I failed as a head pastor. I had always wanted to be one, but I sucked at it.
My good friend Jason Brown and I planted City Church of Long Beach in 2013 as co-pastors, but he moved back to Iowa to raise his kids with the extended family in 2016, leaving me as the head pastor… so this was my chance.
Head pastors are bold, so I moved within weeks to hire four part-time staff to replace Jason, moving to a family-style staff team. Only, I didn’t know how to write job descriptions and I didn’t know how to hire people and I didn’t know how to supervise people (still don’t)… Frankly, more problematic were my underlying insecurities and unprocessed grieving. My overfunctioning and avoidance set the team up for failure.
I limped into City Church with my family in 2015 after a tough season of ministry elsewhere. I was feeling a little chewed up by the church, and being here was so healing. Maybe things were a bit free-wheeling for my Enneagram 1 self, but I wanted to follow Jesus this way – wholehearted, generous, a little scruffy, a lot loving. Joining Bill’s staff team in 2016 seemed like an obvious yes.
In my enthusiasm, I created what was initially a fun culture of self-growth but it quickly turned out to be a culture lacking accountability. Personal conflict trumped clarity to the point where I counted that in 5 weeks (more than a month of meetings!) we’d actually only spent two hours talking about ministry. That makes it awfully hard to discern direction, plan sermon series, think through new leaders, etc.
I have to admit, I had Bill on a bit of a pedestal at first, and my confidence in my own ability to lead was low. Added to that, when you’ve been part of enough ministry teams run like a business, numbers-focused and ego-driven, the swing of the pendulum towards a team culture more like family feels really good initially.
Of course, some families are more functional than others! As much as I loved our people-first ethos, I also wanted us to be able to work together and get some stuff done. Wasn’t there a way to do both?
It took me too long to speak up. By the time I started asking my questions out loud, it was too late.
About nine months in, Brenna started speaking up. She’d always gotten stuff done, but now she was shaking the status quo. It was probably really good stuff, but by this point my soul was a wreck. I could hardly make out what she or anyone else was saying.
Then one Wednesday afternoon I called the elders and asked for an emergency three month sabbatical.
I left the staff in disarray. I felt terrible about it, but it was crystal clear I was not the leader for the job.
I spent those first 8 days at a monastery in silence, trying to put my soul back together, trying to figure out what went wrong and where to go next. I was not at all sure it included pastoring. I spent the rest of the summer on long walks talking these things through with my wife, Katy, doubling up sessions with my Spiritual Director and my therapist, and diving deep into the Enneagram.
Within weeks of my return from sabbatical the staff team was down to the two of us – too much damage had been done. The church was reeling, and people were questioning (with good reason) whether the community had a future.
Bill and I both wanted to believe it did. I started guiding us through some key practices I’d learned in the healthiest, most collaborative ministry team I’d ever been part of. We also began meeting with a leadership coach who shared other simple, powerful tools that we adapted for our small church context. (None of this is stuff pastors tend to learn in seminary, sadly.)
We discovered that with these practices in play, we were a really good team that could build other good teams. We had completely different personalities, strengths and stories, but shared the same vision and values. So we were having fun, getting into productive conflict (a huge piece of the puzzle for most teams), and – yup – finally getting some good stuff done. Slowly but surely, the church began to heal.
Brenna and I formally updated our titles to co-pastors in 2019. I will never be a head pastor again (God willing) – I’m just no good at it. But maybe that’s a strength, not a weakness. I do outward facing ministry well. It’s no sweat to partner with the neighborhood witch on our community garden and watch her come to Christ, and I’ll have a couple hundred people for dinner on an average non-covid month. Just don’t trust me with the agenda for the board meeting or to develop the interns! But Brenna Rubio has superpowers at creating healthy culture that you wouldn’t believe, not to mention the kind of clear vision and leadership any company in America would die to hire.
I probably could be a head pastor. Except for the whole being female thing, I have a lot of the qualities churches traditionally look for in their leaders. The thing is, I believe churches and pastors would be so much healthier with more collaborative models, whether that’s formal co-pastorships or leaders of any title learning to share power generously and lead with others.
Churches should have leaders who love as deeply and boldly and idealistically as Bill White, as well as leaders who think and plan carefully and build healthy teams (like Brenna Rubio – Bill, sneaking into her section here). They should have leaders with diverse backgrounds contributing really different perspectives. And it’s impossible to contain that all in one person. That’s why we need each other AND why we have to keep doing the deep work so we can lead together well.