The Changing Face of the Executive Pastor Role
A longtime XP discusses what is changing for a position once limited to large churches.
The Changing Face of the Executive Pastor Role
Image: Arthur Miranda / Unsplash

David Fletcher is an executive pastor and founder of XPastor.org , a website serving executive pastors nationwide. XPastor.org also hosts an annual conference, which will feature attorney Richard Hammar next February. Editor Matthew Branaugh recently conducted an email interview with Fletcher about the upcoming event and the surprising changes with the executive pastor role—and the not-so-surprising ways the role remains the same.

You have served as a pastor for more than 35 years, including 17 years as an executive pastor. What three things are vastly different now about the role than when you first started?

These three stand out to me:

  • Complexity. Laws, rules, and best practices have multiplied like rabbits. Churches now have more congregants and larger staffs. The intersection of these factors is called complexity.

  • Cost of personnel. Health insurance was never inexpensive. Now it is a major factor in budgeting for full-time staff. Churches now hire more part-timers as a result.

  • Technology. Gone are fleets of secretaries who book appointments, route telephone calls, and type letters. Smart phones and email allow staff to handle most of their own communications.

What three things about the role essentially remain the same?

  • Spiritual needs. The church is a spiritual organism. Sin, brokenness, and despair are not in short supply. The gospel continues to bring light, new birth, and spiritual health.

  • Pastors. Most pastors are gifted to serve spiritual needs but often lack business savvy.

  • Violence. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble [θλῖψις]” (John 16:33). While some crime statistics are at historic lows (murder, rape, arson), mass shootings have increased. We continue to live in a violent world.

You’re embarking upon your 14th XP-Seminar. What was the inspiration behind the theme for this upcoming XP-Seminar (“Business Brain+ Pastoral Heart = Executive Pastor”), and how does it differ from the themes your organization has covered in previous years?

The XP role is the combination of spiritual and business oversight. Each year we focus on different aspects of the XP. This year we wanted to highlight how the two main aspects of the role come together. The formula, BB + PH = XP, is a creative way of expressing that thought—and gauging from enrollment months before the event, it has connected!

Many associate the executive pastor role with large churches. But coming out of last year’s XP-Seminar, you mentioned the recent trend of mid-sized churches—those with about 500 to 1,000 in weekly attendance—hiring executive pastors. What’s driving this dynamic for churches with smaller-sized weekly attendance figures to hire this type of position?

The answer is “complexity.” Mid-sized churches need someone to corral ministry strategy, human resources, pastoral resources, budgets, medical costs under the Affordable Care Act, child safety, salaries and raises, facilities and operations, and so on.

Here’s an analogy: A church of 1,000 is akin to a business with 1,000 workers. A business with that size of a workforce is typically a $100 million operation and it needs excellent leadership. In the same way, a church of 1,000 people navigating a complex world needs excellent leadership.

Based on anecdotal references and conversations in your networks of people, is the demand for executive pastor roles in the church world higher than the available supply of qualified candidates—or vice-versa?

Having been an adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary for 15 years, seminaries are doing what they do best—training in the Bible for spiritual needs. About half of XPs bring leadership expertise from the business world…but not biblical expertise. Some schools, such as Talbot Seminary and Crown College, are designing programs to fill the gap between the spiritual training and business training. We created XPastor to hone XPs with on-the-job-training.

I advocate lifelong learning. I have a masters of theology and a doctor of ministry, and I’ve taken executive education classes at the Kellogg School of Management and the Harvard Business School. We need leaders who maximize their skills and abilities and want to continue learning.

You mention the increasing legal, tax, and financial complexities that American churches face today as one reason for churches hiring executive pastors. Do you find these complexities to be ones that executive pastors can educate themselves about and master? Or must they simply rely upon hiring qualified local legal, tax, and financial counsel? Or both?

I’m not great at negotiating contracts or an expert in the federal or state tax codes. Churches need teams of volunteer leaders and outside experts to utilize their specialized knowledge. We do an annual external audit with CapinCrouse, something I am not trained to do. Each XP must fearlessly be self-aware of personal strengths and limitations. Then XPs must assemble teams to hone strengths and shore up limitations. One can master the XP role, but not every subsequent discipline.

Peter Drucker wrote, “Top-management function is singularly difficult to organize.” Leading a church is multifaceted and inter-disciplinary.

Attorney Richard Hammar, the senior editor of Christianity Today’s Church Law & Tax Team, is one of your leading presenters at the 2018 XP-Seminar. What key topics do you envision Rich covering that you want executive pastors, senior pastors, and other church leaders to know about?

I have asked Rich to speak on “The 5 Legal Threats Every XP Needs to Know.” He will cover the big ones, the ones that could cost lives or millions of dollars. These threats can ruin a church’s reputation for years. We need to know of the major threats and take action. Does anyone want to stand before a court of law, or God’s judgement seat, and be remiss in their duty?

As you look ahead to 2018, what three legal, financial, tax, or risk management topics do you personally want to get better at as an executive pastor? Why?

I’d say these three:

  • Church safety. With mass shootings increasing, we need to be alert and have adaptive tactical responses. It’s not enough to say, “We have a 10-year-old plan.”

  • Fraud. Fraud through the internet, in particular, is a public menace. Churches must continually probe weak links in their systems. Scammers are creatively targeting churches with new methods to steal data and money. I want to lean into experts and technology to be as secure as possible.

  • Management letters. In the annual external audit, the CPA firm provides this key letter. We rely on it to learn our limitations and take action steps on any issue.

The 2018 XP-Seminar takes place February 21 and 22, 2018, in Dallas, Texas.

David Fletcher has served multiple churches ranging from 1,000 to 8,000 members. He is the executive pastor of EvFree Fullerton, a dynamic and growing congregation, and founder of XPastor.org.

Matthew Branaugh is editor of Christianity Today’s Church Law & Tax Team.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

Subscribe

If you found this article helpful, subscribe to ChurchLawAndTax.com for access to more articles like this one.

Recent Posts
Subscribe to Church, Law & Tax
Draw the Line: Relational Boundaries for Safe Youth Ministry

Draw the Line: Relational Boundaries for Safe Youth Ministry

Proactively protect the students, leaders, and pastors at your church.
Reducing the Risk

Reducing the Risk

Keep your church safe from child sexual abuse.