Why You Should Be Thankful If Your Pastor Behaves Like a CEO

Of all the things I hear church leaders slip into conversation, one of the most persistent is the opinion that a pastor should never adopt the attitudes or habits of a CEO.

Instead, the pastor should be a shepherd and tend the flock.

I recently wrote a post about how having the pastor do most or all of the pastoral care in a congregation permanently stunts the growth of most churches to 200 people or less.

I would also strongly argue that church leaders should rethink their bias against the pastor as CEO.


Two reasons.

First, both the model of shepherd and CEO are based in unidimensional and unhelpful stereotypes.

Second, because the mission and future of the church are fuelled by the growth and potential of our leaders.

pastor behaves like a CEO

Let’s Move Beyond Stereotypes

Let’s move beyond the stereotypes for a moment.

Shepherds are seen as caring, pastoral, gentle and kind.

CEOs are seen as arrogant, brash, selfish, difficult and demanding.

Neither characterization is helpful or, frankly, accurate.

Sure…you can think of CEOs or executive types who fit all the bad stereotypes.

And chances are you’ve made up what a shepherd looks like because, frankly, you’ve never met one. I haven’t.

This Was First Century Shepherding?

From what I know of first century shepherds (and I admit, I don’t have a degree in shepherding), it wasn’t all green meadows and sunshine. Shepherding took quite a bit of resolve and strength.

Shepherds had to keep sheep from drinking out of brackish or tainted water and keep them from poisoning themselves.

Shepherds had to fight off wolves, lions and thieves. Clubbing to lions to death and pulling a lamb out of the jaws of a bear are not for the fainthearted.

Apparently, first century Palestinian shepherds even would break the leg of a wandering sheep to correct its errant behaviour.

Try that at your next congregational meeting.

In an association we often miss, David himself claimed that shepherding prepared him to fight Goliath and, arguably, even become King. He saw it more as leadership development than anything, and leadership in one field ultimately opened leadership in others.

The job was demanding enough that, as Jesus himself said, it might require your life.

Run this description by any effective CEO and they might tell you “That sounds like my job.”

Maybe a first century shepherd was more like an effective CEO than we think.

This is What it Means To Be a CEO?

So are CEOs inherently brash, impatient, selfish, egomaniacs? Well, not effective ones.

Jim Collins’ exhaustive study of truly great companies (companies that outperformed their competitors substantially and significantly) discovered that the great companies had what he called Level 5 CEOs.

Collins and his team were shocked to discover a rare and endearing quality among the CEOs of the truly greatest companies: they had deep resolve to do whatever it took to advance the mission AND a deep, personal…are you ready—humility. 

To quote Collins:

[Level 5 CEOs] are somewhat self-effacing individuals who deflect adulation, yet who have an almost stoic resolve to do absolutely whatever it takes to make the company great, channeling their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.

It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious—but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution and its greatness, not for themselves.

The most effective CEOs are the most humble CEOs.

I ask you, isn’t that exactly what a Christian leader should be?

Sounds an awful lot like the Apostle Paul to me. Or like Moses. Even like Jesus (if you’re willing to strip away your stereotypes and read what scripture says about Jesus).

Consequently, isn’t that exactly what a great pastor could be?

Saying the model of pastor-as-CEO is bad for the church is like saying leadership really doesn’t matter. It’s also saying business should get all the best leaders.

The mission of the church is too important to be stunted by a poorly thought-through stereotype of a CEO.

If All We Do Is Care For People Until They Die, the Church Will Die

The next decade of the church is critical.

While it’s Christ’s church and God is sovereign, we leaders have a role to play. As even committed church attenders attend less often, the church requires the best leadership, not the most passive or the most friendly.

What often passes as ‘pastoral’ is not pastoral in the first-century sense of shepherding; it’s passive.

If all we do is recruit pastors who love to care for people until they die, the church will die.

I realize this is somewhat hyperbolic, but perhaps it’s less of an overstatement than you think. We’re closing churches in record numbers, largely because pastors want to ‘pastor’ but not lead.

I believe we should care for people until they die, but the pastor doesn’t need to be the sole person to do that.

98% of pastoral care is having someone who cares. It doesn’t have to be the pastor.

Toward A New Generation of Leaders

So what should the next generation of pastors do?


Lead humbly. Lead with compassion. Lead with care.

But understand that sometimes leading with compassion means doing what’s best for people…not simply doing what people want. If first century shepherds did that, the sheep would be dead.

Quite simply, the job of a leader is to take people where they wouldn’t otherwise go.

You may be called to take people to the Promised Land, but people always want to go back to Egypt.

It takes tremendous strength, exceptional courage, trust, humility and a willingness to die to self to do accomplish the mission to which God has called the church.

This kind of leadership shift will mean the demise of the people-pleasing, co-dependent leader who longs to be liked. But maybe that’s okay.

The church needs thousands of new leaders who are willing to be incredibly unpopular but will resolve to do what needs to be done.

Somedays I wonder how many Christian CEOs of small and large companies might have been in ministry if our model, expectations and attitude was different.

Next Time Your Pastor Behaves Like a CEO

So what would make this situation better?

Think twice before you say the church needs more shepherds. Or if you do talk about the need for shepherds, talk about the kind of shepherd David was. We sure need more of those.

And think three times before you slam the idea of church leaders being CEOs.

Read a book like Jim Collin’s Good to Great.

Think more deeply about whether the church needs more entrepreneurs. (For reasons outlined here, I believe that’s exactly what we need.)

Realize that truly great CEOs often model exactly what scripture talks about in terms of great leadership, and that maybe our entire mission would advance if we valued those gifts more deeply.

And finally, next time someone says your pastor is behaving like a (Level 5) CEO, be thankful.

More people might be in heaven because of it.

If you want to drill down further, I wrote much more about why the vast majority of churches don’t grow in my latest bookLasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Can Help Your Church Grow.

What Do You Think?

I realize this is an emotional subject, so play nice in the comments.

But what do you think?

Is the quick dismissal of potentially effective leadership in the church hurting us? How?

Scroll down and leave a comment.

Why You Should Be Thankful If Your Pastor Behaves Like a CEO


  1. Cara on January 20, 2021 at 5:30 pm

    I am always in favor of questioning stereotypes. And let’s just say we accept this premise. Even if we grant all that, the great damage I see is that seminary-degreed pastors are not called or trained to be CEOs and so when they consolidate organizational power and even celebrity, they are ill-equipped to handle it for the health of their team and sometimes even their own souls.

  2. jim on September 7, 2018 at 12:07 pm

    then you are more interested in MONEY & POSITION than preaching the gospel! Christ told the religious leader that they LOVE THEIR TITLE & MONEY that is why FALSE DOCTRINES thrives. YOU ARE A FALSE teacher

  3. Mitch on April 17, 2018 at 12:22 pm

    “Brothers, we are not professionals…” A great statement and an even better book by John Piper. I have been following your posts for a while Carey. I’m a new pastor, at an old church, struggling in every way you address, so just about everything you say is very relevant to my situation. It occurs to me now that there is a fundamental assumption that is not being examined here. Carey, you assume God wants every church to grow as large as possible. Seems fair enough, we want people to hear the Gospel of Jesus and be saved! However, it hit me, that perhaps the correlation between pastors doing all the care and maxing out at 200 is precisely because that is the maximum number of people that a leader can shepherd. Now, presuming this is true, the relevant question at hand is this: should a pastor be a shepherd or a CEO? Answers and opinions will abound… but I checked my Bible twice and I can’t find anywhere that Paul tells Timothy to administrate and delegate better, and Jesus was very clear that Peter’s job was shepherd duty, not Global Mission Strategist. We can talk about context and look at the cultural differences etc. but it seems what we ought to follow is the main thrust and emphasis that we have in Scriptural imperatives and examples, not in distilled leadership principles. We can feed the sheep a lot of different ways I suppose, but isn’t the implication that feeding sheep means shepherding is inextricable from leading? It just seems there’s another way to read the data and it proves Carey’s point as well as anything else. Indeed there are some real limitations (as a general rule) of effectiveness and ability to grow numerically depending on how the pastoral role is defined and approached. So then by implication, you must necessarily do something else to get above that threshold, the question, I think, is that “something else” what God has defined for us?

  4. […] Why you should be thankful if your pastor behaves like a CEO by Carey Nieuwhof CEO-style pastorates all the rage but offer little to those seeking deeper faith by Jim Brumley Quit Telling Pastors We Have to Stop Pastoring to Have a Successful Church: Great churches don’t need spiritual enablers or high-achieving CEOs. by Karl Vaters […]

  5. […] Why you should be thankful if your pastor behaves like a CEO by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  6. […] Why you should be thankful if your pastor behaves like a CEO by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  7. Why Can't Pastors Agree on What a Pastor Is? on March 16, 2018 at 12:00 am

    […] Why you should be thankful if your pastor behaves like a CEO by Carey NieuwhofCEO-style pastorates all the rage but offer little to those seeking deeper faith by Jim BrumleyQuit Telling Pastors We Have to Stop Pastoring to Have a Successful Church: Great churches don’t need spiritual enablers or high-achieving CEOs. by Karl Vaters […]

  8. myth buster on November 28, 2017 at 6:08 pm

    Let the pastors submit to the bishop, and let all who would have authority become the servant of all.

  9. tendai on July 3, 2017 at 11:29 am

    very interesting read made me think ,its true there is room for tough firm decision making as the shepherd cares for the flock .good read. not to say he should be the owner.

  10. OSowers on December 28, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    I would have to ask for clarification because from what I read I must disagree completely. I am a very successful business owner but recently left a church after 10+ years (while being an elder) because the pastor acted like a “CEO”. (An additional 100 + people left after I did and I warned in advance the church was going down the wrong path). The pastor was and is a CEO of a business outside the church and he started going AWOL after going to some worldly sales meetings on how to increase sales (by the worlds standards). In my meaning “CEO” I am saying he thinks he owns the church. This pastor believed the church was his to do with as he pleased with no accountability and no correction from anyone. This pastor was also laundering large sums of money for a board member to hide it from the IRS and he was having kids in the church forge signatures on car titles on cars he sold all to MAKE A PROFIT like the world teaches CEOs should do. This pastor would not receive correction and was told by another leader that the pastors vision is God’s vision for the church even if it does not line up with the word of God. If what you are saying is completely true about CEOs make the best leaders then only business owners and business minded people are qualified to lead the church or make decisions in leadership, yet the Bible speaks otherwise. Paul said when judging a matter of carnal conflict we should seek those least esteemed in the church not CEOs. I am not Mormon but one of the reasons the Mormon church has grown and continues to grow is because they involve everyone in the church and its leadership (or at least make them feel that way). In my opinion you are mixing worldly success with the church and you are teaching the opposite of what Jesus taught. Jesus said Lording it over others shall not be so in his kingdom. Whoever shall be first shall be last. Servants are just what the church needs not some arrogant people that think they own the church and run it like a business looking to please people to keep the nickels and noses coming every Sunday. The church needs men of God that spend time with God and preach with power and authority. They don’t need more CEO pep talks or great speeches. You will have no problem getting people to come to church when the power of God is present. You can run the church like a business and maybe make it like Wal-mart for Christians but in the end you will get an exchange of services between parties involved but you will not get any real spiritual growth. What good are the numbers if the spiritual growth is not there? What good are the numbers if the character of us as believers is not changed into the likeness of Jesus? The pastor previous to the one that we had was even more arrogant and believe people should never question anything he did or said even when he tried to kick other people out of the church for personal reasons. If anyone questioned his CEO status or decisions they were marked for removal. I am a business owner and have multiple pieces of commercial real estate, I understand business thinking very well and I understand its success. I also have a very large family. I have learned that you do not run a church like a business (although parts of the church have similar attributes) but you run a church like a family because it is a family, its the family of God. No family breaks someones legs (amazed you made that comparison in your article about leadership). AND NO A PASTOR SHOULD NOT BE A CEO AND THINK HE OWNS EVERYONE AND EVERYTHING IN THE CHURCH. Paul taught that the whole church was to judge together and take action against sin together in a group form. When he spoke of elders he spoke in plural form, not a CEO and singular form. He set up ELDERS in every city not a CEO in every city. The church is dying because it has no power and it keeps running on the worldly picture of leadership with cheap, superficial CEO pep talks. The way you speak in this article is as if shepherds are weak or do evil thinks to lead the ship (such as break their leg) which you teach from stories and information outside the bible. I don’t recall us needing any teaching outside the bible about shepherds such as evil Palestinian shepherds. Palestine is also known as terrorist country, so why use that to compare or for leadership examples? Who cares what they do? What does the bible say? What does Jesus say? If you would be the greatest you should be the servant. Jesus washed peoples feet, I have yet to see any CEO that would do that. This article is based on worldly thinking about leadership and not Jesus’s teaching.

    • Russell Minton on March 5, 2018 at 11:30 am

      Amen and amen. I was warning people 7 years ago. I did extensive research, worked closely with 3 different local churches and I could tell they all had the same worldly influence put on them. I saw droves of good faithful Christian people told to take a hike. I saw countless others run off because they did not fit the cult like narrative they were having crammed down their throats. If ever there was a clever way for the father of lies to strategically destroy the church, this was it. It is time for Jesus led leaders who don’t see themselves as the make or break factor for the future of the church. This article is so scripted and comes directly from the “coaching” and seminars these CEO wannabes subject themselves to. Where are the brave who want reform and will really look to Lord Jesus for direction?

  11. thesmartdude on October 12, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    Thank you.

  12. Scott Asai on August 31, 2016 at 10:39 pm

    This is refreshing to read because the church has been losing the battle for while now and the model has to change (especially for the Millennials). Business practices should be used for churches and roles need to fit the strengths of the people filling them. Pastors can’t be lone rangers and shouldn’t be viewed as one. Love the thoughts of taking steps in the right direction!

  13. Michael Lepien on July 23, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    I think this is a great post! And I completely agree with the idea. My experience with other pastors is that they don’t like the idea of being a CEO because “CEOs lead businesses, and the church is not a business.” What do you think about the idea that the church, as an organization, is indeed a business: checking accounts, savings accounts, assets, boards, budgets, pay roll, etc. While the Church, biblically, is a movement centered around Christ, as an organization it is indeed a business. What are your thoughts on that Carey?

  14. Jay on July 22, 2016 at 7:25 am

    Challenging stuff, Carey. I admit I bristled when I read the headline. “Whoa! Where is going with this one?!?” After digging deeper, you make a powerful point. As a matter of fact, I just finished reading “Good to Great.” It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see how the transferable principles of leadership of a Level 5 Leader translate into the church concept. Appreciate your hard work to provide insights into leadership.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 22, 2016 at 3:48 pm

      Thanks Jay…it’s a tension for sure, but I’m glad you see the point. I believe in it strongly.

  15. […] Why You Should Be Thankful If Your Pastor Behaves Like a CEO by @cnieuwhof […]

  16. James Halstrum on November 26, 2015 at 10:58 am

    Food for thought, for life and beyond….+ your thoughts appreciated…

    Globally Organizational and Governmental Leaders Egotistically says ” If you are like us you are OK = If you are NOT like us you are NOT OK “… That has been the problem from day 1 + the starter of wars from the beginning of time… Why trash Mars by sending Mankind there? = bad enough here on Earth…
    Racist or Nationist = It’s the same hate…When the leadership says ” It’s my way or the highway ” just continue to take and stay on your light, smooth HIGHWAY, with God / your Creator.. not on their dark, devilish and pot hole filled LOW-WAYS of Leaders who promote and exercise earthly Racism, Nationism, Egotism and Hypocritism…
    Beware of egotistical people who are attracted to positions of leadership by the opportunity to exercise power, control and to manipulate others, because they are in it for the wrong reasons.
    Manipulation = ” Getting others to do what you want them to do – without their being aware of what it is that you are doing “. ( Behind the scenes and/or no vote / input from those affected by the outcomes of manipulation ). Example = Done deals before the fact..
    It’s not so much what is done / but how it is done, that equals good Leader and Followership…Transparency is the enemy of a Manipulator – watch any leader or person in authority…I, I, I, – Me, Me, Me – is the egotist = their I -s are too close together…and their we, us and ours are non-existent = little or no inclusion in decision making or in their lives…

    • Russell Minton on March 5, 2018 at 11:32 am

      Bingo!!! You nailed it. I have seen it for myself.

  17. csquared78 on November 26, 2015 at 7:55 am

    Carey…quick question. Why is having a church of 200 or less a bad thing? You know if I want to build a business Jim Collins’ books are wonderful resources. But, if I want to worship and serve in a church, then the Bible is my only resource. And the last person I’d listen too is someone like you whose seeker church-growth principles are doing a lot of damage to the cause of Christ.

    (Note: You probably won’t approve this post because it cuts to the heart of how wrong this article is. And by the way, David wasn’t looking to be a king, he was a shepherd who protected his flock, maybe you should do the same).

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 26, 2015 at 9:47 am

      It’s not a bad thing. It’s just that churches that are mission focused want to reach more people, and most pastors I know want to reach more than 200 people. I definitely approved the post. We can disagree and still be in this together. I definitely have a strong bias toward churches that want to reach people, not churches that cater to the preferences of their members.

    • David Wehrle on November 26, 2015 at 10:51 am

      I think you missed Carey’s point that neither of the stereotypes of Pastor as CEO or as shepherd is necessarily better, and as typically understood, may be harmful.

      Actually, I also believe that you entirely miss the point of the shepherd metaphor as used by Jesus. His first century listeners would have heard this illustration as one from business – with the shepherd either as a small business owner/operator or as CEO with many hired hands, shepherds who worked under him. It is primarily an illustration from business. And, even today in the US, the primary product sheep give us is meat. Shepherds eat sheep and help others eat them, too. So, please don’t marry this metaphor. It will only take you so far.

      You may have a point about treating general revelation from business as our primary source of truth as Christians. Yet, Carey nowhere suggests that we do that. He does suggest looking at Jim Collin’s writings. Collin’s gets it right with Level 5 leadership: true humility coupled with fierce determination toward a purpose bigger than oneself are the major components of good leadership. Hey! That sounds like Jesus and every good church leader and Pastor I’ve known.

      You know… all truth is God’s truth. On top of that, there is nothing particularly spiritual about good leadership. I think we can both find many examples of talented leaders who led well, but toward a despicable end.

      I think you do a serious disservice to the example of David as well. You suggest that David disn’t seek to be king. Where does that idea come from? I think it is a misunderstanding from the fact that David was the least likely of Jesse’s sons to be considered for annointing. In fact, David embraced the role of shepherd of Israel, worked hard to maintain that position, and saw it as a blessing from God. This is not incompatible with having a heart after God’s own. Near the end of his career the Lord says in 2 Samuel 7: “Now therefore, thus you shall say to My servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be ruler over My people Israel. “I have been with you wherever you have gone and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make you a great name, like the names of the great men who are on the earth.…”

      As for “And the last person I’d listen too is someone like you whose seeker church-growth principles are doing a lot of damage to the cause of Christ,” Carey doesn’t need my defense. He is a marvelous leader and Pastor whatever yardstick you use. Your comment is pretty harsh, really. But, your statement here is simply nonsense even from a pure logic standpoint. How in the world does it damage the cause of Christ to be all about growing the church and serving those who are seeking God?

      Look, there is a lot of emotion in smaller churches, especially churches that are declining. I know because that is where I grew up and that is where God calls me to serve over and over again. It is hard work… The hardest. I hope you know that you did not personally cause the sea change that occurred in 20th century American culture. You did not personally create a church that was engineered in such a way that it could not adapt to communicate the gospel and love neighbor in the emerging culture. You will not be able to personally cause the sea change in the church that is necessary for the church to grow again in America or Canada. Jesus can and will. Let’s work together in love to discern and follow the good shepherd/CEO. I think that begins with our discussion here. You don’t have to agree, but if you can’t be loving and courteous with church leaders, how am I to trust you with lost sheep?

    • Theresa Cooper Sumpter on January 6, 2017 at 1:31 pm

      I agree

    • Russ on February 17, 2017 at 7:23 pm

      I’d rather be part of a church of 100 strong, mature Christians than a church of 200+ Christians who lack depth. So what if we sell our vision to people who come to our Sunday morning show but buckle under clever deceptions of satin. We are called to make disciples not to build congregations.

  18. Pat Anschuetz on November 25, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    While the author has never met a shepherd, I have. Several, & I’ve been a shepherd myself. Yes, a shepherd has to make command decisions about the flock and some of those are tough, but a real shepherd spends so much time with the flock, he knows them intimately, and cares for each one individually as well as the flock as a whole. A shepherd has lanolin under his fingernails & grieves when he cuts lambs out of the flock for slaughter. A shepherd who breaks a sheep’s leg to keep it from wondering isn’t fit for the title.

    The same is true for a pastor. This article gives the impression that if a pastor is aloof and unresponsive to his congregation’s needs, he is acting as CEO and that is good. No, it’s as bad a breaking a sheep’s leg because it was too much trouble to keep the sheep by your side to curb its wandering. Being the leader who has to be tough at times doesn’t absolve a pastor tenderly caring for the needs among the congregation.

  19. Trevor DeVooght on November 24, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    Sounds brilliant. It would be lovely to encounter a church that adopts this principle. A lot of my experience is with church boards that keep pastor on a leash. It’s hard to imagine being hired by a church that respects a vision for trimming the programming fat and demanding excellence from the laity.

  20. Samuel Hohman on November 23, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    Thank you for defining CLEARLY the terms you use, specifically “Shepherd” and “CEO”. By defining those terms from an accurate SCRIPTURAL foundation, it made the message of this article clear and easy to understand. Also, in recent events in my own life, this played out in a major way. I think all Lead pastors, staff, and board members need to read this article then have serious discussion about it. It may just explain why some of us are growing and some of us are not. Maybe…

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 23, 2015 at 9:11 pm

      Thanks Samuel. The definitions helped me think through the issues too!

  21. freeparkking on November 23, 2015 at 7:52 pm

    This was a fantastic post. In the church we seem to excel at creating false dichotomies; thank you for dispelling this one.

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