Archive for September, 2010


Monday, September 20th, 2010

Congregations that employ more than one pastor often grapple with the authority relationships between those two pastors, particularly in congregations that call their pastors and embrace a congregational form of polity.  Increasingly, these congregations are inquiring about, or exploring, co-pastorate relationships. I’m using the terminology here to refer to a relationship in which there is no designated senior pastor. Both pastors function with shared authority and  equal  salaries. The notion of equally yoked pastoral leadership is attractive because it models a form of shared power and decision making that we’d like to see lived out in our congregations and in our communities. We’re attracted to the ideal of shared authority, to the ideal of equally valuing the giftedness of our pastors, and to the ideal of equal pay for equal work. Co-pastor relationships seem like a good leadership model for embracing all of these principles.

While these ideals are noble and noteworthy there are some serious problems and repercussions in the practicality of co-pastor relationships that, I believe, make them a less than stellar managerial option. In my experience, co-pastor relationships either work brilliantly (because the chemistry in the partnership is right from the beginning and the congregation doesn’t have to do much to keep it healthy) or they fail miserably.  When they work brilliantly there is a beautiful synergy in the relationship that infects the congregation in a very positive way. When they don’t work well they can be a disaster, not just for the two ministers but for the entire congregation.

Let’s explore some of the reasons that these partnership tend to fail.

By design, a co-pastor relationship requires having two ministers with skill sets that are different, but perceived as equal, in the eyes of the congregation. Right away we’re off to a difficult start. Congregations tend to value preaching, teaching and pastoral care over community involvement, social justice, administration and religious education. Two ministers with different preaching skills may not be viewed equally in the eyes of the congregation. In fact, the congregation doesn’t really need two equally gifted preachers. Will the congregation ever invest the weaker preacher with the same ministerial authority that they vest in the stronger preacher? Probably not.

A co-pastor relationship requires having two ministers that are equally loved and known by the congregation, and equally valued in pastoral care. Ministers earn much of their authority in the life of the congregation through their pastoral care involvement.  If co-pastors enter the church together the church has a reasonable shot at keeping this part of the relationship healthy. If one of the ministers has already been serving in the congregation for an extended period of time, the longer tenured pastor will have established stronger relationships with congregants. The second minister that enters the system at a later point in time may have a very difficult time establishing the kind of pastoral care presence needed to fully vest the authority of the role. The longer established, longer loved minister will always be perceived as having more power and authority in the system, even though the two roles are designed to share power equally.

Clarity of vision and strategy is critical, particularly in the large congregation. Vision drift is one of the biggest threats to the large congregation. It’s very easy for the collective staff team and governing body to lose clarity of focus. The large congregation is capable of doing so many things well that it has difficulty keeping a clear eye on the distinctive program strengths and core identity of the congregation.  A singular point person who is charged with maintaining the vision clarity of the congregation (through careful coordination of the staff team and the governing board) has a better shot at this than a shared partnership does.

The overall performance management system of the staff team works best when every person on the staff team has one clear supervisor. This is the person with whom they negotiate their role and set performance expectations, and from whom they receive feedback.  A co-pastor relationship may or may not impact this dynamic. Confusion reigns if members of the staff team have to begin negotiating role expectations with two different ministerial leaders, and either minister can call for a change in ministry priorities. Sluggishness occurs if members of the staff team have to seek permission to act from two different leaders.  If there is not clarity in supervisory relationships the entire staff team begins to function with a murkiness that is palpable throughout the entire congregation.

One of the greatest challenges that the governing body of a congregation faces is its oversight role of the senior minister.  Historically, congregations haven’t done this task very well. A co-pastor relationship place much greater demands on the governing board in its role as supervisor of the ministers. The co-ministers are ultimately accountable to the board. If disagreements between the two ministers emerge, that they are unable to effectively resolve between themselves, the board will be called upon to mediate. There is a level of complexity presented by a co-pastor relationship that exponentially increases the skills sets needed by board members to serve as mediators/employers. If the co-pastor relationship is not working well, all of the energies of the board will be consumed by the relationship, because there is simply no other place in the church for the relationship to be managed. A governing body that is wrapped up in the dysfunction of a co-pastor relationship doesn’t have much energy for its other critical tasks.

Finally, and very pragmatically, congregations often find it difficult to pay two ministers equally and still set compensation packages high enough to attract the best of talent. I know this seems callous and perhaps unjust, but it is real. A congregation’s capacity to support ministerial salaries works best when there is one higher paid senior minister who brings an elite skill set and one assistant or associate minister who comes in with a lower price tag because of lesser experience or skill set. Hiring two, equally skilled and highly gifted ministers may be outside the financial capacity of the congregation. Hiring two, equally skilled and lesser gifted leaders will probably not provide the congregation with the leadership that it needs.  You may find yourself faced with a pool of substandard candidates.

Money and Voice

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

 “Hi, my name is Carol. I’m sorry to arrive late.  I’m part of the foundation that paid to finance this work that brought you here.” (Big Smile)

These were the words of a late arrival at a recent training session in a congregation. I was training facilitators who were about to conduct focus groups as part of a larger planning process.  I thought it was a rather unusual, although not unfamiliar, way for someone to introduce herself to me for the first time. Certainly she wasn’t just trying to provide random identifying information. She could have said that she worked with the church’s foundation, without adding the bit about having “paid for my services”. People often feel compelled to inform me that they had something to do with underwriting my work, and I wonder just what they expect me to do with the information. Are they trying to communicate that I need to honor them, thank them, be careful of them, pay close attention to them…or all of the above?

I realize that this issue isn’t isolated to the consulting role. Those of you who lead large congregations are accustomed to tending the needs of donors who underwrite significant new programs, buildings etc. Like me, you have to figure out to what extent those voices will be allowed to influence decision making in the ministries you lead. You have to figure out to what extent you will allow yourself to be influenced or swayed by the needs and wants of the big donors.

Here is the simple guideline I’ve worked out for myself in my practice, when asked to make special accommodations for financial backers of my work…I don’t do it. A donor only gets to play a role in the process as determined by other attributes of their membership or participation.  A donor only gets to speak with me one on one if they serve in some legitimate role in the congregation that would justify the conversation (other than their role as donor). I don’t do special listening sessions with donors and I don’t advocate that large donors be included on the strategic planning team when their only qualifying virtue is that they are a large donor (although often they do end up getting appointed to the committee before my arrival). For an outside consultant it’s a slippery slope to begin making accommodations in a decision making process; to give greater voice to the important donor.

I’m quite aware that the role of pastor in negotiating the voice of the moneyed member is not quite as cut and dried as mine. You are a teacher, pastoral care provider, and perhaps a friend to your donors. You must continually negotiate the decision making voices of your leaders with the real awareness that some people can make a bigger difference financially than others. So, how do you negotiate this on a day to day basis? What guidelines or boundaries do you establish as you nurture your donor base, so that your significant donors are cared for, but don’t hold too much sway? Post a response and help me understand how this works in your context.

Photo Credit: Voice Within Silence at

Recognizing Stagnation

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

One of the challenges of large church leadership is learning to recognize stagnation before it drags you down. The large church is often likened to the ocean liner; slow to respond and slow to turn. The large congregation is capable of maintaining momentum over long periods of time, but when stagnation seeps in and the rate of growth slows or declines (however you define growth) it’s difficult to recognize and react in a timely manner. Once decline has begun it’s terribly hard to reverse that loss of momentum. Identifying and responding to stagnation early is critical to large church vitality. 

I’ve worked in several congregations over the last year where stagnation has reared its ugly head, and I’ve noticed something peculiar in each situation. Leadership refuses to acknowledge that the stagnation is real. The key numerical indicators of the church show stagnation or decline in key areas; worship attendance is off, Sunday school attendance is flat, there is zero growth in pledging units. But leadership dismisses these indicators by focusing on their own lived experience of vitality; worship feels energetic, there are lots of people in the hallways on Sunday mornings, we see lots of children everywhere, the overall operating budget keeps getting larger.

So, here’s what I’m coming to understand about this experience. When the data that we collect to evaluate the health of the congregation is in conflict with the lived experience of leaders, leaders will usually rely on their lived experience and find reasons to dismiss the data. “Perhaps we aren’t getting accurate data now, or maybe the data from a few years back was overstated”. The problem with relying on our lived experience of vitality is that no one can experience the whole congregation at any point in time. We each have our own lens on vitality, viewed through a particular window of participation. In the large congregation, nobody can see or grasp the collective experience from their singular vantage point, not even the senior clergy person.  The very fact that we are hosting four different worship experiences in various parts of the building on a Sunday morning lends an air of busyness and vitality that can mislead. Pockets of vitality and energy prevent us from seeing a larger picture of slowed growth or gradual decline. That’s why the numbers are so important to get right and to pay attention to.

The problem with numbers is that they are hard to gather correctly and it’s hard to figure out what the meaningful indicators are that would give us a better feel for vitality and health. Sunday morning worship and Sunday school attendance only tell part of the picture in the large church that makes extensive use of the building for programming throughout the week. And what about the congregation that hosts a significant part of its ministries outside the four walls of the building?

So what numerical indicators are churches paying attention to these days? Increasingly, I’m hearing congregations talk about measuring touch points in the life of the congregation. Touch points are individual moments in time when someone serves, or is served by, the ministry of the congregation.  More and more congregations are trying to collect better data on small group involvement and participation in mission and service projects. Some congregations are even trying to measure self reported attention to spiritual disciplines in the life of congregants.

I’d love to hear more about the ways and means that you are using to measure vitality and health in your congregations. Post a response and let me know what you are trying to measure and why.

Photo Credit: WezSmith at