Pastor or CEO?

How do you shift styles when you pastor a super church?

Johnny V. Miller, Th.D., is the president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, At the time of writing this article he was the senior pastor of the Cypress Bible Church, Cypress, Texas.

Something funny happened on the way to my pastorate—I be came a CEO.

To be a chief executive officer was never my plan or goal. I had wanted to be a simple teacher of the Bible and a shepherd of the sheep. Now I find myself a manager of flocks and a trainer of sheepdogs.

This church started 16 years ago with 35 people who had outgrown a Bible study. That was fun; I knew everyone, loved everyone, interacted with every one. Within two years there were 200, and I was stretched membrane-thin, so we added our first staff member.

Now, six staff members, three secretaries, and about 1,800 people later, the pastorate is a computerized business and a "successful" ministry that leaves me longing for that original simple vision. I'm tired of long-range planning and budgeting and staffing and record-keeping. Instead of pastoring people, I oversee people in fact, I oversee people who oversee people who pastor people. As Woodrow Wilson once said: "By the time anything gets to me, it's a problem."

And the accumulation of problems or demands seems to give each one of them the weight of the whole. If you have one piece of paper on your desk, it's easy to pick it up to read. But if there are a thousand pieces, then the one on the bottom that has been there the longest has the weight of all the others pressing down on it, and it's that much heavier to pick up. That's how I feel as the sheer numbers of demands stack up, each wanting (maybe deserving) all the attention of the single sheet.

Ministry a business?

I've concluded that some people are born to be ranchers; I'm not. I think the explanation for that is as much a matter of energy level as a matter of giftedness. To investigate that theory, I took a four-month sabbatical last summer and visited some "successful" churches to talk to pastors who also had started small and had worked through the transition to bigness. What I discovered helped me understand my own tensions.

I started each interview by explaining my frustration: "I find I'm a CEO instead of a pastor, and I want to know how you cope with that tension." I found out that they did it simply by giving up either pastoring or teaching in order to adjust to being the administrator the CEO.

"What do you think the seminary graduate today needs that he isn't getting?" I asked one, the leader of a nondenominational work that has exploded to several thousand. "Business," he responded. "The ministry today is a business, and the successful pastor has to be a businessman."

"Are you content with that?" I asked. "That's the church today,"he said. "That's serving the Lord." He does it well, but he studies only a couple hours for a sermon and waits until the morning before to prepare it.

"When do you schedule time to study?" I asked a denominational leader who has invested three decades at the same church, developing a multimillion dollar plant and a congregation of more than 2,000. "I don't," he said. "I catch a few minutes here and there when they're available. Usually between 10:00 p.m. and midnight."

Those two seem typical of the high-energy, intensely focused (some would say driven) people who survive the stress-filled years of piling people, programs, pennies, and problems onto their ever-expanding agenda.

To put it bluntly, they are freaks good freaks. They are blessed with enormous personal energy that is fed by, not spent on, their daily demands. They get by on half a night's sleep, seldom take a day off, and rarely take a vacation of more than a couple days. They hold an audience with minimal preparation, are gifted in telling stories, speak with an air of certainty and authority, and exude personal concern.

They also seem to lure money; they are the shakers and movers whose self-image demands a share in something big. So they build monumental campuses that imitate medieval cathedrals and force the little church at the bottom of the hill to emulate just to hold its tiny market share. That means everyone is building proportionately bigger and better, adding amenities, pursuing the shrinking dollar. Indebtedness grows, financial pressure intensifies, fund-raisers multiply.

The average pastor now finds himself sucked into all the grinding pressures that the super-church pastor faces, since that is the standard he is measured against and that is the kind of church he is expected (or expects) to produce if he is successful (read that "called of God and blessed"). It's crushing, both within and without. The average pastor simply lacks the physical and emotional energy to keep up the pace and still do any pastoring at all. In fact, as long as the senior pastor wears the CEO badge, the character of any church is probably going to be entrepreneurial rather than ministerial. It's one thing to assert glibly from the pulpit (or on TV) that you really care for people you've never met; it's another to have time to sit with them and listen to them and get entangled in their spiritual lives.

I'm ready to trade in my multiple staff for a shepherd's staff, get a tetanus shot, and tangle with some sheep. I would like to go back to taking instructions from Scripture instead of Schaller. But I recognize that stepping down may be as hard as stepping up. I am not sure it can happen in a church this size. The level of expectations are too high. There are too many who depend upon the current ministries for either spiritual or financial support. We have gone too far just to suddenly stop and turn around.

Limited options

It seems that my options are fairly limited. The easiest one would be to quit and start over somewhere else with a group of ministry-minded people who would agree that the church should constantly divide when it reaches optimal size for personal ministry. That is easier said than done because it can feel like trying to decide which of your kids you would be more willing to do without. But this approach can and has worked.

A second would be to get a new staff member to do all the CEO functions, releasing me just to pastor and teach. But that would work only if the rest of the church would allow him to actually have the authority (and headaches) that go with such a role. And for myself, the pastoring needs would still be overwhelming if I simply tried to jump into where there are felt needs.

The option I have chosen for now is to pick one very limited group (a portion of the single adults) with whom to identify as their pastor. We meet bimonthly for sharing, prayer, and Bible discussion. I am committed to them and available to them, a church within the church. I steer other needs to other staff members—at least one of the benefits of still being the CEO—and try not to feel responsible for those hurts I can't touch.

I think that it is time to again prize the gift and calling of pastor-teacher, to spot light the people builder and not just the church builder. We need to honor as heroic those who labor with limited energy and/or gifts to build up the sheep in contrast to multiplying flocks, recognizing that this is the heart of the ministry. That should be evident when we see the number that God has called and equipped to do that ministry but who are frustrated because they can't (or won't) live up to the expectations of a CEO. A CEO has a crucial role to play in today's church, but no more crucial than that of leader and feeder of the sheep.

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Johnny V. Miller, Th.D., is the president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, At the time of writing this article he was the senior pastor of the Cypress Bible Church, Cypress, Texas.

May 1992

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