One of my favorite movies of all time is Crimson Tide. Have you seen it? There’s trouble in Russia, and the American ballistic missile submarine, Alabama, is ordered into action. The captain, played by Gene Hackman, has just selected a new executive officer (XO), played by Denzel Washington. The captain and XO end up at odds with one another over proper ballistic missile launch procedure under the ship’s circumstances on patrol. A pretty cool movie, if you ask me!
I’ve had many discussions with new executive pastors or people I’ve talked with who are considering serving as an executive pastor, about the relationship between the senior and executive pastors. Is it like that of a corporate CEO and COO/CFO? Is it a typical “boss, subordinate” relationship?
I say, “no.” The relationship is unlike any other similar relationship. There are a few books out there that I always recommend when I’m having one of these discussions. In my opinion, the best one is Leading From The Second Chair, by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson. You can check it out in My Library.
I say the relationship is more like that of a ship’s captain and XO. Do I mean the senior and executive pastors end up at odds with one another? No. At least, I certainly hope not, and that has not been my experience. But if you watch the movie and pay attention to how Gene and Denzel relate to each other related to the crew, you’ll get the idea.
The captain gives orders directly to the crew without going through the XO. This is especially true when the captain “has the conn.” Having “the conn” refers to piloting the ship and having responsibility for the ship’s actions and safety. So, the senior pastor is responsible for the church much the same way as a ship’s captain is responsible for the ship. When key directional changes are being considered, or the “safety” of the church is in question, the senior pastor will have direct involvement in directing the staff (the crew), sometimes not going through the executive pastor, necessarily.
Onboard ship, the XO is the “go-to” person for the captain and is the primary leader for most day-to-day operational activities. The XO is also the direct supervisor for the crew, dealing with the crew’s ongoing issues. The executive pastor, like the XO, is the day-to-day leader of the staff, working with them to help them successfully lead their individual ministry areas. The executive pastor might also help the crew, on occasion, understand and interpret the requests and desires of the senior pastor.
Like the XO, the executive pastor operates independently as it relates to directing the staff but always keeps the senior pastor informed about what’s going on and, most importantly, never does anything to undermine the senior pastor. Over time, the executive pastor is so in sync with the senior pastor that the decisions they make are always consistent with the wishes of the senior pastor.