5 Hats That a Lead Pastor Must Wear

A Lead Pastor’s Hats

Have you ever left home and gone out into the weather unprepared? Or seen a TV weatherman do a location spot without first putting on his all-weather gear? Honoring the tension of being first among equals requires senior leaders to gear up as well. In particular, lead pastors must wear several hats. When each hat is attended, the plurality can function in health and strength. But when one is neglected, or several are, you may find yourself unprepared for a storm.

The idea of hats that I need to wear is a simple metaphor for me, and it’s handy, because I’m a simple guy. Maybe this metaphor will help you too. My goal here is not to list every responsibility that a senior leader could or should satisfy. Instead, I want to look at the things senior leaders can and must do to strengthen and empower the plurality they lead. If the quality of our elder plurality determines the health of our church, then we need to know which hats will best help us to cultivate solid teams. Here are five hats senior leaders should wear.

Hat 1: Custodian of the Plurality

The senior leader must consistently give himself to the health of the team. Each elder is charged to care for the others, but the senior leader has a unique call to care for the plurality as a whole. Lead guys, don’t tap out. I know that some of you would rather be smothered in mayonnaise and tossed into a tiger pit than have a one-on-one counseling session with your associate pastor about his greatest fears. Note the word “custodian” above. The senior leader does not need to provide all the plurality needs himself. He is simply the one who is held accountable to see that the elder team is cared for. He’s responsible, so he must work to create a culture of care, trust, affection, mutual submission, and genuine burden sharing.

The Plurality Principle

Dave Harvey

This treatment of elder plurality focuses both on how churches can build a healthy elder plurality and thrive as congregations once plurality is established.

Senior leaders are plurality custodians because, as the leaders go, so goes the church. This means that the work a lead pastor does in serving, loving, and shaping the elders often bears fruit within the church at large. The elder body often represents a microcosm of the church as a whole. Biblical imperatives that are not embodied and modeled by the elders will rarely be seen in the church at large. If there’s not love, community, care, courage, or accountability among the leaders, for example, you’ll have trouble finding such fruit among the members. Building a church requires building a team.

Hat 2: Catalyst of Progress

Every elder works for two kinds of progress—personal and organizational. Each individual stands accountable before God to care for his own soul; a lead pastor must not lead in such a way that the other elders’ accountability before God is obscured. He can, however, offer consistent encouragement and opportunities for growth. In this way, he facilitates the others’ progress.

The lead pastor can do this in at least four ways.

First, the lead pastor sets the example, modeling how each elder should pursue personal growth. There is an active devotional life, an observance of Sabbath rest, a priority placed upon his marriage and family, and a humility when he is evaluated or admonished. I’m not saying that a senior leader should parade these pursuits. Churches could probably use a little less of leaders talking about disciplines in ways that are subtly self-congratulating. I’m just saying that the lead guy should pursue these in private. The fruit will eventually speak for itself.

Second, the senior leader provides opportunities for the team to grow together. It’s the wise lead pastor who arranges for his team to attend conferences together, study books together, work through controversial issues together, have meals together, hike together, enjoy parties together, and the list goes on. The senior leader must ensure that there are consistent structures and agendas for meetings, retreats, and training as well. If the lead pastor isn’t organized enough to plan these things, he can delegate them to someone else, but he’s still responsible.

Third, growing together means evaluation. For the church to grow as an organized organism, opportunities for growth must also involve times of honest scrutiny. The lead pastor must avoid the temptation of thinking that analysis, feedback, or evaluation are personal criticisms. Even worse is believing that the willingness of men to honestly share them is an example of betrayal or disloyalty. A healthy plurality—and a healthy senior leader, for that matter—can debrief about meetings that went poorly, can evaluate preaching that needs improvement, and can measure mission effectiveness—all without getting defensive. That’s how growth happens. And, once again, the lead pastor must lead the way. He must be willing to be an example in receiving critique himself and also fostering a culture where feedback is seen as a necessary step toward greater organizational maturity.

Finally, being a catalyst of progress means taking decisive action. Even healthy organizations will stall out sometimes—think of the unmet needs of widows in Acts 6. Even in the early church, people were neglected. The church needed the apostles to appoint new leaders so that the ministry could get moving again. Healthy leaders will listen, discern, and make courageous new decisions.

A healthy team, one where the lead pastor has ensured that the team is growing in humility, comradery, and strength, will stand ready when the hurricane hits. In the midst of the monsoon, that plurality will lean into one another. They’ll find that the team’s honesty and integrity can help the church weather any storm.

Hat 3: Curator of Culture

God embeds a distinct DNA in the cells of every church. Sometimes these genetic traits are obvious. At other times, not so much. Given his Spirit-distributed gifting and the particular responsibilities of his role, the senior leader is uniquely positioned to see the big picture of each ministry in a way the other elders may not. As a result, he’s entrusted with a stewardship of this DNA across the church. Wise elders trust the senior leader to ensure that each part of the church reflects the whole. We cannot simply assume this happens just because each pastor attends the same meetings. Even if everyone is responsible theoretically, there must be someone who is responsible functionally.

Lead pastors do not exercise headship over an eldership, nor do they possess the right to elevate themselves. They should neither act independently nor create a subtle culture where hyper-deference to their wishes is the norm. The lead pastor is called to build a team, not a personal ministry. His effectiveness should be measured by the maturity of his plurality, not his social media following.

The responsibility of curating the church’s DNA is fulfilled in two key ways. For one, it’s accomplished by being a catalyst of progress with your team—by being among them and growing with them. In addition, a church’s culture must also be cultivated by consistently communicating it. And that truth brings us to the fourth hat.

A healthy team, one where the lead pastor has ensured that the team is growing in humility, comradery, and strength, will stand ready when the hurricane hits.

Hat 4: Captain of Communication

In terms of gifting and congregational expectation, the senior leader is often the one with the loudest voice. This is most evident with respect to the pulpit; the lead pastor is typically the most regular preacher. It must also be true outside of Sundays. The lead pastor must be the primary public voice of the eldership. That’s not to say he is the exclusive public voice. A wise lead pastor will open up pulpit space to other strategic leaders, both from within the plurality and from outside the congregation; this not only allows the sheep to be fed from other shepherds but also grants the lead shepherd a break from his duties. But when it comes to voicing the culture—the vision, direction, and decisions from the leaders—the lead pastor must be the chief spokesman. He’s the captain of communication.

That title carries within it a principle that makes this role, this hat, so significant. The principle is this: He who occupies the pulpit steers the church.

A while back, I accepted a call to a three-year role as the pastor of preaching at a church with another guy who had the title of lead pastor. The idea was that the lead pastor would lead, and I, the preaching pastor, would preach, and the church would think all was groovy. It was groovy, at least for the lead pastor and me. We enjoyed a great friendship, and we complemented each other’s gifts in a beneficial way. But, for the church, this became confusing. They held an intuitive expectation that the vision and direction flowed through the preaching, and they were right. Fortunately, this church was also gracious enough to allow the plan to unfold. Over time, the lead pastor preached more, and I preached less. Eventually, the leadership voice was synced to the pulpit. Nevertheless, the lesson for me was clear: In the eyes of the church, whoever preaches, leads.

Hat 5: Connector for Partnerships

In addition to these four hats, there’s a final piece of lead pastor headgear that can help your church to weather leadership storms. The senior leader serves his local church by being a vital point of contact between the elder team and the church’s primary outside partners.

The biblical call to interdependence is not satisfied merely by connecting saints to each other in the local church. Churches thrive by being vitally connected to other churches. Moreover, elder pluralities flourish as they recognize their need both for congregational perspective and partnership beyond the local church. Interdependence, both congregationally and through network or denominational affiliation, completes the circle of influence to maximize our strengths and bring aid to our weaknesses. Denominational or network partnerships serve and support the local church’s mission to send missionaries, plant churches, educate future leaders, and advocate for Christian values and a Christian vision for social justice and religious liberty.

This does not mean the lead pastor is the only contact or the only recipient of partnership benefits, but without his support and advocacy, these partnerships rarely maintain their place or importance. In truth, extra-local partnerships exist because leadership storms have pounded pastoral teams and local churches since their beginning (Acts 15:1–35; 20:1–5). We’ve united because leadership in a fallen world is filled with complexity and opportunity. To supplement the limitations of our weakness and capitalize on the possibilities of our opportunities, churches lock arms together.

Our Rock in the Storm

But while I believe in such partnerships—they’re the kind of ministry in which I’ve participated for three decades now—collectives, networks, and denominations are not enough to help you weather leadership storms. This fallen world doesn’t merely need connectionalism. It needs a Savior.

Thankfully, the lead pastor is not the head of the church. Jesus is the church’s bridegroom and head (Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18). Ultimately, he’s the lead pastor of the universal church. He’s the chief shepherd (1 Pet. 5:4). He’s the Father’s chief communicator, the Word (John 1:1; Heb. 1:1–2). He’s the catalyst of our growth; when we behold his glory, we become like him (2 Cor. 3:18). Ultimately, Christ must be our Rock in the storms of leadership.

When the tempests rise and the waves break over the rails of church leadership, we are not alone. We have help. For one thing, we have each other. And it’s my prayer that each member of our pluralities will stand ready in the midst of the storm to help brothers and sisters turn their collective gaze toward the Rock. He’s both our model for leadership and the Savior of our leadership. Relying upon him is the only way we’ll weather the storms.

This article is adapted from ​​The Plurality Principle: How to Build and Maintain a Thriving Church Leadership Team by Dave Harvey.

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