Denominational Executives come vested with all kinds of titles–Bishops, District Superintendents, District Presidents, Conference Chairs et al. Whatever their title theirs is an important office. As “overseers” they have many responsibilities which, in many cases, impacts and influences congregational ministry in important ways. Many leadership positions carry a certain “mystique”. This mystique also carries with it a sort of enigmatic mysteriousness which sometimes causes others to ask, “What is that District President doing?” “Why did the Bishop do that?” “Why didn’t the DS intervene in some other way?” Certainly the best way to find accurate answers to these questions is to speak directly with the respective denominational executive. When approached hopefully they will share what they can do and what support and guidance they can offer to address your present ministry needs in a professional and supportive manner. Sometimes, as frustrating as it may be, direct answers may not be given. It may not because they don’t want to. Instead it may be because they simply can’t for reasons they cannot disclose. When this occurs, their silence may become an issue which can undermine their support unless people–and especially pastors–develop a sense of what it’s like to be a denominational executive. What is it like to be a denominational executive? Perhaps a greater understanding of a denominational executive’s doings can be attained by not only processing what they can tell you, but also by what they can’t tell you. 1) The Office Of Denominational Executive Is More Overwhelming Than They Ever Realized. Just underneath the thin facade of the “glory” of the office is a profound, overwhelming mass of responsibilities. Certainly every ministry has such great responsibilities. At the denominational executive level, not only are the decisions bigger, but the responsibilities and possible repercussions are also more far-reaching. 2) Being A Denominational Executive Is A Very Thankless Calling. Everyone enjoys a pat on the back once in a while. Unfortunately, the higher the level of leadership responsibility, the less thanks and support one receives. Denominational executives often exert exhausting energies trying to take care of things behind the scenes, often beyond the call of duty, to ensure that things go well. Since there is often no one there to give recognition–and in some cases, recognition can’t be given because of the nature of the situation–the only reward they get is knowing that what they did will give some relief to averting a worse scenario. 3) They Are Overwhelmed With Conflict. Though they know it must be dealt with, denominational executives hate conflict. Everywhere they look it seems as if there’s another battle to fight, another conflict to settle, another dispute to arbitrate, and another fire to put out, another talk with a lawyer to avoid law suits…and that’s just the ones that involve disputes regarding the denominational office. Add to that the battles, conflicts, disputes, fires and explosions coming from congregational infighting…and the pastoral conflicts with which they must deal. It’s an everyday occurrence which grinds on and on and on…without end. 4) Pastoral Placement Is Frustrating. There is no one more interested in placing the right pastor in the right parish than the Denominational executive. If the right person is in the right place, potential for conflict which will involve the denominational executive is minimized. Unfortunately, denominational executives do not have a crystal ball to determine exactly how pastors and congregations will act. Given the tools or opportunity to develop personnel procedures to help make better congregation-pastor match-ups, many denominational executives would probably say they would be interested…if they had the time. As important as pastoral placement is, it is one of many, many important responsibilities which must be squeezed in to an already impossibly frantic schedule. 5) Good Leaders Are Hard To Find. Every organization requires good leaders. They better they are, the harder they are to find. Filling leadership positions–especially volunteer positions–are hard to fill. Sure, there’s always the over-zealous antagonistic self-important lay person who always seems to be “right there” to fill the next key vacancy. Then there’s the ones who do nothing but, because they enjoy the status of being on a denominational board, never leave. Then there’s those who are trusted with information and responsibility and then betray the denominational executives office by misuse and abuse this information. The “clean up” is never easy and always takes much valuable time and effort to restore order…and trust. 6) The Thing Denominational Executives Want Most Is Your Trust. Whether their decision is right or wrong, denominational leaders cannot do their best without the trust of those they lead. Unfortunately so many give trust to denominational executives on an “all or nothing” basis. If the denominational executive makes one mistake, they are disrespected and gossiped about in church circles…instead of being approached directly the way pastors and others would like. Among others things, trust entails an understanding which is based on good communication, ready-to-offer forgiveness, and a willingness to work together in a humble, cooperative manner to achieve God-pleasing denominational objectives. Denominational executives yearn for, pray for and appreciate such people. Unfortunately, they are too few are far-between. 7) It Is Lonelier Than You Can Imagine At The Top. Denominational executives and their families are often severely strained by the pressures of the office. Long hours, constant travel, extended time away from family, an inability to have access to social situations in which they can make true friends are but some of the things which make it lonely at the top. Add to that the constant pressure, tension and heartaches of ministry and the stress of having to “make the tough call” in many difficult situations and the result is not pretty. There really is no complete “getting away” from it all. Wherever you go, whatever you do, the office goes with you whether you like it or not. This constant pressure eats away at relationships and ones desire and capacity to have the energy needed to even maintain the few significant relationships one has. 8) They Secretly Long To Be In Parish Ministry. Denominational executives often become overseers because of their ability to deal with people. Over the years they have enjoyed robust congregational ministry. They have enjoyed and developed close relationships with people. Their pastoral ministries have involved them in the lives of individuals and families. They have enjoyed the regular contact with people. They made calls, they taught new converts, and they watched God’s Word change the lives of real people as they preached to the same congregation each week…their congregation. There’s hardly an denominational executive who has not shed deep tears of longing as they reflect on what they had in congregational ministry and how they miss it so very, very much. One denominational executive, having founded a congregation and led it through decades of remarkable growth, was asked how he liked it in his new position. With tears in his eyes, he said,
- “I never appreciated, during all those years, just how close I was to the people of the congregation. I also never could have imagined just how lonely it would be to leave them and become a denominational executive…I miss being with the people so very, very much.”
9) They Are Sick Of “Butt-Kissing Wanna-Be’s.” There’s a certain security of being able to work around people who are content with themselves, their calling, and their responsibilities. Unfortunately, too many denominational executives experience environments overwhelmed with (pardon my “French”) “Butt-Kissing Wanna-Be’s.” Such individuals are invariably passive-aggressive, not content with themselves, not happy with others and though apparently enthusiastic about their responsibilities, really want more. They want position, recognition and power and will often back-stab or manipulate, albeit covertly, to get it. Usually denominational execs know who these people are…but they, too, can be surprised. It is this element of “surprise” which often causes denominational executives to take the “safe” position of not delegating to others things which might well be delegated. 10) They’re Not Doing This For The Money. Though they generally receive higher levels of compensation than those in congregational ministry, the financial compensation is not commensurate for the effort required. Equivalent positions in corporations have far more generous benefits, compensation packages, and retirement programs. 11) Intervening In Congregational Conflict Is Uncertain At Best. So often denominational executives, when called to intervene in pastor/congregation conflict, may not become as involved in the situation as either party may hope. This is not necessarily because the denominational executive is unwilling or incompetent to deal with the situation. Instead, denominational executives recognize that more often than not the hurt caused to pastors and congregations is greater when intervention is tried than when it is not. Since many congregations and pastors have limited capacities to change, even if an agreement were worked out the potential for sequential, multiple conflicts would still remain. This limitation is often the guiding force in recommending to pastors that they leave a conflicted congregation. 12) The “Call” To Remain In A Local Congregation May Not Be Worth Fighting For. In many denominations the “call” to a local congregation includes an open-ended guarantee of “tenure.” This call often states something to the effect that the pastor, barring Scriptural cause for removal, has the right, authority and unconditional support of the congregation to remain in that congregation until such time God moves the pastor. However this “guaranteed” tenure is often challenged. Pastors, properly believing that they have the legal right to exercise and fully defend their call, often get badly beaten up in the process. Depression, anger, frustration, brokenness, questioning, spiritual doubt, and the thoughts of leaving the ministry are but some of the consequences of the faithful pastors’ noble defense. It can take years for pastors to recover from these dynamics…and longer for their families. The bottom line question denominational executives ask is, “Is it worth it to put someone through ecclesiastical crucifixion?” Often their answer is “No.” If one has thirty years of ministry to offer is it worth keeping them in a conflict which will not only possibly shorten their ministry, but their life span? Is it in the pastor’s best interest to “fight it out” and spend five years of ministry trying to recover from the devastation? Wouldn’t those five years be better spent in a more vigorous, supportive and fruitful ministry? 13) Disciplining Congregations Is Hazardous, Uncomfortable And Unfruitful. In the long-run congregations tend to follow the laws of physics. Things in motion tend to stay in motion; things not in motion tend not to move at all. Healthy congregations may continue to be healthy over the long haul; unhealthy ones may continue to be unhealthy even with skillful intervention. For this and other reasons, many denominational executives may simply avoid disciplining congregations. Not only will it not do any good; but the harm created might be worst than the current presenting issues and merely exacerbate an already bad situation. Denominational execs will often ask, “Why make it worse than it already is?” “Who needs more trouble on their hands?” “Not me!” is often the answer. 14) I Have Dark Days, Too. Virtually every triumph and failure is publicized. Unfortunately, bad news always seems to get more publicity. When denominational execs find themselves in a “bad news” scenario, it can be very, very lonely. The days, no matter how bright they might seem to others, can be woefully dark. Sometimes they wonder if God is really there or not. Being patient to wait for God’s strength and insight is also tiring. Not having people to talk too only makes it more lonely…and dark. But regardless of how they feel, it’s difficult for them to have people to whom they can cry out for help, support and encouragement. 15) I Like Appreciation. Denominational Execs are people too. They want to feel needed, wanted and valuable. They want a sense of belonging. It doesn’t take much…just a friendly phone call, a note, an email, or shaking hands the denominational exec’s with a genuine, friendly smile of appreciation goes a long way to encourage them in their work. Like small import cars, they get excellent “gas” mileage on a compliment. Every “drop” of appreciation can keep them going for hundreds of ministry “miles.” 16) Don’t Whine. Denominational Execs, as others, are often willing to hear what you have to say. But don’t whine. After all, they don’t whine to you, do they? Of course, like you, virtually every DE needs someone confidential to whine to sometime. But finding confidential, trusted individuals to whom they can pour their soul is painfully difficult. 17) Deal With Your Own Problems. Though they want to be able to provide resources for the unexpected crises and overwhelming ministry situations, denominational executives do not want to deal with your day-to-day problems for you. Grow up! Handle those yourself. Pastors who cannot handle their own day-to-day, run of the mill “ordinary” problems in their own congregations either a) need help from a counselor, b) need a new congregation, or c) should not be in the ministry. 18) Don’t Be So Eager To Withhold Denominational Support! So often pastors and/or congregations will withhold their support of the denominational because of one issue or disagreement with a denominational exec. Sometimes people make mistakes. Other times, people don’t know the whole story. Whatever the reasons, withholding denominational support is more a reflection on those withholding it than those who would receive it. Threatening actions such as withholding seldom only hurt the one against whom the retaliation is directed. Withholding support from the denomination is ultimately an act of congregational self-sabotage. Their reduced support means they will have fewer resources available to assist them in times of need. 19) Don’t Play Games. Level With Me. Denominational executives need good information from trusted brothers and sisters in ministry. They need this information not just to survive, but to make good decisions. Unfortunately what is confidential may not be disclosed. For this reason you may not have all the information. When leveling with the denominational executive they will ask and assume that you can be trusted with the information given and to give them support…even as they will support you. 20) Recognize I Can’t Meet Everyone’s Expectations. Though a DE will do everything possible to reasonably meet expectations, many other factors often make meeting expectations an impossible task. Often the multi-faceted expectations conflict with each other. Sometimes the sheer complexity of the expectations at hand make it unrealistic or impossible to fulfill. Sometimes there just aren’t enough resources or political support to implement what might be necessary to realize the fulfillment of these expectations. Everyone with these kinds of expectations must be prepared to feel let down from time to time. Indeed, any listing of DE’s expectations will probably be characterized by a greater number of frustrated expectations than fulfilled ones. 21) It’s Hard To Find People Who Can Be Totally Confidential. A DE often has trouble maintaining their own confidential support network. It makes for a very lonely ministry. Whenever confidentiality is broken, the DE knows that the consequences can be far-reaching. It is this fear which can make it difficult for DE’s to talk, trust and share openly with pastors and congregations. 22) I’m Overloaded. There Are Just Too Many Bases To Cover. Given the way in which church-related organizations are regularly under resourced with finance, a DE may well be trying to cover too many bases in a way which would not be tolerated in a secular well heeled operation. The additional ministry pressure simply adds even greater burdens and potential for burnout in an position characterized by some very high stress levels. 23) I Have Too Few Real Friends. A DE often has few close friends. Time (or lack of it) is one reason; the nature of the task is another. The constant travel and demands to be in multiple places at once while being immediately available for everyone’s schedule results not only in an almost complete vacuum of close, intimate friends but a vacuum of closeness and support with their own family. It is this challenge of building and maintaining trust relationships which perhaps most frequently and profoundly “haunts” the daily life of DE’s. It is this aspect of daily life which may be the DE’s catalyst for burnout…or a deepened connection with God. 24) I’m A Very Frustrated Change Agent. DE’s many dreams and visions for what God can do in the denomination. Given the unique vantage point a DE enjoys, these dreams and visions can be quite vivid. Unfortunately, it is difficult to be a change agent in at various denominational levels and among congregations and church leaders who simply do not want to change. 25) Don’t Expect Me To Get It Right Every Time. Like everyone else, DE’s are sinners too. Their actions can be hindered, changed, challenged, sabotaged, misunderstood and undermined in many ways and for virtually any reason–rational or irrational. Perhaps most frustrating are those times when DE’s are not given all the information which a situation requires. Of course, there are some things which DE’s probably wished they did not know. Sometimes ignorance is bliss for DE’s even as it is for pastors. 26) This Ministry Can Seriously Affect My Health. The work load of a DE can produce prolonged weariness and stress of a kind which can seriously affect health and even limit longevity itself. Additionally, the nature of the work often requires a DE to carry some loads which, by their nature, cannot be easily shared. This load is further burdened by the difficult necessity to balance the DE’s various roles: supervisor, pastor, caregiver of congregations, and overseer of their called and enlisted professional servants. Keeping these roles in balance without losing one’s self is a difficult tightrope to walk. It is a daily challenge. 27) Dealing With The Sins Of Others Is No Fun. Church discipline is never any “easy” task. It involves loving, but confrontation. Such is difficult enough in local congregations. It is much more difficult–and serious–when those who must be disciplined are the called servants of God. It is especially difficult because of the enormous ramifications of any disciplinary action to the individuals involved, the respective congregation, and ultimately all those affected in the denomination. Especially frustrating is dealing with third-party complainants who tattle on others rather than lovingly confronting them. Such individuals, even when confronted, almost always respond to the DE’s intervention by making the DE the focus of their expanded tattling. If disputing parties would simply remember that Jesus’ guidelines for church discipline are sandwiched between His two teachings regarding forgiveness the job of a DE would be much easier. 28) It’s Hard To Keep The Focus On The New Testament Vision Of Outreach That Is Based On The Word Of God And Prayer. There are so many, many things that obscure this vision. Sometimes DE’s get pressured to focus so much on the institutional needs of the denomination (ecclesiastical structure, resolutions, policies, etc.) that they become frustrated in their desire to represent Christ and His vision for the church. Sometimes it is the sense of their own powerlessness to uphold the enormous profundity of this vision which drives them to depend on God’s Word. Sometimes this powerlessness leads them to pray in ways even they never thought imaginable. As important as it is trying to continually center one’s devotional and worship life in Christ and His Word while experiencing a whirlwind schedule is sometimes a virtual impossibility. Even when accomplished, it is virtually always an enormous source of spiritual frustration..
29) A DE May Have To Tell You Something You Don’t Want To Hear – especially if it has to do with the way you are exercising your ministry. A DE will want to break it to you gently so give them a chance. Don’t shoot the messenger. Listen to the message with love and prayerful and humbly reflect on the message…regardless of how painful it may be. The Most Important Thing They Won’t Tell You Is… 30) Remember The Golden Rule.As one looks over the listing above, perhaps the thing that is most striking is that these items are also things that most pastors won’t tell their denominational execs, either. Isn’t it interesting how both ministries seem to share so much yet so often lack the mutual support needed to effectively carry out Christ’s mission? If “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” applies to ourselves, our ministry, and our neighbor, ought it not apply even more prominently in dealings with our denominational executives? The author of Hebrews wrote,
“Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. Pray for us: for we trust we have a good conscience, in all things willing to live honestly.” Hebrews 13:17-18 (KJV)
This is what every pastor expects of their flock. If one follows the Golden Rule, ought we not exercise it foremost and primarily with our denominational overseers, too? Even if they don’t, won’t or can’t tell you, give them what you want most: the benefit of the Golden Rule. It may not only encourage their ministry…it may encourage yours, too!
Thomas F. Fischer*For Part II of this article see “Things Your Denominational Executive Would Love To Tell You” Ministry Health article 344