Petty
Written by Steve Petty

It is a curious thing, but many pastors strongly resist being seen as the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) of their church.  It’s time to rethink that position.  Being a great CEO can be a tremendous blessing for the pastor and the church.  But you’d be surprised what it actually takes to be a great CEO.  You might improve your pastoral skills if you act more like a CEO.

A recent article by Ron Carucci in the Harvard Business Review talks about what great executives know and do.  The study found four common threads in the fabric of great CEOs.  It got me thinking about the executive role of the local pastors.

Here is my attempt to translate these business leadership skills into the local church environment.  Surprisingly, doing so wasn’t that hard and with a little effort many pastors can be great CEOs and better pastors.

Strong pastoral CEOs understand the whole business of running a church.  Every pastor will have certain aspects of ministry that they truly enjoy.  Some are great preachers, or teachers, pastoral counselors, fundraisers, staff leaders, or some have a great missionary zeal.  Many pastors will give all their time and energy to the areas they most enjoy doing and let the other areas go untended.  The best pastor/CEOs will understand all the roles they are required to play and learn to play all of them well.  They will know enough about themselves to understand both the areas where they are strong and where they are weak; and they make the time and give their best efforts to be strong in all areas.

Wise pastors understand that they can’t do it all themselves.  The pastor(s) must lead, and to lead they must also have a complete understanding of the full business of the local church.  All churches must do certain key things well:  worship, study, outreach, fellowship, administration, finance, building maintenance, evangelism, music.  Lights have to be replaced, toilets cleaned, floors vacuumed, music purchased, lessons prepared, musicians rehearsed, bulletins and videos created and readied.  Who does these tasks?  When and how do they do carry them out?  How much does this cost – and is it the right amount – and do we have the money?  The best pastor/CEOs understand all the interconnections, minimizing the places where things can go badly, and maximizing the communications within the organization so the whole church works together well to deliver the values that will keep people happy and coming back.

The wise pastor will not do it all; there simply isn’t enough time.  But the wise pastor will understand it all and will make sure it all gets taken care of and is done well.

Strong pastoral CEOs are great decision-makers.  They are not afraid to lead.  Great decisions are not hard to make; however, great decisions require some initial work.  The great decision-makers are willing to clearly voice their opinions.  People want to know what the pastor thinks about issues.  People will often give their support if the issue is clearly explained.

Great pastor/CEOs also listen well, encouraging others to share their own opinions.  The congregation will respond well when it is aware that the pastor’s door is always open to them and that they will be heard and understood.

Great decision-makers are also remarkably both cognitive and intuitive.  Great pastor/CEOs carefully analyze data and understand which data are relevant and which are extraneous.  They also know when to trust their experience and sometimes just go with their gut.  Great CEOs and great pastors have a keen ability to look at the whole picture and a remarkable ability to make the right decision based on how they think and feel.

Great pastoral decision-makers are also great at setting priorities and understanding the amount of energy the church has to spend on those decisions.  They understand that they set the vision and chart the course for the organization as a whole.

When it is time to make a decision, great pastors take full responsibility for making the decision.  They immediately communicate the decision to the whole organization so that no one is left in the dark. Making great decisions inspires confidence throughout the church.

Strong pastor/CEOs understand the purpose of the church.  They understand and deliver value to the congregation.

The church is first of all a spiritual institution. The wise pastor/CEO will understand that the purpose of the church is to fill people with the love of God in order to help them become disciples of Jesus Christ.  That is the single most valuable product we deliver.  The design of all the ministries in the church must be to deliver that value. Small groups, discipleship groups, mission teams, age-level ministries, bridge clubs and bowling teams must all deliver the same values and manifest the love of God in all they do.  This may seem like a lot, but the wise pastor will understand that any group that fails to deliver is actually undermining the values of the church.

The strong pastor/CEO will understand that the church cannot do everything for everyone.  New proposals need to be examined in light of the churches overall purpose.  Some very attractive ideas will need to be rejected because the church does not have the energy to spend on activities that do not further the vision and mission of the church.

The wise pastor/CEO will make sure the church provides the training so that people understand the importance of the various roles they play.  The church cannot expect people to understand how to do something without giving them the tools to do it and the rationale for why it is done a certain way.  This training also carries with it the goal of accomplishing these ministries with a desire for excellence.  The church must deliver a high level of quality if it believes the purpose is important.  The wise pastor/CEO will instill a DNA into the organization so that excellence is delivered in all aspects of the ministry.

Strong pastor/CEOs develop deep trusting relationships.  These pastor/CEOs deliver strong positive results in their performance, but also understand the beneficial relationships that assist that process.  Relationships with staff and laity are seen as mutually beneficial.  The wise pastor takes time to foster deep and strong personal relationships, taking time to build up the team that will deliver the results.  People will be well fed by these relationships and often go the second mile because of the positive relationships throughout the organization.

Interestingly, this is one area that pastors have been encouraged NOT to enter.  Pastors have been instructed since seminary to avoid having close relationships with people on the staff and in the congregations.  The thought was that when the pastor leaves, they don’t leave a hole in the organization.  The result is that, while the pastor is present, they do not give their full strength to the church.

In the corporate world, you may be surprised to know that the executives who fail most often and most rapidly are those who suffer from relational failure.  The best CEOs lead with humble confidence and extend sincere care to others around them.  The lesser CEOs work to manage the perception of collaboration and caring but fail to mask their own self-interested motives and never connected in deep personal ways with the people around them.

All of these attributes can be learned.  The strong pastor/CEO is always looking for ways to improve.  One way is to seek out feedback from people around them, understanding that criticism is not defeat, but rather information on which to make wiser decisions next time.

The most common cause of executive failure Carruci cites is simply the fear of appearing incompetent.  For these executives, criticism contributes to: poor decisions, focusing on survival rather than growth, and often paralysis – failing to act until it is a crisis.  Sound familiar?

Finally, people like to work for pastors who make them feel great.  Mark Twain once commented that you knew you were in the presence of a great person when you came away feeling better about yourself.  That is what a great pastor/CEO does; i.e. when you are in the presence of a great pastor/CEO, you come away feeling valued and important.

The wise pastor/CEO wants everyone to feel great, because knowing that God loves you ought to make you feel fabulous.  If an excellent effective CEO can do this, then certainly a wise and loving pastor can do so as well.

By Steve Petty