Leading as a Pastor-Executive
John M. Sommerville is board member for Christianity Today. He has a background in executive leadership at General Mills, serving on the board of InterVarsity Press, and serving in a formal ministry role with a church. Though he's served on the board of Christianity Today for a decade, he has admired CT magazine for much longer, remembering his dad carrying it around when he was a child.
I spoke with John about his role on Christianity Today's board, his own calling, and the challenges—and opportunities—for the church today.
You left an executive marketing job at General Mills to attend seminary. What prompted the change?
I took a job at a church first before I started seminary. I was involved in a large, growing church in the Twin Cities when I was in my late 20s, helping lead a singles group as a volunteer. I began to teach that group, and within several years the senior pastor began asking me questions about what I would do with my life. That led to questions about vocational ministry. He eventually offered me a job, and I started seminary about a year later.
You've been the senior pastor of a church in Minneapolis for roughly the same period that you've served on Christianity Today's board. How does being a pastor inform your role with CT?
I think one of the interesting things I have is this past life of an MBA, executive experience inside a major corporation, and so on. Most nonprofits have dimensions that are business-like; they are organizations. So whether it's strategic planning or marketing or HR concerns or even capital kinds of responsibilities, there are those concerns for which I have a background and experience, and I can help guide the organization drawing on that. But if you just put business people on the board of nonprofits, they may not understand the nature of a nonprofit or, in the case of CT, the world they are serving. And CT would say they serve the church. One of the things I've learned is that there are some differences in nonprofits, however, and there are some things I didn't understand. Because CT serves the church, this helps me combine both perspectives into a unique one.
So does your role with CT inform your role as a pastor?
Oh yeah—absolutely! Serving CT equally informs my pastorate. I think that's something that our board understands is a little unique about my background. That dual experience certainly has informed the way we do and approach board tasks. It affects systems, organizational principles, and leadership structures.
As someone serving the church in multiple ministry capacities, what do you think are some of the more pressing issues facing the church today?
I think we're in a transition from a culture that was, if not openly supportive, at least not hostile toward historic orthodox Christian commitments. I think we've entered an era in which the church is a little more beleaguered. And it's been a fairly rapid change from being viewed as moral prudes to being viewed as immoral in some ways. I would say I don't feel that as intensely as that statement sounds. But we've gone from being viewed as holding to some sort of righteous standard to often being viewed as bigots. Again, I don't want to overstate that, but I do think there's a change. The church is having to go back to what some call a pre-Constantinian mindset. We're not on home turf anymore; we need to understand that we're out of step with the broader culture. That's okay, but we need to learn to navigate that world a little better—not by trying to dominate the culture, but by trying to work as a community of Christians who have something significant to offer the world. These substantial changes mean our opportunities for ministry are clearer.
Tell me about that. Where can Christians really speak to the culture today?
I think the good news of the gospel speaks to a variety of things our culture needs good news about. One is the human being. Christians can speak to questions of human dignity, the value of life—and I don't just mean abortion or those kinds of things—but what does it mean for a human to flourish. We have something rich to offer. And the gospel gives us an understanding of the limits of both legalism and license.
Some have their own form of legalism. For example, being "green" can be a form of legalism that can be as enslaving as anything else. I think pursuing passions that are not ordered or guarded leads to emptiness. We are people of truth and hope and life. Maybe we have something to offer that people haven't experienced before.
How do you personally use Christianity Today's content?
I really value the ministry of Christianity Today as a whole—truly. I read CT magazine. As a pastor, I use resources like PreachingToday.com and Church Law & Tax. Church Finance Today and Church Law & Tax Report are both things our church uses. We pass those on to our church board. Those resources are really invaluable to us in terms of managing the church. And Books & Culture stimulates me and keeps me really current on thought leaders.
I really look to Christianity Today for an irenic, balanced, historically and theologically grounded voice as something valuable in evangelicalism.
Samuel Ogles is assistant editor and marketer for Church Law & Tax. You can follow him on Twitter at @samuelogles.