Why we don’t have a Senior Pastor

This entry is part 7 of 24 in the series 30 Days on the Chinese Church

While I am on the topic of church structure I thought that I should explain why CFC does not have a Senior Pastor. I don’t intend to focus on structural issues all month, but I thought that this would be of interest to others.

No Senior Pastor at CFC

When I first arrived at CFC we had two pastors on staff, the Senior Pastor and myself as the English Pastor. Like many Chinese churches, the Senior Pastor was also responsible for the Chinese congregation. But from the beginning the Senior Pastor did not try to closely manage my work. Fortunately he had a missions background, and realized that the cultural background was different, and that I needed to approach some things differently. We met weekly for prayer and had a good working relationship. When he moved on and we called a new Senior Pastor the board made it clear that the English Ministry was under the supervision of the board and not of the Senior Pastor. Although he was the Senior Pastor, in practice the two of us worked together as equals.

When he left the church the board decided that we didn’t [discussed whether or not we] really need a Senior Pastor. The way I explained it was that our Senior Pastor really wore two hats, namely Senior Pastor and Chinese Pastor. In practice, the first one was a very small hat. So we decided to try it without anyone in that role. So far it is working out quite well. The new Chinese Pastor and I have a good working relationship and enjoy fellowship together.

The role of a Senior Pastor in a bilingual Chinese church

I see three realistic possibilities for the role of the Senior Pastor in a Chinese church with a mature English ministry.

  1. A bilingual, bicultural Senior Pastor
  2. If the Senior Pastor is to truly “lead the church,” including both the English and Chinese congregations, then he needs to be not only fully bilingual but bicultural as well. He must have a gut level understanding of both cultures and be able to relate to both groups in a culturally appropriate way. Practically, this means that he will probably have been born and raised in Asia, but have come to the U.S. at a fairly young age, perhaps as a high school student or a college undergrad. He should have some secular work experience in this country and have gone to seminary here as opposed to in Asia.

    The advantage of this approach is that there is one central leader to direct the vision of the entire church. The disadvantage is that pastors who can really effectively fulfill this role are difficult to find. The worst case scenario is a Senior Pastor who thinks that he understands both cultures but really does not, and who insists on trying to manage both ministries.

  3. A figurehead Senior Pastor
  4. I hope that no one is offended by the term “figurehead.” What I mean is that Senior Pastor is mostly a ceremonial post, and that he presides in situations in which someone needs to represent the whole church. He would focus on only one congregation and leave the other one to be cared for by its own pastor. The assumption is often that in a Chinese church the Senior Pastor should be the Chinese Pastor, but in some situations it could even be the English Pastor who has this title.

    The advantage of this approach is that there is still the appearance of one central leader, which is very important to some people. There is also a clear “go to” person to represent the church to outside groups. But the disadvantage is that he does not really have authority to lead the entire church. This could lead to confusion or conflict unless his role is made very clear both to him and to the other church leaders.

  5. No Senior Pastor
  6. This is the system that we currently have at CFC. In addition to the English and Chinese Pastors, we also have an Assistant English Pastor and a Chinese Minister. Since we now have more than just two pastoral staff, perhaps the best descriptive title for the two lead pastors would be “Lead English Pastor” and “Lead Chinese Pastor,” although we do not currently use these titles. The two Lead Pastors take responsibility for guiding the overall vision and direction of the church as well as leading their respective ministries. So far this approach has been working very well at CFC, and both the Chinese Pastor and I realize the importance of maintaining our close, friendly working relationship.

    The advantage of this approach is that both congregations are given the freedom to develop their own ministry, and we don’t have to search for the ideal bicultural Senior Pastor. It also fits very well with the biblical principle of plurality in leadership. The disadvantage is that the two lead pastors need to maintain a close working relationship and good communication, or else the church will not be unified. It also would be difficult for this to work if there is too great a disparity between the ages and experience levels of the Lead Pastors.

Note that these possibilities are based on the scenario in which the English and Chinese Ministries are viewed as more or less equal. It might not work as well in a situation in which one congregation is much larger than the other.

Now it’s your turn. . .

  • If you are in a Chinese church, what is the role of the Senior Pastor?
  • Do you think that all three of these models are workable? Do you know of any other arrangements that have worked?

Update 10/13/10: Earlier this year our board decided to reinstate the Senior Pastor position.  Part of the reason for this was the fact that we are looking into launching a new ministry that will be separate from the current English Ministry, so it was felt that we need a Senior Pastor to provide overall coordination.

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7 Responses to Why we don’t have a Senior Pastor

  • NKL says:

    1. With the Chinese church in my town at a crossroads, I believe that we need a difinitive senior pastor. There must be vision and there must be authority to carry out the vision. I’m not sure there is an alternative to #1 for us.

    2. I see #2 as a disaster waiting to happen. Is there any Biblical model that can help me understand the adoption of a figurhead?

    3. Some churches in my town are working with the lead pastor approach on paper. My question would be, even in my most intimate relationships: my marriage and with my best friend/spiritual brother; our closeness wavers. I have to work at being intimate and honest during the times I don’t “feel close”. Is that same discipline necessary now necessary in the pastoral office at your church? Because if the lead pastors start growing apart, isn’t the whole church at risk?

  • PK says:

    In many ways, option #1 is the best but it is very difficult to find a senior pastor candidate who is not only bilingual but truly bicultural.

    I agree that #2 could be a disaster if the role of the “senior pastor” is not clearly defined in writing. But in some cases it might be possible to define a very limited role for the senior pastor. After all, the whole concept of a “senior pastor” is not directly founded on anything in Scripture.

    I agree that there is a risk to #3. I do work very hard to keep a good relationship with the Chinese pastor. We are both aware of the stakes. But to make it a little less dependent on the relationship between two individuals, there also needs to be a strong leadership team on the board. In this model, if the relationship between the two lead pastors breaks down, it would be up to the board to deal with the problem. The biblical model is plurality in leadership.

  • whu says:

    if the church is led by the “board” then the pastors do not carry too much weight. Its natural to reflect the congregation make-ups when calling pastors, so the title doesn’t mean too much in a “lay leaders” led church. So the church history dictates the structure and the leaders in the congregation make the decisions. Those who support thru giving and participating in ministry.

  • PK says:

    There is a spectrum of churches from those primarily pastor led to those primarily board led. I think that my church is somewhere in the center section of that spectrum. But I believe that plurality of leadership is a basic biblical principle, so in a strongly pastor led church I would suggest working toward a team leadership approach rather than a single big boss. A team of pastors can exercise strong leadership without having a senior pastor who calls all the shots.

    In a smaller church with a single pastor, the pastor and a few key lay leaders can form the leadership team. There is no reason that “pastor led” or “board led” need to be the only two options.

  • PK says:

    I have made a small change in the second paragraph under “No Senior Pastor at CFC” to make it more accurate. A board member pointed out that we did not have agreement that we do not need a senior pastor, but we did agree to try it out this way.

  • sergio says:

    Our church has been w/o a sr. pastor for almost two years. Our sr. pastor comitted adultery. the co-pastors sold us the idea of co-pastors by using the terms like “elders”, “pastors” words found throughout the bible. The problem is we are about to shut our doors we are about broke, there was a lack of accountability, and communication. the banks want to know who the “point person” is but we don’t have one. Now one of our co-pastors is going to leave to become a sr.pastor elsewhere?
    any ideas???????

  • PK says:

    I’m sorry that your church is having so many problems. Whether or not you have a senior pastor, there still needs to be accountability and good communication. You could always select a point person for finance, such as a treasurer, and tell the banks to contact that person.

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