The Leadership Life of the Senior Pastor

Whenever I meet up with people, one question that comes up time and time again is: “So, Pastor Seth, what is your life like outside of Sundays?” I always look at them and ask them if they want the abridged version or the long version 🙂

Being a lead pastor is not for everybody; and I have said that people really do need a calling for it, due to the various demands of the vocation. Recently, I was reading an article by Dan Reiland who works with John Maxwell at Injoy and also serves as an executive pastor at 12 Stones Church. Reiland gave some interesting insights as well as a good description of what a lead pastor goes through.

Here is his article from “The Pastor’s Coach,”

The life of any leader is unique. There are pressures, pitfalls and promises that we all experience, but I believe there is something very distinctive about the role of a local church senior pastor. I have worked closely with three senior pastors over the course of many years, and coached / consulted with hundreds. Their role is uncommon in its demands and its delights.

Senior pastor, you gotta laugh when people ask questions like: “What do you do all week?” or “Do you work full time?” or one of my favorites, “Do you get to play lots of golf?” At times you want to wrap that dusty nine iron that never comes out of its bag around their uninformed neck… but then you think better, smile and love them anyway.

As I listened to one senior pastor tell me about his leadership life, the image of an annual physical with the family doctor came to mind. You are poked and prodded, and blood is drawn – but none is given back. You learn things you don’t want to know, you are told you need to eat better and exercise, but don’t have time. Then you are given a report only containing what is wrong, nothing about what is right. And you think, ‘When do I get to give a report like this to my congregation?!’ Then, once again, you think better, smile and keep on leading.

Within the larger context of joy and privilege, pressure is a very real part of the job.

Pressure is a necessary part of life, but too much of it, or never finding relief can cause serious trouble. How is your pressure level these days? What are your relief valves? My prayer is that as you read through the practical and personal pressures that a senior pastor faces, you will find insight and encouragement. If you are not a senior pastor, this article will help you pray for, support and encourage your senior pastor.

Practical Pressures:

The vast majority of senior pastors answer the same when they list the top three practical pressures they face. In the midst of dozens of things to do, emails to answer, and people to see these three things rank at the top of the pressures that never go away. These pressures are not bad, but they are very real.

1) Writing and delivering a meaningful message (Every week!). Every seven days! It’s not quite as much pressure as the newspaper business, but its close. Every day they start fresh. Every Monday, you start fresh. Each message is expected to instruct, inspire, and challenge. Your message is expected to entertain with the creativity of a Hollywood movie and then carry the fresh anointing of God! No problem! Not to mention that you are compared to Andy Stanley, Ed Young Jr. and Bill Hybels. No pressure there.

2) Discerning and communicating a compelling vision (Leadership!). This pressure seems to carry the most weight of all. Of the hundreds of pastors I’ve had share their vision with me; most pause, get reflective, and even if enthusiastic – communicate with a weightiness to their answer. More senior pastor’s than you might imagine struggle to give a clear answer, and more than a few have lost sight of a fresh and compelling vision. This is not uncommon, so don’t despair.

3) Raising the finances needed to resource the vision (Money, money, money!). I have never met a senior pastor who said his church had enough money, not even one. The complexity of mixing the spiritual nature of trusting God for finances, together with the human element of inspiring the people to give to a vision is a huge pressure. We can say that it’s not about people giving to resource the church, and that it’s about being obedient and giving to God. But a leadership reality check says that ministry requires money. And it’s expensive.

Personal Pressures:

This list varies more than the one just covered. Nonetheless, the majority of senior pastors would include these three things at the top of their list of personal pressures. Again, the idea is not that these pressures are bad, but simply recognize that they are real.

1) Leading well at home, and leading well at church. This is a positive and healthy pressure close to the heart of any senior pastor. It’s connected to an expectation that the senior pastor’s home is a loving, spiritually grounded, mature and God-filled environment. Whether or not this is “fair” or “right” isn’t the point. The fact that it’s true is the pressure. There isn’t one family that carries quite the scrutiny as does the senior pastor’s.

2) Loneliness – the quiet place where “the buck stops here.” This is the most difficult of all six points for me to write about. This is the one that as close as I get and as much as I understand, there is a point where the senior pastor carries what no other person in the church carries. I’m not suggesting that the vision and burden isn’t shared. It is, but there is something about the last point on the decision-making trail. There is something about the quiet loneliness in the stillness of the night that I can sense from a close up view, and though we can carry much, there is that certain place of leadership that is carried by the senior pastor. To this I don’t dare add any practical how to advice or three steps to success. I can only say, on behalf of all of us, thanks, and “we” hope to lift as much of the load as possible.

3) Hearing from God… the ultimate combination of privilege and pressure. This is a bitter sweet pressure. There is nothing sweeter in life than hearing, knowing and following the voice of God. And yet, the worst place for a spiritual leader is to experience the opposite. I know of no leader who has not experienced at least a season where God was quiet. That can scare the tar out of the best of Christian leaders. We dare not take a step out from under the direction of God. And yet sometimes when we can’t hear Him, it at least seems like we must keep moving. So for the senior pastor this is huge. Learning to trust in those few but weighty times when God seems to be quiet is tough. It’s a time to wait, trust, hold and pray. Don’t panic, but pray, and my prayer for you is that you would never get comfortable in that silence. It’s easy to slip into following your own voice in the silence of God’s voice. Never settle for that, press on, hold on, pray, listen and wait.

This is just a glimpse. There are other things that he did not mention. But in general, pastors, especially lead pastors need a lot of prayer coverage. I pray that you will join other people in praying for me and the other pastoral staff… we really need it.

Spiritual ENTREPRENEUR, Church EQUIPPER, Leadership EDUCATOR, Ideas EXPERIMENTER & Global EXPLORER who is trying to transform lives and transform the world.
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