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What Executive Pastors and Pastors Can Learn From White House Chief of Staffs

In the article, All I Need to Know About Being an Executive Pastor I Learned on West Wing,all we looked at the similarities of the relationships of the President and his Chief of Staff and the Pastor and his Executive Pastor. In this article we continue with that analogy by sharing insights from Chris Whipple’s book, “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.” It is a helpful read for every Executive Pastor, and Pastor, or those considering the Executive Pastor position for their church.

Whipple’s behind the scenes look at all seventeen living White House Chiefs of Staff, and how their actions and inactions helped make or break an administration and shape the course of our country, provides a timely parallel to the Executive Pastor role in today’s church.

The Role of the Gatekeeper

The White House Chief of Staff is the second most powerful job in government. The Chief of Staff serves at the whim of the president, is the president’s closest advisor, the person he depends upon to oversee the Whitehouse staff, and to execute his agenda. In fact Whipple’s research discovered that the fate of every presidency arguably hinges on this little understood position. The right Chief can help a President govern effectively, the wrong Chief can spell calamity. Let’s take a look at what these men and their peers have to say about the role that will ring familiar to the seasoned Church Executive Pastor.

The White House Chief of Staff is one of the most demanding jobs in politics. It needs organizational ability, a passion for predictability and punctuality, and a strong enough character to counter balance the demands of different interest groups and personalities. — John Haldeman, Chief of Staff to Richard Nixon

Somebody’s got to be in charge. Somebody’s got to be the go-to-guy who can go into the Oval Office and deliver a very tough message to the President. You can’t do that if you have eight or nine guys sitting around saying, “Well, you go tell him.” – Dick Cheney, Chief of Staff to Gerald Ford

You have to be the person that says no. You’ve got to be the guy who basically tells somebody what the President can’t tell him. Always, always, be straight and honest with the President. Always tell him what he may not want to hear, because frankly, most people in the White House will always tell the President what he wants to hear. – Leon Panetta, Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton

I always thought of the President and Chief of Staff in business terms. The President is the CEO and Chief of Staff is the COO. My job as Chief Operating Officer is to make sure that when the President sets goals, I set objectives, the timelines, and the accountability to make sure that what he wants done is done, when wants it done, and is done right. – Erskine Bowles, Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton

Always remember that when you open your mouth, it is not you but the President who is speaking. – Ken Duberstein, Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan

Never forget the extraordinary opportunity you’ve been given to serve the President and the people of this country, and the privilege and responsibility that it represents. – Jack Watson, Chief of Staff to Jimmy Carter

You’ve got to resist the temptation to always have the answer. You’ve got to slow down and listen. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll make better decisions. – John Podesta, Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton

You have to create a firewall between the President and those who are clawing to see the President – John Sununu, Chief of Staff to George H. Bush

The Chief of Staff is the reality therapist, the person the President can let his hair down and say, “I’m frustrated, or I can’t figure this one out.” — Ken Duberstein, Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan

The President’s time is his most valuable asset, and the Chief of Staff’s job is to reserve as much of it for him as he can. What you decide as major and what is minor is the key. — John Haldeman, Chief of Staff to Richard Nixon

You gotta have nerves of steel, you have to have endless energy, you gotta know how to pace yourself. But none of that matters if your skill set doesn’t compliment the President. James Baker, Reagan’s Chief of Staff, complemented, he augmented, he meshed. – Mary Matalin, who served three Republican Presidents

You are extremely powerful as White House Chief of Staff, but the minute you forget that your power is vicarious from the President, then you’re in trouble. You are an instrument by which the President can be more effective. Your job is to make sure the President gets to hear all sides of every issue, but that doesn’t mean you don’t make your case. – James Baker, Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff

You’ve got to realize that you work for the President. You’re free to argue with him, to debate with him, to disagree with him, but you can’t ever substitute your judgment for his. – Howard Baker, Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan

A domineering Chief of Staff will almost certainly lead to trouble. Overly strong Chiefs have learned the hard way that serving the President means being able to cultivate, rather than alienate, constituencies for his use. – James Pfiffner in “The President’s Chief of Staff: Lessons Learned”

The people who don’t succeed as Chief of Staff are people who like the “chief” part of the job and not the “staff” part of the job. You’ve got to remember that you are still staff, even though you are powerful. — James Baker, Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff

A good Chief of Staff is everywhere. He’s in all the meetings. He has his finger on everything. – Mack McLarty, Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton

You don’t have to be an attack dog or bully to be an effective Chief of Staff. You just have to be very smart. You have to know when to be tough, but also when to let the reigns be a little looser. Because the people around you are also smart and have to have some degree of autonomy or else they are not going to do very well. – Leon Panetta, Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton

The most important thing a Chief of Staff can do is establish clear lines of responsibility. As a result you get clear accountability. There’s no accountability without clear responsibility. – Denis McDonough, Chief of Staff to Barack Obama

One of the things I’ve learned is that breakthroughs are typically the result of a lot of grunt work, blocking and tackling, mostly by the Chief of Staff. – Barack Obama

In closing Whipple quotes Jack Watson, Jimmy Carter’s final Chief of Staff. “The role affects everything. It affects the President’s relationships with Congress and the Cabinet. It affects the integrity and effectiveness of the decision making process. It affects the way Presidential decisions are explained and implemented. Do I believe the modern presidency requires that kind of Chief of Staff in order for a President to be successful? I emphatically do.” And on a personal note, I concur that the modern Senior Pastor and his congregation do as well.






Posted on October 29, 2019

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5