The Role of the Transformational Senior Pastor

May 1, 2008

Over the years, there has been a good bit of talk about what a senior pastor is “supposed” to be doing when it comes to leading a church. However, it’s clear that the lead pastor’s tasks must be driven by whatever “stage” a church finds itself in. If the pastor is leading a traditional church using the popular chaplaincy model (dare we call it the “seminary” model?), their role is significantly different than those who find themselves leading churches that are healthy, growing, and conflict-limited congregations. Indeed, the tasks of these two pastors are polar opposite of each other.

That’s all well and good if you’re a pastor who’s content with the status quo of chaplaincy or who’s been blessed by landing in a healthy, growing church. But what about those pastors who feel the calling to lead their congregations from the chaplaincy-addicted wilderness of the seminary-model into the so-called promised land of the transforming church?

Let’s take a look at the role for all three of these senior pastors. Although the bulk of this article will address the role of the Transformational Senior Pastor, it will be helpful to get an overview of what the other two pastoral roles entail.

The Role of the Chaplaincy-Addicted Senior Pastor

Let me begin by saying that there’s not a thing wrong about the chaplaincy. Indeed, we need able and willing and called men and women to enter the chaplaincy to be the hands and feet of the serving Jesus. We also need able, willing, and called folks to be Senior Pastors of churches. However, a problem arises when we end up with Chaplains who are serving in Senior Pastor (or Solo Pastor) positions. The issue is that chaplaincy is first and foremost about providing care for the flock. In the seminary model, this is the primary role of pastor (senior or solo)—they “take care” of the flock. And though that sounds good, the fact is that’s not the purpose/mission of the church. Sure, the flock needs to be cared for, but that’s not a role for the Senior Pastor. Indeed, the primary tasks of a Senior Pastor and a Chaplain are like oil and water for the church. They don’t mix.

However, be that as it may be, many, if not most, seminaries are still preparing would-be Senior Pastors to be care-givers rather than church leaders. That being so, the chaplaincy-pastor generally fulfills their role by doing church rather than by leading church. Their forty to seventy hours a week are filled with:

  • Administrative tasks (creating bulletins; updating websites; letter writing; negotiating copier contracts; newsletter creation and/or editing; scheduling meetings; sending reminders; creating budgets; etc.);
  • Attending meetings (committee meetings; team meetings; board/council/session meetings; ministerial association meetings; denominational meetings; ad hoc meetings; event planning meetings; etc.);
  • Chaplaincy (hospital visits; in-home member visits; breakfast, coffee, lunch, dinner visits with anyone/everyone; crisis counseling; pastoral counseling; etc.);
  • Overseeing church ministries (leading events; attending any-each-and-every event every time the church doors are unlocked whether on or off campus; etc.);
  • Presiding (MCing every worship service; providing opening/closing prayers at the fellowship supper, women’s and/or men’s meetings, etc. —see especially Attending meetings above).

The fact is, none of these will grow a church. In fact, they won’t even grow Christians into disciples, let alone into maturity. Look through the list. If you find yourself doing any, or most, of these tasks, it would be a good time to reevaluate your calling. If you derive great satisfaction from doing these things, consider contacting your local hospital, military recruiter, public safety leaders, university, or denominational officials to find out about career chaplaincy opportunities. Why? Because most of these tasks, if not all of them, could be and should be handed off to someone else so you can busy yourself with the tasks associated with the church’s mission to make disciples.

The Role of the Healthy, Growing, Conflict-Limited Congregational Senior Pastor

Okay, that heading is a mouthful, but here’s the deal. Of the estimated 335,000 congregations in the US, only a relative handful fit into the healthy, growing, conflict-limited category. So, unless you’re one of the “lucky” ones, you’re most likely to find yourself in a church that (1) expects their pastoral “leadership” to be a Chaplaincy Senior Pastor or else (2) to somehow lead the congregation out of that chaplaincy-addicted wilderness.

However, even if you’re not one of the few, it’s instructive to know how these Senior Pastors spend their time, if for no other reason than to entice you towards this kind of ministry.

  • Modeling the faith (praying in partnerships—not prayer leading, but praying together; devotion and personal Bible study in partnerships; personal faith-sharing with the unchurched; fasting; taking personal retreats and taking others along; doing NO ministry tasks alone—including sermon writing; etc.);
  • Evangelism (spending intentional and significant time in places specifically chosen for the purpose of meeting new unchurched people and making new unchurched acquaintances; building significant relationships with the unchurched; faith-sharing with friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors, etc.);
  • Leadership development and deployment (apprenticing, training, mentoring, coaching, recruiting, trusting, and encouraging leaders for ministry—in that order; doing NO ministry tasks alone; facilitating the match between leader and calling; etc.);
  • Team building (recruiting and leading the ministry Dream Team; coaching and encouraging individual team members; engendering and strengthening bonds between team members; engendering and ensuring teamwork; etc.);
  • Guarding and guiding mission and vision alignment (measuring every ministry against the congregational mission, vision, and values (MV2); measuring every church decision against the MV2; ensuring every church leader embraces and exhibits the MV2; vision casting; MV2 championing at every possible opportunity; etc.).

The Role of the Transformational Senior Pastor

Although the prevailing wisdom suggests that in order to move to the next level of church (whether transformational or in attendance) the Senior Pastor needs primarily to act “as if” they had achieved that level, many Senior Pastors will find themselves looking for a new position if they suddenly start “acting” as if they’re the leader of a transformed church when the reality is they’re “leading” a chaplaincy congregation.

Rather than acting “as if,” the Senior Pastor who is called to lead a congregation from the chaplaincy-addicted wilderness to the promised land of transformation must take on a new role and must focus on some very specific tasks. This isn’t easy. Indeed, it’s such a difficult transition that 80 percent of all transformation attempts fail. Of course there are a variety of reasons transformation attempts fail, but one of the chief reasons is that the Senior Pastor can’t take the pressure and either capitulates to a vocal minority or else they leave. However, for those who have the heart and the constitution for the change, here is how they must spend their time to effect a congregation’s transformation.

  • Modeling the faith. This is Job One for any transformational pastor  (praying in partnerships—not prayer leading, but praying together; devotion and personal Bible study in partnerships; personal faith-sharing with the unchurched; fasting; taking personal retreats and taking others along; doing NO ministry tasks alone—including sermon writing; etc.);
  • Discerning and embedding faithful DNA (leading in the discovery/discernment of God’s mission, core values, core beliefs, expected behaviors, and compelling vision (the DNA) for the congregation; embodying the DNA in all areas of congregational life, especially by example; preaching and teaching the DNA over-and-over-and-over-and-over again; ensuring the DNA is emblazoned on all communications, including emails, newsletters, bulletins, letters, offering envelopes, bulletin boards, etc.; measuring every ministry against the DNA; measuring every church decision against the DNA; ensuring every church leader embraces and exhibits the DNA; championing the DNA at every possible opportunity; etc.);
  • Redeveloping systems around the DNA (reorganizing the decision making systems to reflect, embrace, and further the DNA, including the board/council, committees, bylaws, etc.; embracing self-differentiation within the system so that the pastor creates and lives into boundaries of how they spend their time and energy);
  • Leadership development and deployment (apprenticing, training, mentoring, coaching, recruiting, trusting, and encouraging leaders for ministry—in that order; doing NO ministry tasks alone; facilitating the match between leader and calling; etc.);
  • Team building (recruiting and leading the ministry Dream Team; coaching and encouraging individual team members; engendering and strengthening bonds between team members; engendering and ensuring teamwork; etc.);
  • Evangelism (spending intentional and significant time in places specifically chosen for the purpose of meeting new unchurched people and making new unchurched acquaintances; building significant relationships with the unchurched; faith-sharing with friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors, etc.).

You may have noticed that there are some duplicate tasks between the Healthy, Growing, Limited-Conflict Senior Pastor and the Transformational Senior Pastor. Notice, however, that the order of priority is different. Although both pastors must prioritize evangelism, the Transformational Pastor will need to spend significantly more time developing and embedding the DNA and redeveloping the organizational systems.

Being a Transformational Senior Pastor is notoriously difficult, but if you’ll redefine your role and practice self-differentiation in that new role, the odds of being a successful transformational leader are bettered.

9 Comments
  1. James L. Higgs January 9, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for the very good insights as to leadership types. I want to write about the leadership roles needed by the pastors of the seven churches of Revelation 2-3. I have pastored four wonderful growing churches in my 50 plus years of ministry. What do I need to quote from articles like these always giving the credit to the writer. Do you have any suggestions about my subject? James Higgs

    • Bill Tenny-Brittian January 10, 2015 Reply

      Since there is nothing in the Revelation about the pastors of those churches, I'm not sure I have much to add to the topic, but thanks for your kind words.

  2. ppackch1 March 16, 2015 Reply

    I found the article helpful, particularly from the point of view that transformational pastors need to do their own work of living out, prayer, visioning with the congregation. I have seen the positive side of this (a church who wants to do this but does not know how) and a negative side (the church that only wants chaplaincy and part of their coming back on the pastor is blaming the pastor for not bringing the vision).......Thanks!

    • Bill Tenny-Brittian March 16, 2015 Reply

      Too true. Thanks for you insights.

  3. Timothy Haut April 20, 2015 Reply

    Good insights, except that in my experience, any of these three types of ministers can "grow a church." Congregations have different personalities and trajectories, just as people do. Sometimes in the life cycle of a congregation, they move from one of these styles of leadership to another. It seems to me that the key to growth is having the right kind of minister at the right moment in time, and having someone who genuinely loves his people, his community, and is a joyful incarnation of the love of God.

  4. Martin Mann April 23, 2015 Reply

    we are a transformational church that began nearly 5 years ago. This article put into words what we are doing without knowing there was a name for it.

    • Bill Tenny-Brittian April 23, 2015 Reply

      Awesome! We need more churches like yours!

  5. Ekow Insaidoo June 5, 2015 Reply

    I found this material very resourceful , but could you further explain to me what the D N A really means?

    • Bill Easum June 5, 2015 Reply

      DNA is the Mission, Vision, and Values of a church. It is what motivates and guides all decisions

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