Senior Pastors Roles Change as Churches Grow

Twenty-two years ago, when Tim Harlow became the senior pastor of Tinley Park Church of Christ, the following newspaper ad was considered the cutting edge of church marketing.

Senior pastors who have been at the same church for any length of time can most likely complete this exercise: Think back through some of the stages of your congregation’s development, and take note of how your role as a senior leader had to shift during those various stages.

For Parkview Christian ChurchOrland Park, IL, and Senior Pastor Tim Harlow, this time travel challenge takes him back through 22 years with the congregation—a time span in which he:

– Broke through growth barriers as an aggressive young pastor in an established and plateaued church—“I made a lot of people mad,” he says.

– Created a new vision and developed structure to make it happen—“It was about rallying the troops around the idea of what God could do instead of what God had done.”

– Pushed through a downturn and a period of burnout—“Much of my leadership through these times comes from a God-given stubborn, sometimes clueless, leadership gift.”

– Started to think about the next generation and who would take the leadership baton—“Where do I go next? My wife and I have recently become empty nesters,” Tim says.

Do any of those phases sound familiar? You might have different labels for the development stages of your church; but there’s a strong chance your role has also shifted along the way to adapt to your congregation’s leadership needs—and it’s probably still changing.

Tim’s certainly did.

Breaking Through Barriers

For Tim, it’s always been about removing barriers for lost people to have a chance to find their way home—even after nearly three decades in the same place with barriers that cropped up during his watch. “Do we really think that there is anything difficult about connecting people with their loving heavenly Father? It’s the easiest job in the world,” Tim says. “It becomes difficult only when those on the inside forget about what it’s like on the outside.”

In the early days of taking over a congregation founded 40 years prior to his arrival, that commitment to connect with outsiders meant “being stubborn and continually fighting against the ‘we’ve-always-done-it-that-way’ mindset and the fence that has been keeping people out,” Tim says.

The good thing for Tim at this stage was he “didn’t have a problem being aggressive,” as he voices it, when it came to setting direction for the church. That was also his downfall at times. “The unfortunate part was the lack of wisdom and the inability to choose the right battles,” he says.

But there were—and still are—battles worth waging. “Every existing church comes with deeply entrenched barriers that current members don’t even realize exist,” Tim says. “Once we become a part of the inner workings of any organization we stop seeing what it looks like from the outside, and we have to keep breaking through those barriers.


Creating New Vision—and Building For It

Once he laid a foundation, Tim felt it necessary to sound a new rallying cry that included relocation, staff changes and fundraising.

“I grew through this stage by engulfing myself with the people, education, and inspiration that would help me cast an accurate and articulate vision,” Tim says. “If I hadn’t known what I was talking about by this stage and didn’t have some level of credibility, no one would have listened.”

This stage was at least five years in the making, and moved Tim to figure out what he was best at, and what he needed to pass on to others because they were better at it. “I had no aptitude for organization; I’m the leader not the manager,” says Tim, who guided the church to change its name, among other changes. “My growth in this stage was about recognizing my limitations and surrounding myself with people who could help me.”

Downturn and Burnout

Parkview was seven years into its turnaround when a tipping point came. Relocation was on the table, but the church’s bylaws required a congregation-wide vote to move forward. The congregation voted 56-44 in favor of the move.

“It’s all we needed to get it done,” says Tim, who in more recent years has seen Parkview become one of the fastest-growing churches in the nation. “But it was taking a big chance to move forward with only half the congregation’s support.”

Then came the inevitable. As Parkview moved into its new facility with four weekend services, Tim was completing doctoral studies and his three daughters needed more time from him. Trying to juggle all these concerns, he hit the wall. “It was a very perfect storm,” Tim says. “And it was a great thing, because it forced the church and mostly forced me to realize that I had to concentrate on the things that only I could do.”

Next Up, Next On Deck

Which brings Tim—and maybe you, too—to the point of considering who will take the church on the next leg of its development after his ministry race is finished?

The church isn’t pursuing a formal succession plan yet. “I think it’s too early, and I’m planning on being here 15 more years or maybe more. I’ve seen too much frustration with long-term succession plans,” he says. But the next generation of leaders, and what Tim will leave them with, is very much on his mind.

“I believe that a large part of my ministry now at this stage of my life is about training the next generation of leaders—whether that’s here or elsewhere,” says Tim, who turned 50 in 2011. “I have to be about 2 Timothy 2:2.”

That emphasis on training others also includes plans to expand Parkview’s auditorium. “I don’t wonder what I’ll do as my next step at Parkview. But in light of the economy and current trends in Christendom, I wonder about raising $14 million in the next few years,” Tim says. “Does my kids’ generation need a larger auditorium? It’s an anxiety of not knowing what’s going to happen next in our culture.”

The Constants

Even through all the stages of personal and corporate growth and change, Tim recognizes some mainstays: a heart for “lost sheep” and solid preaching.

But he would change one thing: using that platform to grind an axe at times. “I sometimes ran people off through my preaching—on purpose,” Tim says. “They needed to leave, but I could have been more graceful. Using the pulpit to say things is the same as sending an email. It’s better to have a discussion with someone individually and in person. There is a difference between casting vision and playing politics.”

“The most important thing I’ve done well is preach,” Tim says. “People will put up with a lot of things if they are getting fed. You can be the greatest church leader in the world, but if the preaching is not a priority, it’s not going to work. I am far from original, but I always spend plenty of time preparing and preaching the Word.”

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Warren Bird

Warren Bird

Warren Bird, Ph.D., research director at Leadership Network, is a former pastor and seminary professor, and is author or co-author of 24 books for ministry leaders, the most recent one with Jim Tomberlin: Better Together: Making Church Mergers Work. Some of Warren’s recent online reports include “The Heartbeat of Rising Influence Churches,” “Pastors Who Are Shaping the Future” and “A New Decade of Megachurches.” Follow him on Twitter @warrenbird.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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