The Second Chair
The joys and challenges of being executive pastor: an interview with Karen Miller
Because Gifted for Leadership serves women in all kinds of church leadership roles, we have a great opportunity to learn from each other. I thought it would be helpful to occasionally highlight a leadership role and learn more about what it involves—plus receive some leadership lessons from a gifted woman.
Enjoy this interview with Executive Pastor Karen Miller.
What does your role as executive pastor look like?
As executive pastor, my first role is to be second chair to the senior pastor, to be sure he is freed to focus on his greatest gifts—leadership, vision, prayer, and preaching. I make sure that he has the ability to focus. And at times I serve as a brainstorming partner for him. So we partner in ministry.
My other major role is to oversee and manage all the staff. I may not be the direct supervisor for everyone, but I hire and fire and do all the personnel tasks as well as give weekly supervision. I help with the growth of the staff and the growth of the church. My goal is really to make sure the staff is healthy.
The other role is to oversee, because those pastors and staff people oversee ministries, so I’m ultimately over the ministries if a problem arises. So I tell people I problem-solve all day with my staff and the problems get to my desk.
What are some of your most memorable experiences in this role?
I love to lead leaders, so a day when I come home really energized is when I’ve sat with my senior leaders. I just love pouring into their growth and stretching them. A couple of weeks ago, we had a pastoral staff retreat, and the first day I had all the people who have pastoral roles with us. I just loved getting them to connect, feeding into them, and having the senior pastor connect with them. The next day we had six senior pastoral staff, and in the morning we started to worship together and then the Holy Spirit just came—and I threw the agenda away. I love to work with the Holy Spirit. I have my agenda. I have my direction set, but I’m always prepared to put it aside.
I enjoy partnering with my senior pastor. He’s a great leader. Our gifts complement one another, so I love doing that. I also love continuing to learn how to be a good second chair. Being a second chair leader is a unique role that a lot of people don’t understand, so I’ve found a lot of help. Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson’s book Leading from the Second Chair has been really helpful.
What are some of the main challenges you regularly face as executive pastor?
One is the amount of information I carry that can’t be shared other places because it’s highly confidential. I used to hate the saying that leadership can be lonely. I always wanted to prove it wrong, but my life is proving it right. I struggle with that because I am relational and I love friendships. But it’s really difficult to be friends with people in the church. When you work, sometimes your frustration is with your boss, and that’s what you talk about when you get together with girlfriends. So I’ve made a commitment to my senior pastor that there are only two people I talk about him with, if I’m frustrated: my husband and my spiritual director. Sometimes people are like, “Wow, you seem really upset.” Well, I could be working through a major struggle with my pastor, I can’t share that. So the loneliness is hard, figuring out how to navigate friendships.
The other piece is feeling a squeeze when I’m always trying to represent my senior pastor, as his second chair leader, but then I have all the people reporting to me. I feel like a shock absorber sometimes, just trying to navigate how all of that works.
How has this role challenged you to grow as a professional?
As a professional it’s caused me to really dig in and say yes, I do have the gift of leadership. To take that seriously, to read and learn and educate myself. My professional goal is to be what Jim Collins describes as a Level 5 leader. A Level 5 leader is one who has incredible professional will and incredible humility. When something comes along and wants to crush me, I want to have a will that won’t give into that or just say, “Well, I’ll just give up and quit.” And I want to always be humble before the Lord.
Coming from a broken family, and my own history of brokenness, there are days where I just laugh because when I first got married I was so insecure and had so much self-hatred that I couldn’t decide whether to make peas or beans for dinner, so I would call my husband and ask him. He’d be like, “You’re a very smart woman. You can make that decision.” There were nights when we didn’t have either because I told him I wasn’t going to decide. And he’d be like, “Fine, just have no vegetables for dinner.”
Growing up in my family, I felt like I didn’t have a mind of my own, I couldn’t make a decision. Fortunately because my husband was healthy enough to say, “I’m not going to make that decision for you,” I began to grow to the point where now every day I’m making decisions that impact people’s lives—their spiritual lives, their families, the staff. And some days I remember it’s only by God’s healing and grace that I finish the day with all that decision making, when 30 years ago I couldn’t decide whether to make peas or beans. So it’s quite a path that the Lord has brought me down.
The reason I share that is because I’ve had to grow in that, because my role in the alcoholic system was the lost child, the middle child. When everything starts to blow up or get hard, the lost child disappears. I would go play with my Barbies on my bed. Get out of there. I’ve since learned I can’t just escape conflict. In my role, that’s all I deal with every day : conflicts in relationships or between staff or between the senior pastor and somebody else. The Lord has really gifted me in helping me through that process where I learned good conflict-resolution skills and good relational skills. That’s the professional piece I’m always pressing into.
How has this role caused you to grow in your faith?
It causes me to depend even more on the Lord, because I take very seriously my call as a pastor and I am shepherding God’s flock. I don’t take that lightly. I know that if I am not connected to the Lord, as in John 15, I could get really off track and lead people astray. So I keep myself in accountability in my own life in the Lord. I have regular prayer days and prayer retreats. I meet with a spiritual director once a month. I have a friend I’m accountable to as well as my husband. I just really need to keep my spiritual life healthy.
It’s a challenge amidst all the craziness, which is why I require myself and my staff to take one paid prayer day a month. We each take a whole day to go off and pray for our work and our families, and hear the Lord.
How do those prayer days affect your team dynamics and decision making?
Usually I end up talking with them after the prayer day, and the Lord has shown them something they’re dealing with themselves and need his help to press through. Or because they’ve been quiet, the Lord has shown them where they need to go in the next step with their leadership ministry. There are times when I’m struggling with stuff, and when I sit and get quiet and I’m praying—there it is. I hear the same feedback from them that it makes a difference.
What do you like best about your role as an executive pastor?
I love to lead leaders, to maximize all of who God has created them to be and to mobilize them to be a force for the kingdom. That’s my passion. And I’m in a position to do that. I can encourage them.
At a pastoral retreat, staff members were talking about where they are influenced, where they keep growing. One guy said, “I feel like I have a transformation conversation every week in supervision with Karen.” A young woman I just hired a few months ago said, “I just grow every time I meet with Karen.” That’s what I want to do.
What kinds of gifts are required for an effective executive pastor?
You have to really understand and have insight into your own leadership. You have to be able to lead leaders and also give leadership away so others can grow. You need to be able to be administrative and build systems. And you need to be able to see what needs to be done. It’s the gift of administration, organization.
You also need high people skills. You need the pastoral ability to be able to work with all kinds of people. And you need to be willing to deal with conflict. If you don’t want to deal with conflict, you probably don’t want to be an executive pastor.
The other thing is you always have to be willing to do what is best for the whole. This is really hard in a church. You have to have the professional will to do the things that are best for everyone and not necessarily best for you.
Karen Miller is executive pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.