The Buying Cycle of Churches

Who do you sell to at a church? Who are the influencers and who makes the final budget decisions? From senior pastors to tech directors to volunteer leaders, churches have a wide range of influencers, recommenders and decision-makers. It’s important to understand when you’re talking to a buyer — or not — when working with local churches.

The “Pastor”

Depending upon the church denomination (or lack of one), the culture and the style of the leadership, you’ll hear a lot of titles that describes a pastor. Most mean about the same thing, but let’s start with understanding when you’d want to talk with the top staff member (often the “senior pastor”).

Chances are, the person at the top of the staff organizational chart isn’t the person you’ll spend time talking to and that’s true for most churches, from huge to very small. That’s because they’re focused on writing sermons, leading staff and providing overall direction for the organization. They’re not likely to be in many (or any) meetings that involve technology. It’s simply not in their wheelhouse.

If you do happen to have a pastor as a point of contact, it’s helpful to understand his role. Unless his bio on the church website clearly explains his role, it’s useful to find out what role he plays in the technology buying process.

Below is a typical list of a variety of pastoral titles you’ll likely encounter in the house of worship market:

  • Senior Pastor – the lead pastor, responsible for preaching most sermons, leading the organization and, in many churches, is the final authority for big-dollar decisions. However, he’s likely going to simply go along with the recommendations of the staff.
  • Executive Pastor – a role subordinate to the senior pastor, but with more operational duties and day-to-day staff leadership; often from the “business” world prior to joining a church staff
  • Technical Arts Pastor/Director – a technical leader who also shepherds his team in a pastoral role; often in charge of audio, video and lighting and sometimes information technology duties
  • Worship Pastor – in charge of all music/choirs/band/orchestra/singers with a shepherding, pastoral role for her teams

Other common titles of church staff include the following:

Pastor/Senior Level Titles:

  • Lead pastor – same as a senior pastor
  • Teaching pastor – often same as senior pastor; can be part of teaching team, but not lead
  • Preaching pastor – same as a teaching pastor
  • Vision pastor – relatively new title, same as senior pastor
  • Minister – can be senior or mid-level, depends on role/duties
  • Reverend – typically same as “pastor,” common in more liturgical churches

Staff or Volunteer Leadership Titles:

  • Elder – depending on church, either a senior staff member or senior volunteer leader/oversight
  • Teaching Elder – similar to teaching pastor, but can be volunteer leader/oversight with some teaching

Associate/Mid-Level Titles:

  • Campus pastor – in multi-site churches, often the lead pastor of that campus, but not the church’s senior pastor
  • Associate Pastor – a wide range of roles, usually not senior-level
  • Worship Pastor – in charge of all music/choirs/band/orchestra/singers
  • Pastor of Fine Arts – usually same as worship pastor
  • Music Minister – same as worship pastor
  • Minister of _______  – insert many titles here, from Adult Education to Volunteerism and more
  • Media Pastor – a technical leader who also shepherds her team in a pastoral role
  • Youth Pastor – usually in charge of junior and/or senior high student ministry
  • Technical Arts Pastor – similar to media pastor
  • Tech Director – often called a “TD,” a technically-gifted and minded person responsible for A/V/L and sometimes I.T.

Unique Titles:

  • Bishop – in some cases it is synonymous with senior pastor; in other cases it is used to describe a leader over pastors in multiple congregations
  • Apostolic Elder – a person respected by the church leadership that has oversight and helps provide accountability to the church staff; this person is often a pastor of another church and is also often an older, wise leader

Influencers, Recommenders and Decision-Makers

It would help me greatly to explain how churches handle the research, decision-making and buying process if there was a consistency between churches. Quite simply, there’s not. Decades of experience have taught me that just when I think I’ve got it figured out, something changes; either the shift is cultural or the dynamics of new, younger leaders coming up in the church rock the established boat.

I will say that it’s entirely reasonable to define when in the buying process you’ll encounter an influencer, recommender, and decision-maker. Your mileage will vary greatly depending on the type of churches you call upon most frequently. To find out more about how denominations (or non-denominationals) fit into this, read my previous article Church Buyers.

Generally speaking, there are four reasons a church is in a buying cycle:

  1. Break/fix – something is broken or breaking and it needs to be replaced and updated
  2. New budgets – new fiscal years bring new cash for making updates
  3. Windfall – financial giving is up and extra monies are available or a donor is being extra generous
  4. Campaign – building a new building or remodeling another one means big money is being spent and tech upgrades are a part of the scope

When talking with a church, asking about their role will usually give you insight into their ability to make a purchasing decision. As with any sale, understanding the felt needs and immediate pain points is a good idea, but it is more important to understand what that particular person finds most important. It has been my repeated experience that the pain point is usually someone else’s, not their own, that has prompted the discussion.

In most cases, it’s important not to try and get past the influencer in order to get to the decision-maker. This is a common tactic in other vertical markets, but in the house of worship market, the relational component from the influencer to the recommender to the decision-maker is significant. Take the time to learn each person in the buying cycle or face the very real potential of losing credibility with the person most likely to get your firm recommended to the decision-maker.

Winning Hearts and Minds

Because of the relational importance in church structures, winning hearts over is as important (more important even) than winning their minds on price, features or benefits. I’ve been saying it over and over here on the rAVe H.O.W. articles and blog: This market values the effort put into building relational equity.

You’ll find that churches will respond to your consistent efforts and follow-up communication for repeated buying cycles. By providing over-the-top service and getting to know their culture, the long-term sales opportunities will always be open to your firm. This is as true for manufacturers as it is for systems integrators and dealers. Don’t focus on the problem, but focus on the answer that supports the relational connection and brings value to the church and the relationship. This is the greatest way to build trust and garner both repeat business and the all-important referral business.

A former staff member at three mega churches and church technology consultant, Anthony Coppedge has developed a respected reputation as a leader in technical and communications circles within the church marketplace. Reach him at or on Twitter.