Call it Senior Pastor Syndrome. Call it creeping corporatism in the church. Call it human frailty. Whatever its name, many people think second-banana pastors will be the solution to their problems when—based on my own experience—usually they are the opposite. The myth is that additional help will help. It may or may not. A lot depends on how the relationship is articulated and managed.
How do I know? Three different times in three different places, I was an associate. It took the first nine years of my ministry for me to learn that I was not cut out for associate work. I learned by doing, and I made all the key mistakes that associates make—with vigor! I allowed myself to be triangulated by the congregation with the senior pastor. In fact, I rarely met a triangle I didn’t like. When people would say they liked my sermons better than his, I would purr. When people complained to me about the pastor’s short hours, quick temper, children’s behavior, or wife’s attendance patterns, I would nod. When people gave attendance reports on the few times that I preached versus the many times that he preached, I would record the information and sneak it onto staff meeting agendas. Now that I am a senior pastor and have had several associate pastors, I have become acquainted with the other side of these tables. I have learned that these triangles are perennial, persistent, almost common, and that they have very little to do with my superior talents. They are just things people do because no one has taught them not to.
In addition to my misguided affection for triangulation, I also got quickly bored with the “exciting” programs the senior pastor wanted me to do and went out and created my own. While maintenance was what he wanted, what I wanted was creativity and experimentation—something with my brand on it. Sometimes I did what he wanted me to do as well as what I wanted to do. My energy was always in the latter, my acquiescence in the former. Once I actually exploded from overwork, arguing that I was the one in charge of creative new programs and still stuck with all the maintenance work, and that it wasn’t fair. The solution to my dilemma lacked common sense but was quite obvious to me at the time: the senior should be in charge of maintenance and I in charge of creativity. He, of course, had hired me for just the opposite reason. He was looking for some time free of the frequent drudgery of elderly visits, website design and maintenance, newsletter development, and oversight of the youth group, the women’s fellowship, and the Sunday school teachers. He wanting these things “covered.” I wanted to uncover new things.
I have learned that I am not alone in these two embarrassingly typical misreads of the second-chair role. The dance between maintenance and innovation is central to this misunderstanding and its resulting problems. Many of my fellow clergy cite the hiring and supervision of associate pastors as the most excruciating part of their work. At senior clergy conferences, it is rare that the late-night social talk does not revolve around complaints about associates. At the same time, senior pastors are busy trying to steal the good associates from each other.
Good associates are hard to find. The reasons are multiple. One is that most good associates move up, quickly, to be seniors. Why? Because they want the creative role, the lead role, the big role. Very few of us go into ministry to fade into the background. The folk wisdom is that a good associate is doing something wrong if he or she stays longer than three years in that role. Why? If associate pastors are good, they are discovered and they go to places of higher responsibility, which is probably why they sensed a call to ministry in the first place. They did not enter the ministry to be someone’s vice president.
Problematically, most associates have just learned the work after three years. But those who succeed as associates are few and far between. To make matters worse, those who succeed as someone’s vice president or human resources department or secretary may have certain drawbacks for ministry. They may be allergic to decision making, direction setting, articulation, and passion. While people are often not looking for executive material in second positions, they also are not looking for wilting violets. The place in between—where a person can both take and give direction, both cooperate and lead—is a rare and beautiful place.
Balance Creativity with “Covering”
What follows is a guide—for senior pastors first and associates second—for making the senior pastor/associate pastor relationship work so that we can get to that beautiful place where leadership is positively shared, where each party enhances the other’s gifts and minimizes the other’s weaknesses in a blissful mutuality, and where both creativity and covering emerge in the workplace.
Yes, congregations are workplaces. They exhibit all the characteristics of same, with “bonding” needs always rivaling “task” needs. A healthy senior/second relationship balances both task and bond in mutually fulfilling ways.
In order for that to occur, senior pastors must articulate what they want the second to do. Think sound bite. If you can’t state in three sentences what your associate pastor is to do, you’re probably not ready to hire one. I recommend giving the associate three maintenance (“covering”) assignments and one creative project. For instance, “You are to manage the Sunday school, the youth group, senior visitation, and create a mid-week service.” Use that sentence as a guide and fill in the blanks. Then, once a week, find out if the associate has accomplished these tasks. If all the associate is doing is the mid-week service, watch out. You have trouble. With the biggest possible smile on your face, reign the associate in. Do not be afraid of early and serious redirection of someone who is doing only the creative aspects of the job. If you ignore that behavior, you are digging yourself a hole out of which it will be hard to climb.
When you do give your associate something creative or “their own” to do, stay out of the way. Affirm as often as possible, but do not interfere. The project is not your baby and you have no right raising it. Plus, one of the best things that can happen is that the associate will make good mistakes and learn from them. I believe they are more likely to learn from their mistakes if they recognize them for themselves than if we point them out. If the associate mentions his or her own mistake, then you can talk. At this point it would also be helpful to bring up some of your own early-career mistakes and what you learned form them.
As long as the associate is performing well on the assigned tasks, whatever else he or she is able to do is fine. There’s always room for some lard in the job description. Ministry is full of lard. Things come up. Things happen. Someone will ask the associate to do marital counseling. Great. Someone else will invite the associate to lead a trip to Brazil. Terrific. As long as the associate is doing the things you directed him or her to do, all is well. If not, address the issue as quickly as possible.
Train on Triangulation
Secondly, getting some training on the triangulation issue—for yourself, the associate, the rest of the staff, the board, and the congregation—is highly advisable. If you have sufficient knowledge, you may want to conduct the training yourself. If not, bring someone in to do it. In either situation, frequent mention of the dangers of triangulation is important. Practice the language. Keep the smile on your face. “We all know that ministry involves complex and delicate relationships with many people. We now have two clergy staff and we anticipate that people will be making choices
about who their primary pastor is. We rejoice in the choices that are possible! We also want to make very clear that any complaining about one to the other, in either direction, will not be held confidential. Any such communication will immediately be shared with the other. So please don’t ask us to hear confidences about each other. If you have something important to say to either of us, you must say it to us directly. It just works better that way—for everyone—as I am sure you understand.”
If you manage to say this often enough, you will find that people are actually relieved that they know how to manage a situation that would otherwise keep Dear Abby in business for a long time. You must also enforce it, which is to say you will need to do what you say you will do. Don’t be surprised if people test you. Of course they will. Instead, be ready to hear what they are trying to say. Every complaint is valuable: it is a plea for connection. So connect!
If you find the risk of this kind of review of your behavior too much or if you agree with me that associate pastors are often as much a problem as they are a solution, consider these other ways to manage the excess of work: You can hire consultants. You can hire more and different musicians to jazz up the worship service. You can have guest preachers. If you want a mid-week service, have a group of congregants create it. You can hire seminary interns. You can hire retired pastors. You avoid a permanent hire and instead hire people on a temporary basis. You can cut back on programs and model a more spare and uncluttered way of being. Often we—rather than our congregants—are the ones who want a lot of exciting programs. They might prefer better sermons from us, which we’d be more likely to deliver if we had another night off each week rather than another one on. The staff model of ministry is expensive, doesn’t really provide durability since people usually leave quickly, and is certainly not fluid in the postmodern sense. It locks us in rather than opening us up to experimentation.
Recognize the PossibilitiesHaving an associate pastor is often necessary, sometimes useful, and frequently a sorrow. It can also be a joy. Clear communication, excellent boundaries, and teaching others of the need for the boundaries can prepare the way for a good relationship or perhaps even a friendship to develop. Believe it or not, I am good friends with my former senior pastors. They were my mentors. They learned to put up with me. They gave me a lot of rope and, try as I did, I did not hang myself.
Now, as a senior pastor, I want my staff to respect me, to learn from me, and to do what I tell them to do, not necessarily in that order. I also want to respect them and learn from them. Still, there is too much in me of the Native American “elder” to think about sharing more than a little power with people who may or may not know what they are doing. I know too much about who I was at their age. While much has changed over the years, the relationship between innocence and experience has not.
Nevertheless, I believe ministry is more like a relay race than a solo track event. I believe we hand the baton on to the next generation of clergy precisely so as to invite the new time of God on earth. There is no more intimate setting for baton handing than in a parish that has a team ministry. There we learn from each other. It is a two-way street, especially now, when the next generation has so much to teach us. So, if you opt for the associate pastor approach to staffing, make it work, and find ways to both teach and learn from this person you have hired to help you and simultaneously—and most likely unwittingly—taken under your wing.