Dr. Irishea Hilliard, the daughter of renowned Bishop IV Hilliard in Houston, was recently appointed as senior pastor of New Light Christian Church. With this new position, Dr. Irishea, as she is affectionately called, will historically be one of the very few women to hold a senior pastor position at a megachurch. Bishop Hilliard literally passed the baton to Dr. Irishea on and she was installed on New Year’s Eve. She is poised to lead the multiple-location, 20,000-plus membership congregation and will be the first female to do so solo.
We recently interviewed Dr. Irishea who gives us insight into her leadership style and her vision for New Light Christian Church.
Define the role of a senior pastor.
The role of a senior pastor is one who holds the highest ranking or serves as the lead minister with the responsibility of shepherding, providing visionary and administrative authority in the local church.
Why did you become a pastor?
I became a pastor in 1999, and my calling to pastor was initially to minister to youth. I wanted to see young people have an encounter with God and develop a relationship with Him.
Who are your mentors?
My first mentors are my parents. In addition to them, I have several friends who are senior pastors of churches their fathers pastored – so I lean on them for advice in this new season of my life.
Describe your father.
My father is a man of integrity, intelligence who is led by God. His love for God, people and his family is amazing. He’s a builder, visionary and walks in boldness to obey God. I could go on and on in describing my father because I think he is a great man.
Tell us about your family as a whole.
My family is the culmination of enjoying life at every age and season. My two sons, Ivan (21) and Jonathan (15) keep me busy with their sports activities but yet we maintain a level of love and fun in our home that is full of excitement. My sisters and brother in love, Tina (married to Terry) and Preashea, are my friends, support system, and have my back fully as we work together to fulfill God’s plan for our lives. My mom is the president of her children and grandchildren fan club, and she makes a point to call me daily. Our family vacations are filled with laughter and future planning.
You are one of the few women to hold a senior pastor position at a megachurch. What are the obstacles you’ve had to overcome?
One of the obstacles I have had to overcome is gaining the trust and support of our male parishioners. It’s a fact that most churches are filled with mostly women, but our church has a strong male presence. I wanted to make sure the men in our church knew that as their pastor I can still be a voice of hope, guidance and direction. It’s been amazing with the launch of our men’s ministry, Light Keepers, to rally our men to stick with the vision and support me as their pastor.
Define Dr. Irishea Hilliard’s leadership style.
Exciting and inclusive. I think when you create an atmosphere where people enjoy where they work then they will do whatever it takes to complete assignments and they can be more creative. As a leader, I am willing to use unconventional methods to teach, lead and train my team. The inclusive style of my leadership refers to my inclusion of my team to bring ideas and assist in carrying out vision objectives. As the visionary, I am responsible for casting the vision but I depend on my team to carry out the vision and be an extension of me in touching the people.
What is your vision for New Light Christian Church?
My vision for the church is we continue in the mission that my parents declared 33 years ago, to build people of purpose, power and praise. While we will respect the legacy of our ministry I will lead our church into using new methods to reach others and build relationships. Our church is made up of seven generations and my vision is to bridge the generations together and lead them into an intentional and intimate relationship with God that will transform their lives and those they come in contact with. I desire to show people through our ministry how to apply God’s word to their lives and enjoy the journey.
Did you have to make any major adjustments to move from COO to the senior pastor?
I would say I had to make major adjustments because a senior pastor has to be more than a preacher they must also be an administrator. So my role of COO has prepared me to handle the administrative side of the senior pastor role.
How do you handle the challenges?
I handle challenges with prayer, seeking wisdom and counsel from my parents who have not retired but have restructured their lives and are available to me for advice. When challenges arise it is always my goal to analyzing the fact at hand, and through counsel, past experiences and seeking God’s wisdom I am able to handle the matter accordingly.
What drives you?
My calling. I want to live my life in such a manner where God is proud and the legacy of our church, family and ministry progresses based on the calling he has placed upon me as a senior pastor.
How do you stay encouraged?
My personal devotion and study of God’s word keeps me encouraged. I start my day speaking “life” over my day, church, our members, my family and myself. I am encouraged by what God has promised me and I know that every day is an opportunity for me to live my life of impact and intentions.
What upsets you or makes you angry?
Dishonesty … even if the truth is distasteful or hard to hear I would rather deal with the truth than someone’s dishonesty.
Is ministry your gift? Why or why not?
Ministry is my gift wrapped in the calling on my life. To think that God would choose me to do this and fulfill this role is a gift that I don’t take lightly. I know in my own strength and flesh, I am inadequate but because of my yes to him and dependence on God’s power, I can do anything.
Is the term megachurch daunting? Why or why not?
No, megachurch is not daunting because of how our family has approached handling our membership. We make every attempt to be personable, caring and concerned about every member. With a team of committed people and strategy to handle the masses the mega term is minimized and my focus is providing ministry to each one no matter age or demographic.
What is the biggest misconception your church members may have about you?
At this time I am not aware of a “big” misconception, my focus is making sure our members get to know me beyond just Bishop Hilliard’s daughter they watched grow up and or grew up with, to knowing the woman I have become. In an attempt to overcome the childhood “Irishea” that grew up in the church to being their senior pastor I give respect to those who paved the way for where we are today, I love each person genuinely and I live my life transparently willing to share the moments and stories that have made me better and challenged me for success.
What advice are you offering aspiring female ministers?
I would say be more than a minister to women, be a minister to all people. Often times in my message delivery, I will use analogies for sports, pop culture and life that cross gender lines so that I remain relatable and the message is applicable to all. I would also say don’t try to be a man or something you are not, be authentically you and God will use you as a female to bless others.
What are the last three books you’ve read other than the Bible?
40 Day Soul Fast by Cindy Trimm
Switch on Your Brain by Caroline Leaf
Soar! By Bishop T.D. Jakes
I am currently reading with our church The Maximized Life Journey by Bishop I.V. Hilliard and I listen to at least one audiobook weekly.
If there’s one thing you could change about the world, what would it be?
The hurt and pain that happens to people because of the poor choices someone chooses to make. It’s hard to see others experience hurt and pain that the hand of others but I know the power of prayer so continue to pray for peace and healing of our land.
If there’s anything you could change about yourself, what would it be?
Like many females, I could give you a laundry list of things that I want to change about my outward appearance. At various points in life, it was my weight, my nose, my height but I realize that those changes were temporary if I didn’t make the necessary inward change to be the best version of me. When I changed inwardly on managing my thoughts, being a compassionate person, knowing who I am and valuing ME, it changed how I look at my outward flaws…and I realized those things make me uniquely me.