I’ve never quarterbacked an NFL football team, but I’m certain it’s the most difficult position in sports. No other position requires such high levels of decision-making, vision, responsibility, leadership, and talent. Despite the fact there are 52 other players on the roster, 21 other starters, and three aspects of game play (offense, defense, special teams), the quarterback is the one who will be assigned the victory or defeat. The fortunes of most teams rise and fall with the quarterback.
Accordingly, quarterbacks receive the highest salaries. But who usually receives the second highest salary? In many cases, it is the left tackle, an otherwise inglorious position, but the one most responsible for protecting the quarterback from disaster, injury and premature death. NFL teams know it’s true – surround your quarterback with people who can protect him, and the chances of success are great.
The same is true for a church.
I’ve never been a senior pastor, but it’s the most difficult position in the church. Like a quarterback, a senior pastor must possess a wide array of skills, and like a quarterback, he bears much of the weight of victory and defeat. Therefore, it’s important for the rest of us on staff to think of ourselves as left tackles.
I’m in my 19th year as the youth pastor at our church – all with the same senior pastor. Sometimes I’ve been a good team player; other times I’ve been a pain in the shoulder pads. But I’ve increasingly come to realize that my role is not only to lead a healthy youth ministry, but also to support the senior pastor as best as I can. It’s part of my unwritten job description. I have done this imperfectly over the years, to be sure. I’ve allowed a lot of sacks along the way (Sorry about that, Pastor Guy), but I hope I’m getting better.
Here are 4 ways for staff members to support our senior pastors.
1. SPEAK WELL OF HIM PUBLICLY
Human beings are evil creatures. We like to create sides, build alliances and cause conflict. Hey, we all like a good coup! For that reason, staff members often get caught in conversations that are critical of our senior leaders. Sometimes we may even agree with the criticism. Regardless, it is imperative that we extricate ourselves from those situations. They are nothing less than gossip. In fact, we should go the next step and speak up for our senior pastor publicly as often as we have opportunity to do so. We should express our gratitude that he is bearing the brunt of leadership. We should praise him when we are speaking with others who are criticizing him. We should share stories of how he is blessing us, and examples of challenges he is facing. Our job is to build unity instead of disgruntlement, and “set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in faith, in love and in purity” (2 Timothy 4:12). Staff positions have a unique role in propagating goodwill toward our senior pastor.
2. DON’T SEEK THE GLORY OVER HIM
“Oh, I love it when you preach.” I confess I’ve heard that a few times, and it’s a nice compliment. But I also hear the implied sub-message: I like your preaching better. When I sense that, I graciously say “Thank you.” Then I go home and crash on the sofa, praising God I don’t have to do this every week.
We should be ambitious to do the best we can in the roles we have been given. When we preach, or lead, or create, we should do it with all the passion and skill God has given us. Sometimes we might even be celebrated. But when we are, we can’t allow it to go to our heads, or to become a competition with the senior pastor or anyone else.
There is no place in the church for ambition that undermines authority or places us in opposition to the senior pastor. If you feel called to be a senior pastor someday, that’s great. Just remember the key word – someday. Until then, we are wise to remember David’s words to the one who wanted to claim Saul’s death: “Why weren’t you afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” (2 Samuel 1:14).
Remember, the fans always love the backup quarterback—until he actually plays.
3. SUPPORT HIS IDEAS
When the quarterback calls the play in the huddle, the left tackle’s job is to do what he can to make sure it works, not go the line and complain about it to the guard and center, or worse, blame someone later for calling the wrong play. In the same way, what’s discussed—and agreed to—in the conference room needs to be backed up when the game starts.
Open discussion and disagreement should be part of a healthy staff dynamic. However, by the time the idea hits the bulletin or the pulpit, we should all be running the same play. How many times have staff members subtly undermined the vision God has placed on the heart of the senior pastor by not working hard to support it, complaining about it, or even working against it? Nothing is more discouraging for a senior pastor than to have his staff blind side him. Nothing is worse than being thrown under the bus by people you thought were on your side.
4. TAKE A PERSONAL INTEREST IN HIM AND HIS FAMILY
I remember some moments in my tenure when I was feeling unappreciated. I remember one specific time, when I was coming under some criticism, that I began thinking to myself: Does anyone care about how I’m doing personally, or do they just care about ‘the ministry’? Are we becoming so corporate that we’ve forgotten to treat each other like the family God calls us to be?
Then it hit me—Am I doing the same thing to the senior pastor? When is the last time I really asked him how he was doing? I had to take the penalty flag out of my own eye before I could remove it from someone else’s eye.
We all need to know people care about us, not for what we do, but for who we are.
Chances are, there aren’t a lot of people asking the senior pastor how he’s doing. Who is asking how his kids are, or his marriage, or his heart, or his soul? We take for granted that he’s got it all together. Leadership is lonely. Vulnerability is difficult. Isolation is common. Maybe we’re not the right person for this (it may take a while to build this type of relationship), but maybe we are. Perhaps one of our primary roles as a staff person is to be one of the few who genuinely cares about the senior pastor, not as a leader, but as a human being.
These are just a few of the ways I’m continuing to learn to support our senior pastor. I hope to continue to become a better teammate and person. Being a quarterback is hard. Being a senior pastor is harder. I hope all our senior pastors can find good left tackles to support and protect them for the sake of God’s team.
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