Tom Crow recently retired as executive pastor at the historic First Baptist Church of Nashville and in early July was honored by The Church Network with its Church Management Hall of Fame award for church administrators.
He previously served as executive pastor at First Baptist Church of Charlotte, N.C., and minister of education and administration at Gambrell Street Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and Sandia Baptist Church in Albuquerque.
His 40-year career in church administration spans a period in which staffing for larger churches has transformed from an old model of “education and administration” to the modern terminology of “executive pastor.” Through this work, he has witnessed the joys and sorrows of pastoral life while leading from the so-called “second chair.”
He has stated three priorities in retirement: Faith, family, fishing. And he is working hard on all three while also being available to guide other churches through uncharted waters. We recently talked about his experience and his advice to younger ministers.
Full confession to our readers: We first knew each other several decades ago when you were a young minister of education in New Mexico and I was a young college student, and then we crossed paths at another church in Fort Worth for a while. There’s a lot of water under the bridge since the early 1980s to today. What are some of the most significant changes you’ve experienced in church administration work?
There is no more exciting and wonderful “job” in the world than being executive pastor if you are called into this ministry. I began as minister of education/evangelism, and it was a great opportunity in a growing suburban church of Albuquerque. I learned from the ground up, with a seminary education poured into me by some of the finest educators and administrators in Baptist life.
We’ve not only seen changes in technology, but the mindset is different inside and outside the church. The general public today, the “unchurched,” doesn’t know where to “turn in the Bible and find John 3:16.” And today we Americans are much more prone to simply/bluntly speak our mind.
What about changes in church music? Who would have thought about a band, drums and contemporary (by today’s standards) worship and multiple styles of worship? Are people attending church today in dress and coat and tie? Not so much. Are stained glass and steeple necessary? Nope, look at the booming warehouse churches. Is security an issue today? You bet. And cleanliness, with concern about safety and protection of minors — all heightened and critical.
“What hasn’t changed? People. Get to know your people; learn their names; be known for something.”
We now have incredible resources to help us with church administration. Who would have ever thought a computer would be with me at the office, at home, on vacation — if not in the form of a laptop, then even in the form of my cell phone which provides instant communication (and expectation of instant response, night or day)?
Today, the executive pastor best be a well-rounded, well-versed expert in IMAG, safety precautions, IT, insurance and legal matters (keep a good church attorney close at hand), as well as human resource regulations — just to name a few that have rocketed to importance. We know today that visual/audio/experiential learning is critical for life change. So the executive pastor is ultimately influencing all these with resource allocation. Who could have imagined our Bible on our phone, in our hand? And what is Zoom all about?
Buckle up; it’s a fast, exciting ride. Our foundation of loving God and loving people is still the same but much else has moved at warp speed.
What hasn’t changed? People. Get to know your people; learn their names; be known for something. That is, don’t spread yourself so thin that you stand for everything and therefore nothing. There is no better simple gift you can give each day to people than knowing their name and calling them by name.
You’ve had work experience in churches large and small, from west to east and in between. What have you learned about the meaning of context in church work — geographic context or cultural context?
Being flexible as a church leader is critical. Listen and learn about the local flavors. It’s vital that we no longer bring our “bag of tricks” into our new church field and simply “plug and play.” It is so important, for longevity and lasting impact, to learn the culture, learn the people, learn not just how they think, but learn why they think that way.
We must know our audience before we can lead our people. Effective communication rises and falls on how well we know our audience, our people. Study, listen, learn, listen, listen, listen. Learn your community like the back of your hand. The first year, visit with all key leaders one on one and listen. Get to know them. Then you can lead.
Just last week you were honored with a lifetime achievement award from The Church Network, a national association of folks working in all types of church administration. What have you learned about the need to learn from colleagues in other congregations and other contexts?
I have been so blessed to learn from many of the greatest leaders in church administration from across the nation and crossing over all denominational lines.
“First, value people more than tasks.”
Some life lessons I hope young pastors will learn and apply early include these:
First, value people more than tasks. We can get in a hurry to “achieve” and fulfill tasks. We may be more concerned about annual reviews than we should be. The truth is, leadership is about people. Leadership requires personal investment of my life into the lives of my people and that takes time.
Second, know yourself. Know your own heart, strengths and abilities. Work with a coach or mentor. Open your heart to a couple of wise, mature, deep Christ-followers who can help you know weak spots in your personality and leadership abilities. Ask your senior pastor, chairman of deacons or finance or personnel to help you do self-assessments. You’ll grow and advance in your leadership abilities beyond imagination.
Third, be a lifelong learner. Read continuously. Read a variety. Read and study leadership. Read and study leadership of Christ, Paul, Peter, Thomas, the Old and New Testament heroes of faith. Study your Bible fanatically; God will reveal and lead in wonderful ways.
Fourth, care for your family and self. God blessed me with the most wonderful wife (Jackie) and children I could have ever dreamed of. Ministry requires your best, and it’s never ending. Executive pastors must take care of themselves physically, emotionally, spiritually and in so doing are able to care properly for their families. You probably know the best steps of caring for your family: block time off the cell phone and computer, dedicated to your spouse; make dates with calendar time blocked from everything else, for your spouse and children; take vacations. Work hard, play hard, rest well, pray without ceasing.
Fifth, evaluate faithfully. Enlist your senior pastor, and a few other close, mature Christians near or far to help you evaluate any areas of life where you may be slipping. Chinks in the armor of faith can overtake us one small step after another, and before long we have progressed from health to demise. Don’t let it happen; reach out for help before it is too late. I once heard, and I believe, healthy leaders make for healthy churches. You can do this only with the help of God.
I’m old enough to understand that when you began a life in church work, there was no Internet and there were no color copiers. We still had mimeograph machines, as I recall. What changes in technology have you seen most shape the church in the span of your career, and what are the good and bad sides of that?
Who could have imagined slick fax paper being replaced with electronic files and the requirement of instantaneous answers? There is nothing like the modern technological advancements we enjoy and some we hate.
But some simple steps of boundaries make life so much better with technology. Sometimes there seems to be no leeway from that cellphone. But if that becomes the normal, not the exception, your life and family, and ultimately ministry, will suffer consequences.
“Technology never can take the place of personal relationships and personal communications.”
Technology never can take the place of personal relationships and personal communications.
Who knew Facebook, Twitter, texting (during worship about the sermon), a website. The executive pastor must find capable, creative help in the communication maze; it’s one of the most significant technology changes. Oh, and, awareness of ministry to five generations in one worship service? Wow, that’s a balancing act with technology.
Technology changes also have brought about quicker access to pastor and staff and now require quicker response time by pastor and staff. We live in a 24/7 world now that expects immediate action. Brace for it and train for it; it’s not going away.
You had a distinguished career in the military before entering church work. How did that prepare you for the career you had? Any lessons to be learned there?
I wouldn’t trade my three years’ military service for a $1 million gift. I learned about myself and leadership while serving in the Army; I could never repay the government for those lessons. Lessons of discipline as being placed in charge of the Army hospital chaplain’s office.
From my Army service, I learned to link up with church leaders of various denominations and faith expressions, to learn from others. Learn to work with people different than you, to arrive early and stay late, to roll up your sleeves and help stack chairs when needed. Respect those in authority. Value every person no matter color, beliefs, socio-economic status. It’s better to work out our differences than to go to war — whether one country with another or one individual with another.
Also, accountability is a critical quality for executive pastors. Each staff member is accountable to someone; the executive pastor is like the hub of a wagon wheel, through which all the spokes are attached and flow. It’s the executive pastor’s responsibility to develop an accountability trail for his or her own protection, and for that of each staff member including senior pastor. No one wants to quietly wander into a hot spot of problems accidentally and see the kingdom work suffer as it has many times in today’s churches.
You’ve had a great career in what many consultants would call a “second chair” position in church staff leadership. What have you learned about the delicate art of leading from a staff position when you’re not the senior pastor?
Know your gifts, fulfill your calling. There is tremendous value to a senior pastor and church in having a capable, caring, spiritual executive pastor. My training in the military, my undergraduate degree, the men and women God placed me under as a teenager and young adult all contributed to being executive pastor.
I never felt a calling to be a senior pastor, but I always felt my gifts equipped me to be a Barnabas, Timothy or Thomas. Being a positive, enthusiastic encourager is vital to the executive pastor. I’ll be forever grateful for each pastor I served alongside. They trusted me, I learned from them, we made for a good team.
Expectations of the “second chair” are varied, like a baseball utility player — absolutely critical to winning. We must manage many balls all at the same time and be calm. Ambiguity in the role is to be expected. Flexibility in the role is required. There is more expected than is possible to “perform.”
What are the keys? Total trust in the senior pastor. Never surprising the senior pastor. Helping the senior pastor understand the full picture. Communicating often and regularly, even over-communicating with the senior pastor. Have the right attitude. Help your staff get all the success recognition, and you take any failure hits, knowing there will be another day.
Place God first in your life, daily and always. Invest your life in others, not in systems; programs and systems are only passing by; people are what we are all about. A friend is one of the most capable church business leaders I know, but he suffers from the malady of being so systems-focused that he misses opportunities to be people-focused. Don’t miss this one: If you don’t invest first and foremost in people, no amount of program or systems success will allow God to use you to the fullest in his service.
Help others. Know your gifts and use them to reach people for Christ. Never fall into the trap of feeling second fiddle. In God’s work, we are each first fiddle, we are each called to serve God. The role of executive pastor is that of servant as Christ lived. When you stumble (yep, you will), get up, refocus, lean on those confidants and spouse, and move on.
What is your best advice for dealing with the ever-thorny problems of personnel management in church life? How do you mix being a faith community and being an employer at the same time?
Treat others as you wish to be treated. Share clear expectations; communicate clearly; talk things over before issues escalate to a high pitch. First, we are people of faith. Treat those you work with in full kindness and love. Second, people of faith are called to a higher fulfillment of duty. We hold high expectations for those working around us. Be clear, be bold, lead forward. Third, take the blame and give the credit to others. These simple life practices will do wonders for improving life in the Christian marketplace.
When you began a career in ministry, it was common for men and women to go to seminary and get graduate training in religious education and church administration. Those degree programs hardly exist anymore. Where should churches look for the next staff member like you, and what alternative training should they have?
Don’t overlook the great seminary and divinity training programs we still have today. Also look to Christian employment and “head-hunter” groups; several employment placement groups are excellent resources and can provide screening/search products even stronger than the local church search “engine” provides.
Look inside the church. Keep a file of potential future staff members with observations. Watch those exceptional church members for potential as staff members. Invest in those people God calls to your mind; involve them in your discipleship groups, enlist them to serve on priority committees and as chair for committees.
Reach out to fellow executive pastor leaders near and far. This is yet another reason to be part of local and national church leadership organizations.
“Tragedy in our church family takes a toll on pastors as well as members.”
Now that you’re retired, what are some of the greatest burdens of church staff work that you have carried with you through the years? What are the things you wish lay leaders in the church could understand about this work but you weren’t able to tell them?
I was never so at a loss as when we lost a boy to drowning at our church camp. When I shared with his parents about this terrible tragedy, I felt like I might not face tomorrow any better than they could. Tragedy in our church family takes a toll on pastors as well as members. We are expected to be super-pastor, but no matter we must tend to our own wounds.
Lay leaders will walk alongside to encourage and pray with you — if you let them. I am forever grateful they put up with me for 40 years. I am forever grateful they are still some of my very best friends. I am grateful they cared for my wife and children and served the Lord with gladness.
The executive pastor and senior pastor carry burdens and matters of confidentiality that cannot be shared with anyone. Lay leaders often understand there is “more to the story” of their pastor needing a day off or a little extra time to fish, to be still or reload. But a pastor care team whose job is to pray for their pastors, encourage their pastors, love their pastors’ spouses and families and model those gifts to the church could go a long way toward turning around the extremely high drop-out rate of pastors in modern times.
Lay leaders, provide personal time for your pastors; invest in your young pastors and your senior pastor with prayer, friendship, good counsel. Don’t assume they will know to build shelters against rainy days.
And where have you found joy in this journey? What allowed you to stick with the work of the church for 40 years?
Make each day a masterpiece. Coach John Wooden said, “Don’t measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability. Never mistake activity for achievement.” Wooden said, “Drink deeply from good books.” Follow this counsel, and you’ll find that reading keeps you updated, fresh, challenged and always learning. Wooden also said, “Friendship comes from mutual esteem, respect and devotion.” Friendship and family are key to life success, and they require work.
God placed me in wonderful churches. God confirmed my call to ministry often. And I had tolerant pastors and church members allowing me to lead and learn.
Pastors often allow isolation in their lives, thinking they cannot have close friends. They may confuse closeness with favoritism, which is not the same. A key I lived by as a pastor was to put down roots from day one, to invest in lives, to pray for and develop a few trusted close friends. Are there risks? Sure. But not nearly as many as to a pastor lonely without friends.
The hardest part of this lifestyle? Leaving a ministry assignment. It is tough to leave friends behind, and it feels like having surgery without anesthetic. It seems like I left part of me behind. And in fact, I did. I invested in others. If I could redo it, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Get a friend; no, get several. Do not go it alone.
Taking care of self is a critical ingredient of longevity in ministry. Tending to the physical, emotional, spiritual and relational needs of yourself are critical, being careful not to allow the urgent matters to take over the important priorities. Pray for divine guidance and count your blessings daily. Building a shelter against rainy days is critical — financial, emotional, relational, faith. The storms will come, so be prepared.
Finally, don’t take yourself too seriously. We are each just ordinary people whom God called to be faithful. Ordinary people living in truth can change the world for Christ, one person at a time. Hide God’s Word in your heart, especially Proverbs 3:5-6, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”