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XP Roundtable

Three experienced executive pastors discuss the traits and skills that make an effective XP — and why the need for one is so often overlooked by senior pastors.

For this issue of Church Executive, we had the unique opportunity to interview executive pastor and executive elder Sutton Turner of Mars Hill Church in Seattle for our brand-new “Bookshelf” department. (You might recognize Turner as the cover interviewee from our Aug/Sept 2013 issue.

We caught up with him again because he has written a new book that’s right up our alley as a magazine: Invest Your Gifts for His Mission. In our Q&A, Sutton makes a lot of insightful points about the executive pastor (XP) role — what an effective XP looks like, in practice and in person.

We posed some key takeaways from the conversation to three XPs: David Fletcher, executive pastor at EvFree Fullerton (Fullerton, CA) and founder of XPastor; John Mrazek, a seasoned XP who consults at churches in the XP area; and Eric Rojas, XP at Christ Community Church, with four locations in the Chicago area.

Church Executive: Based on his observations, Sutton Turner says many people find their way to the executive pastor (XP) role after spending the first part of their business careers working toward the corner office or a specific title — only to find they weren’t, ultimately, fulfilled. Was your path to the XP role similar?

David-FletcherDavid Fletcher: It wasn’t; I’ve been a pastor for 30 years. When I entered Dallas Seminary, no one knew the term “executive pastor.” My entrance to the role was through serving in various ministries of our church in Dallas, developing strategy, honing ministry and empowering people.

Eric Rojas: My path to the XP world has a similar story, but a different road. I remember an executive at a Fortune 500 company telling me he was leaving the business world to go to the non-profit parachurch world because he’d been climbing the ladder of success, only to realize that his ladder was “up against the wrong wall.”

As a young college student, I was still debating between several career options. God used that conversation to steer me to ministry.

From that point on, my background developed in virtually every aspect of ministry, which prepared me perfectly for the ministry portion of the XP role. I did have business experience running my own painting company for several years in school, but my background from mid-college on has been virtually all ministry.

John Mrazek: My path to the second chair was much the same as what Turner describes, but I didn’t climb the corporate ladder as high as he did. I had 20 years of corporate IT background at every level, finishing as the IT Director for a $500-million national retailer. I also started and ran my own business for three years, which gave me a totally different perspective — from being an employee, to being the boss and the person who’s totally responsible.

A lot of my XP friends along the front range came up the same way — with a mix of business, military and higher education.

Church Executive: Turner contends that finding the right XP depends more on what that person wants to be used by for Jesus in the future than what he’s done in the past. Do you agree?

Fletcher: Yes; SuJohn_Mrazektton hit the nail on the head. There are many different backgrounds of people who become XPs. While there’s no “one-size-fits-all,” I see that about half of all new XPs — and perhaps more — come from the business world.

Rojas: My own background is quite diverse within the ministry world. I have a music degree and an MDiv seminary degree. I’ve been in churches of 50 to 5,500 and have served just about every role one can imagine in the church, including janitor. In my 10-plus years of XP’ing, I’ve found that it’s about a 50/50 split for XPs having either business or ministry backgrounds. There isn’t one right way or best way; it’s God’s way.

I do think it’s important for the church to staff the XP’s weakness. I personally need to have a great administrative / financial staff working for me. Likewise, business-background XPs would need someone with a strong ministry management background on their staff. Jesus can (and does) use all kinds!

Mrazek: I mostly agree that every situation requires a unique person to fit into the role. But, I’m reluctant to say that the XP can come from any role because of what we’re called to do. A former worship leader might be good in the creative side of being an XP, but I’d wonder about his abilities to lead the strategic finances, HR and operations aspects of the role without substantial training and experience.

God does an incredible job of matching XPs to the requirements of each season in a church’s life. So, maybe for a given church, a softer-side, creative XP might be exactly what’s needed — and that’s something that only God would know.

By definition, an XP runs the business side of the church. I’ve seen a combination XP / worship leader attempt to be both and do a passable job at either. But, in my opinion — after watching him over a few years and talking with him about his unique struggles — his church would have been better served by splitting the roles and hiring an experienced, operational / business expert to fill the second chair.

EricRojasSometimes, we don’t know what we don’t know. We end up believing that we’re doing great when we’re just doing OK. The more areas in which an XP has experience, the better he’s able to understand each ministry’s unique needs.

But, I think the best XPs are servant leaders who are experts at leading experts instead of “jacks of all trades” who know a little about everything, and not enough about the really important XP-related roles.

Church Executive: It’s been Turner’s experience that many lead pastors don’t fully see the need for an executive pastor — either paid or volunteer. What do you think?

Fletcher: Great point by Sutton. In America, we have the idea that the senior pastor / lead pastor is Superman and can do everything. This doesn’t fit what the Bible says about giftedness; no one person is able to do everything. Churches need to enjoy and encourage the richness of diversity and giftedness of their people — and this applies to volunteer or paid XPs.

Rojas: Unfortunately, I think many senior or lead pastors wait too long to hire an XP. Senior and lead pastors need to do what they’re best equipped and gifted to do, and let an XP come alongside them to lighten the load. I’ve never heard a senior pastor or lead pastor say they hired an XP too soon.

Mrazek: This is definitely a “soap-box” issue for me, and something I could write paragraphs about. I’ll attempt to be brief and say that this is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) issues plaguing the modern church today.

Lead pastors are trained to study and present the word, and to pastor their members in between. I’ve met with professors who teach future pastors and seminary students, and they’ve admitted that the business side of the church is woefully unaddressed in their curricula.

I’ve had seminary students ask me to mentor them in the operations of a church, and then, after a few months, tell me that their school isn’t teaching them near enough to feel prepared to lead a church after graduation. One of the students I mentored actually said that after getting his MDiv degree, he was going to have to get a basic business degree before taking his first church, because he wasn’t prepared to properly lead a church.

This is an excellent example of not knowing what you don’t know. My lead pastors thought they could run the church before I arrived. Finally, they were told by their elder boards that they couldn’t, and that an XP was needed. They read books, attended classes and seminars, and asked for volunteers to help; but, it didn’t work because either they had a full plate already — with teaching and pastoring — or they weren’t equipped with the type of business mind that valued projections, statistics or complex processes or systems.

I haven’t researched this enough to feel comfortable that my thoughts are based in fact, yet. But, in my opinion, the thing that holds churches back from hiring an XP is mostly budget and size — not because they don’t value or need the skill set.

By the time marketplace professionals begin to question their ultimate impact or legacy, they’ve already garnished a substantial income, and their lifestyles and financial needs (college-age children, older parents needing care, maintenance of assets and so on) have required that they make nearly a lead pastor-level salary. Some will work for slightly less to get in the door; but, life eventually catches up, or they decide to deal with less stress or grief and make a lot more by returning to the marketplace.

The perfect team is a business / operational expert paired with a solid communicator who’s schooled in theology and has a pastor’s heart. I’ve seen this combo be incredibly healthy and very successful — when an elder board allows a lead pastor to operate in his strengths and not be required to try to do both roles completely.

Church Executive: At Turner’s own church, Pastor Mark Driscoll dislikes budgets, meetings, manpower planning, financing and so on — but, Turner loves them. So, the two men complement each other. Is this a pretty common dynamic?

Fletcher: Yes; the SP and XP relationship is one of complementary gifts. If both of these key leaders in a church have the same gifts, then there’s going to be trouble!

In my role at EvFree Fullerton, we see [senior pastor] Mike Erre as the “directional leader,” and I’m the “organizational leader.”

Mike casts huge vision for the entire church, brining catalytic preaching and setting the culture for us. My role is to lead the organization by implementing that vision, working with elders, staff and congregation.

Rojas: Oh yeah, that dynamic is right on! It really has to be a complementary yin / yang thing between the two people and roles.

This dynamic also plays out in staff management, team building, decision-making, process / system development and much, much more.

Mrazek: In a previous life, my lead pastor really seemed to enjoy significant parts of the XP role, and we shared it for the first four years of my time with him. After four years, he asked me how he could serve me and make the role even better for me. I asked him to let me do the job by myself so that we could each concentrate on our strengths. He said he’d try and I lasted nine more months before moving on to a place where the lead pastor understood the power of each of us serving in our gifted areas.

I say all that because there are a lot of lead pastors who do a decent job in a lot of the areas that a XP traditionally oversees. But, a decent job is good, but not good enough.

HR is a tough area for an untrained leader, because there’s the machine-like portion of the job that requires constant vigilance and being tied in to the marketplace to ensure compliance with laws and new regulations. And, the strategic “people” side of the role can be very un-pastoral in its execution.

It has always been my opinion that the lead pastor (and his family) should be kept as far away from the finances as possible because of the abuses of the past and the possibility for inaccurate perceptions to taint the giving environment. A lead pastor might have a financial background, but be unable to lead that area effectively because of the natural cyclical nature of the general public and average church member.

The day-to-day grind and repetitiveness of a majority of the processes in the operational area will drive a creative mind crazy, or bore it silly. Operations run at their best when the systems are created and left alone with a little bit of oversight.

There are also areas in the operations that require technical and mechanical expertise which professional ministry leaders have never been exposed to or trained in. Some leads pastors come to their role through the trades, and that’s a blessing for a church.

But, most lead pastors had a few part-time jobs during their season of education and never really learned how to use tools or interact with the trades, all of which would be problematic when selecting suppliers or leading their efforts.

I think the roles are so different that a church is really best served by hiring experts to lead the experts in those areas, or bringing on lead volunteers who are experts in those areas.

Church Executive: Turner says that when he sees an XP fail, it’s usually because he’s are trying to do everything himself, and not building systems and teams of volunteers to share the load of. Is that your observation, as well?

Fletcher: Sutton and I connect on so many issues! Yes, we need to empower God’s people to do ministry, not to do it all ourselves.

The heart of 1 Peter is that God’s people are “believer priests.” There’s no special “priestly caste”; we all should own the ministry of the church and use our gifts in an enormous variety of places.

Rojas: I agree, again, 100-percent. Our job as pastors is to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13).

We’re to do the “administry” so that the saints can do the ministry.

From my perspective, the XP’s top three roles are: 1) to support the senior / lead pastor; 2) to hire and manage a great staff; and 3) to build systems that help equip, train and release God’s people for ministry.

Mrazek: This is absolutely true! XPs can be generalists so that they understand where their expertise ends. And, they need a true expert to finish.

But, the best way for an XP to insure the long-term success and health of the church is to lead the creation of systems and processes that don’t rely on them. Bill Hybels calls it “surrounding yourself with a constellation of stars,” and being the person who provides vision and care for these stars as they perform in the ways God created them to for the benefit of the body of Christ.

This is the Eph. 4 model of the church — preparing and releasing the body to serve in their giftedness.  Church staff should not do the work of ministry. Church staff should lead the doing of the work of ministry through the body of the church. And, the XP should model how this is done.

A successful XP should work himself out of a job daily. In fact, one of my annual evaluation criteria is whether or not a staff member can leave for a vacation and their ministry area not notice that they’re gone. If a staff member is successful, his or her systems and processes should be able to run without their direct oversight and only require their input for improvement and evaluation so that they don’t compare themselves to themselves.

The width and breath of XPs’ responsibilities make it nearly impossible for them to be involved, except at a caring and accountability level. I once heard this type of leadership described as someone whose ears are constantly popping because they’re changing altitudes continuously — from tactical, ground-level management to strategic, 10,000-feet-up perspectives.

The only time I think I was doing the XP job at its maximum efficiency was when I was popping up and down continuously between the two levels, and gently course-correcting my team from both perspectives. That’s why we need to invest in creating systems and processes to free us up to be continuously changing altitudes.

— Reporting by RaeAnn Slaybaugh

 

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