Is your pastor a leader or a manager?

My father, along with two of my uncles, owned Reliable Scavenger Service, a small, two-truck garbage company that serviced the near-north side of Chicago. The three brothers purchased the business from their father but, in time, my two uncles sold their shares to my father. One uncle moved to Florida where he hauled trash and the other moved to Arizona where he did the same. Their moves forced my father to hire an employee to handle the route for one of the trucks. God was good and my dad struck gold when he hired Dirk, who had just sold his one-truck operation to his son. Dirk was an incredible worker and a great manager. My father gave him a truck and a route and Dirk took it from there. He showed up for work on time every day—3:00 a.m. Dirk and the customers never complained. Plus, my father never worried. Dirk worked faithfully for my father until my brother took his place.

My friend Norm is also a garbage man. He was a young business owner working in the same part of Chicago served by Reliable. Back in our younger days (when I also worked for my dad), I literally ran into him—truck to truck—in the alleys of Chicago but I didn’t meet him till years later. By that time his small business mushroomed into a large company. That was the first of several companies he built. Norm is a great leader. He knows how to, and is willing to, take risks and make tough decisions. He knows how to build and grow businesses, how to move a business from point A to B, and how to put the right people in the right seat. In the process, he recruited and empowered a lot of guys like Dirk to manage day-to-day operations.    

Two garbage men. One was a great manager and one became an accomplished leader. The manager took great care of his sphere of responsibility, while the leader expanded his sphere of influence. Two garbage men, each with distinct abilities, who need each other. Without the leader, there is little to manage. Without the manager, the leader must manage. 

Why these stories in memory of Dirk and in honor of Norm? These stories highlight a misconception in much of American Protestantism. It seems few pastors and congregations distinguish between the roles of manager and leader. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a church advertising for a pastor who is an excellent manager. Nor will you find a book or conference on the “Pastor as Manager.” In contrast, many churches advertise for a “Lead Pastor,” and there are countless resources for pastors who desire to improve their leadership skills.

Furthermore, it seems that much of American Protestantism has failed to appreciate the value of managers. On this point, it helps me to think about the manager of your local franchise restaurant and the corporate office. Let’s take Olive Garden. As you approach the entrance, you will see the name of the manager on the wall; you will not see the name of a corporate executive. Shortly after entering and surely before you leave, you will have discovered how well the manager manages. You will come to your conclusion based on several factors, including your greeting as you enter, the cleanliness of the bathrooms, the food service, the quality of the food, and more. So, tell me, how important is the manager? How much value does he or she have in the eyes of the corporate executives? You know the answer: without excellent managers, there is no corporation to lead. Without corporate executives, there is no franchise to manage.

Leaders and managers: two different skill-sets and two different roles. Of course, every leader will manage this and that, and every manager will find opportunity to lead here and there. But, overall, the manager’s role is that of quality control and the manager thrives on taking care of what is in front of him or her, while the leader’s role is that of charting a new path and the leader thrives on what is yet to come. The manager is a pastor-shepherd who manages sheep and the leader is a forward-thinking apostle or prophet.   

Pastor Lee was a great manager. He arrived at Faith Church to a sanctuary filled with people of all ages. He pastored the congregation faithfully for 30 years through preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. Along the way, he did a great job hatching, matching and dispatching. He met monthly with the lay leaders of the church, providing wise counsel. He loved the people and they loved him. During his tenure, the sanctuary was typically full each Sunday morning. Those who died or moved away were replaced by those who were born into, or married into, the church and by people moving into the neighborhood. When he left, the church looked pretty much the same as when he arrived, but during his thirty years he impacted countless people. 

Pastor Peter was a great leader. He pastored three congregations over thirty years. Under his leadership, each one experienced significant numerical growth in members and money, refreshed and renewed its mission to make disciples, adopted new strategies to reach the unchurched, expanded its influence in the community and beyond, and added to its staff and facilities. When he left a church, it looked a lot different than when he arrived. Like Pastor Lee, during his thirty years with three congregations, he impacted countless people.

If your church is in a pastoral transition, you have just begun to think about what your next pastor will look like. So, let me ask you, are you looking for a pastor with the gift of management or a pastor with the gift of leadership? 

First, let’s take a closer look at the types of churches that benefit from a manager: If your church is led by a group of lay people and is already in a great place and you want to stay in that place for a while, you are looking for a ‘manager.’ If you are in a season of strengthening the internal dimensions of congregational life and have embraced a vision for the future that basically replicates the past, you need a manager-pastor. If you expect numerical growth in members and money because a lot of people are moving into your neighborhood, you may get by with a manager. If your church may close soon and you hope to close well, then consider a manager.

In addition, if your church is an immigrant church with a steady stream of new immigrants hoping for much of what they enjoyed in the “old country,” you most-likely would best be served by a manager. If your congregation, like a franchise, is one of many congregations in a network (one-church-multiple-congregations model), you definitely want a manager. And, if your congregational culture is shaped in great measure by your denomination, then consider a manager. 

Now let’s look at the types of churches that benefit from a leader: If your church has embraced a vision for the future that differs significantly from the past or present you need a leader. If your church is in decline and hopes to renew and refresh its mission for the future you are looking for a leader. If your church is staff-driven, and if your congregation has decided to re-launch or re-brand, then you need to consider a leader. If yours is an immigrant church in a community without new immigrants and you need to expand your influence beyond your tribe, then consider a leader.

Before opting for a pastor with the gift of leadership, I encourage you to examine the decision-making processes of your church. In my experience, the operational systems of most congregations have been set-up for a manager, not a leader. In such settings, the pastor has freedom to manage the day-to-day operations but must not change them without authorization. The pastor has the freedom to shuffle the furniture in the house, but surely not to rebuild, or even redecorate the house. He or she must make a recommendation to those in power and then follow the idea through several committees before getting an “aye” or a “nay.” This process is the bane of leaders.

This does not mean that a church must offer a leader carte blanche to do whatever he or she desires. Instead, the church who desires a pastor with the gift of leadership needs to adopt a decision-making process that provides freedom within fence posts. We refer to this as policy-driven governance. (For more on this check out the writings of John Carver, beginning with his Boards That Make A Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations.

Before leaving the subject, I’d like to offer a few more insights. First, my heart breaks for pastors who are gifted managers and shepherds but have found themselves in leadership roles without the gift of leadership. Sometimes pastors mistakenly assume that, as a pastor, they must be a leader. Sometimes congregational leaders assume that their pastor is to be the leader of the flock. Sometimes pastors and people come together with mixed expectations. Whatever the reason, many good pastors have suffered greatly because of inappropriate expectations. 

Second, my heart breaks for pastors who are gifted leaders, who were asked to provide leadership for their churches but, when they did so, suffered great harm. Truth be told, I’m one of those pastors; thus, my passion about this particular subject. I was wounded in my first church when a small group of people went to denominational officials claiming I was unfit to be a pastor. Thankfully, that wound is now a scar, but one that prompts me to lean into this particular subject.

Third, we must not put the Holy Spirit in a box. The Spirit promises to equip us each and every one of us for every challenge we encounter on our path. So, I encourage you to think of the two roles of leader and manager on a continuum. At one end you find manager and the other end leader; in the middle you find leader-manager or manager-leader. On one side of center, you will find your future pastor. This pastor may be more of a manager than a leader or more of a leader than a manager. Either way, your next pastor will find opportunity to both manage and lead but may not be equipped to do both well. Therefore, you will need to surround your pastor with appropriate support so that, together, your congregation, with its new pastor, may live into its vision, with the help of the Holy Spirit.  


  1. Lee Iseley on May 14, 2020 at 7:39 pm

    Excellent article. This article is one that every church council should read.

    • Sam Hamstra on May 14, 2020 at 10:08 pm

      Thanks, Lee, for taking the time to reach out. I trust all is well.

  2. JoAnna Lee on May 17, 2020 at 2:57 am

    Really encouraged by this article. Thank you.

    • Sam Hamstra on May 17, 2020 at 1:43 pm

      Thanks for sharing.

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