The Lead Pastor Every Associate Wants

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Michael Scott: “James Halpert, you started with this company as a fine young man.”

Jim Halpert: “You know what I think we should do? I think we should just save the goodbyes for tomorrow…at lunch. And then tomorrow I can tell you what a great boss you turned out to be. Best boss I ever had.”

“The Office” - Episode “Goodbye, Michael” of Season 7

In a previous Leader’s Line post, I discussed the various ways associate pastors can flourish in a ministry context.

In this post, I discuss contributing factors on the part of lead pastors which can foster a thriving environment for associates.

I’ll begin with a list of 8 practices with some concluding thoughts.


Helpful practices of a lead pastor

1. He Gives Vision Beyond the Job Description

Associates appreciate a clear job description.

But associates can come alive when their lead pastors begin to identity and verbalize the ways their associates could potentially be used by God for the broader church and Kingdom with their unique wirings in the present and future.

See, it’s one thing for an associate to feel like he’s a cog in his lead pastor’s ministry machine.

But it’s another thing for him to feel like he’s a cog in God’s Kingdom who has been assigned to his lead pastor’s church, but knows his lead pastor is tethered to the Kingdom and not just the well-being of his own church, and therefore, secure enough to fill his associate’s mind with thoughts beyond their immediate context.

 This lead pastor is expanding the mind of his associates.

This lead pastor is expanding the mind of his associates.

There are some associates who are pretty good at their job description, but are uniquely wired for something beyond their job description.

If a lead pastor knows this but won’t engage his associate, he will kill leadership potential, enthusiasm, and curb legitimate areas of giftedness.

Sure, a church shouldn’t pay associates to simply live out their personal giftedness, but if that same church can cover the lead pastor’s travel expenses for learning, networking, and speaking purposes, maybe the lead pastor can engage in conversation every once in a while.

2. He’s Forthright About Ministry Fit

I don’t envy lead pastors with associates who are struggling to find their niche and groove.

But there’s something lead pastors do that can make this worse: Not be lovingly forthright.

See, if I were a lead pastor and I had a struggling associate, I would probably do the following: (1) Leave him alone until he figures it out. (2) Coach and work with him if he doesn't figure it out (3) Try to place him in a different ministry sphere(s) (4) Finally, pray and beg God to “call” him somewhere else.

 This? Just a lead pastor sliding his associate into another role.

This? Just a lead pastor sliding his associate into another role.

But isn’t this ultimately unloving to the church and to the associate?

In the 2011 film Moneyball, there’s a fascinating exchange between the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) and his assistant GM Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) where Beane teaches Brand how to inform a player he’s been traded. His guiding principle is to be direct and straightforward by giving this crude rationale - '“Would you rather get once shot in the head or five in the chest and bleed to death?”

In the church, associates don’t get shot in the chest. They get a thousand little paper cuts and slowly die in a pool of ambiguity. They’re not sure what their lead pastors think of them. They’ve lost confidence in their ability. But they don’t know what to do so they sit paralyzed, hurting, and hurting their ministries.

Why not just lovingly tell associates the truth and use the energy to help him land elsewhere?

I once heard Larry Osborne give an account of a guy on his staff who wasn’t cutting it in an important department of the church. After a 3rd major ball drop, in the moment of an intense conversation, the staffer said, “Maybe I’m just not cut out for this.” Osborne said every part of him wanted to say, “No, you are” but instead he said, “No, you’re not. But you know what, we’re going to work with you to help you land at the best place possible (paraphrased).”

The associate left with no paper cuts, and whatever wound(s) he had, he had the clarity to properly heal because his lead pastor was lovingly forthright.

3. He Doesn’t Treat Every Associate the Same

Every good parent knows there’s a difference between loving your children equally as opposed to giving them equal treatment.

The prior deals with parental integrity, but the latter is the application of parental wisdom. And wise parents know they shouldn’t treat their kids the same because every child is different.

In the same way, the wise lead pastor knows he shouldn’t treat all of his associates the same way.

I believe every associate falls under 1 of 3 dominant needs: 1. Coaching 2. Collaboration 3. Championing.

Coaching is when an associate needs greater training in a particular realm of ministry. Some associates crave coaching because they’re younger, greener, or have entered an unfamiliar ministry territory and are looking to their leads as guideposts.

Collaboration is what other associates really need. These are the associates who want to work together on some sort of a project. They want synergistic energy, lively discussion, and a sense of being invited to the table.

Championing is when an associate needs greater opportunities and ministry real estate. This is when the lead pastor privately and publicly says, “You can do more. I see more in you. You’re holding yourself back. Let me empower you.”

Some leads treat their associates via collaboration when they really need coaching. Others want to coach, when some of their associates really need to be championed.

I wonder if this is an unchecked place for where some ministry teams begin fracturing. Not because people are ungodly or lack gifting, but because people aren’t treated according to their actual ministry growth stage.

4. He’s More Principle Driven Than Passion Driven

“I need to be a passionate leader so that others follow me.”

I think every leader has a temptation to believe the above statement, particularly lead pastors who have millennial-aged leaders on their team.

But I wonder if that’s an overstatement.

Leaders may be drawn to passionate leaders in the short run, but not always in the long run.

In the long run, leaders end up following principled leaders, not just passionate ones.

Why? Because principled leaders are predictable in a healthy way. An associate knows what he’s gonna get, what to expect, what will offend, and what the leader values.

Passionate leaders on the other hand can be exhausting to follow.

 Just another associate who’s crying underneath from the emotional exhaustion.

Just another associate who’s crying underneath from the emotional exhaustion.

One month they say something crazy about church planting and then a few months later, they’re convinced they just need to focus on getting in the word. The next month he’s convinced he needs to hand over the reins to his successor, and then the following month he’s convinced he’s got 25 more years left in the tank.

The unpredictability, which was inspiring at first, becomes old and trustworthiness goes up in smoke.

Craig Groeschel, pastor of Life Church describes this quality as leadership “centeredness.” According to Groeschel, there are centered leaders and there are non-centered leaders.

The difference between them? According to Groeschel, “The non-centered leader creates unsettled followers.” But centered leaders? He says they create leaders.

5. He’s Mindful of Power Dynamics

All leaders possess power.

This is because all leaders possess the capacity to influence.

Peter Scazzero in his book “The Emotionally Healthy Leader”  identifies six forms of possessed power:

1. Positional Power (Roles and Titles)

2. Personal Power (Gifts, Experiences, Personality)

3. “God factor” Power (Carrier of “Sacred Weight” in the eyes of others)

4. Projected Power (Attributed by others)

5. Relational Power (Relationship capital)

6. Cultural Power (Advantages from age, race, gender, and other cultural factors).

But think for a moment how much more power a lead pastor has over every other staff member.

He stands over every associate on the org chart (positional). He’s arguably the most gifted leader and communicator (personal). He’s viewed as “anointed” and “called” by God to occupy his role (God-factor). Everyone views him as the “senior” pastor (projected). He has the greatest pull and say (relational). He's one of the older guys and if in an Asian-American context, buttressed by hierarchical thinking (cultural).

Now imagine being a 25 year old, part-time youth pastor stepping into your lead pastor’s office because he needs a bump in compensation. Or imagine an associate pastor who has a legitimate gripe regarding the unhelpful leadership style of his lead pastor and is considering how to address his lead pastor.

On the one hand, we can say, “They just need to be courageous and forthright.” But on the other hand, we can see their predicament: The power dynamic scale is greatly tilted in the favor of the lead pastor.

 Good luck with the private conversation part-time associate.

Good luck with the private conversation part-time associate.

The youth pastor and associate knows, “If this conversation doesn’t go well, I can end up on the wrong side of his narrative (which becomes the church’s narrative).”  In other words, they feel their lead pastor holds their present and future in his hands.

Lead pastors can’t completely reverse this power dynamic. It is what it is.

But it would be helpful for leads to understand that this dynamics exists, how it exists, but more importantly be cautious to not take advantage of this by considering ways to better even out the power scale for greater team chemistry and trust.

6. He’s Aware of Unique Life Season Challenges 

I have 3 young kids with a wife in residency (at the time of writing).

So when I see parents talking about how hard it is with 1 kid, I can’t help but be judgmental.

“C’mon, seriously? One kid is a joke. Wait till you get another one.”

Ironically, my own life stage progression doesn’t make me sympathetic to those experiencing my previous life stages. I actually feel more self-righteous and entitled and end up giving less grace to others.

I wonder if lead pastors can carry this mindset when it comes to their younger associates who are entering the very life stages they got over years ago.

“You’re single. You should be flying all over the place just like how I did when I was single.”

“You just had a kid, so what? I went through the same thing you went through while I was planting the church.”

“Why are thinking so much about your pay? We bought a house when we were 30. Just save and you’ll get there.”

Again, I understand and tend to operate out of this mindset. But here’s the issue - it’s a faulty mindset. It’s a mindset rooted in non-realities.

First, this attitude is not truthful to our own past realities. For example, when my wife and I had our first child, it was not a joke (as my wife reminds me). I was freaking out all the time, exhausted, and lying to everyone about how awesome of a dad I was.

Secondly, it is not truthful to the present realities of first-time parents. Just because raising 3 children is objectively more difficult than raising 1, that does not negate the difficult reality of raising 1. It’s still hard.

In the same way, it’s not helpful when lead pastors conflate time and context when comparing their past with the present of others. Lead pastors need to be truthful.

Yes, the early years of the church were hard, but there were also only 25 people. So, it may have been more relationally demanding, but the church is probably way more operationally complex today than at inception.

In the same way, the challenges of raising children and housing prices today are different than than they were 10, 15, 20 years ago.

So this isn't to say lead pastors should allow their associate to raise the victim card or punt on their responsibilties, but it does mean they should curb anachronistic arrogance and try to understand.

7. He Absorbs the Cost of His Double Standards

Would you believe me if I told you I’ve had conversations with associates who tell me their lead pastors say associates can’t drop the ball on ministry assignment but that lead pastors can?

Whether you believe me or not,  I think many leads functionally operate out of a double standard.

And truth to be told, I don’t think a lead pastor can fully help the double standard.

He should preach the most. He should get paid the most. He should be freed up to do certain ministry tasks rather than being hunkered down in the details of the everyday.

But the lead pastor has to be okay with the net loss created from this double standard.

 There’s a gain and a cost.

There’s a gain and a cost.

For example, he can’t cry “woe is me” that his associates aren’t running their ministries like a well-oiled machine when he’s not even well prepared for his staff meetings (that’s if he even has them or shows up to these meetings).

He can’t wonder why his associates aren’t willing to sacrificially and enthusiastically help him with further ministry projects when the help predominantly moves in one direction - from the associates to the lead pastor, so that while the workload of the associates continually grow, the lead pastor is continually hardly involved in the ministry spheres of his own associates.

He has to be okay with the fact that his associates are also going to be wondering, “What’s out there” in other churches, when his lead pastor is always trying to guest speak at other places “out there.”

He has to be okay with his associates not speaking glowingly of him publicly when the lead pastor rarely appreciates or celebrates his associates.

The double standards will exist but so will the cost, and the insightful lead pastor understands and absorbs this without grudges.

8. He Cares About the Associate Apart from the Job Description

There’s a thought some associate have - “If I was no longer on this staff, would my lead pastor ever reach out to me again just to see how I’m doing?

See, every associate knows that he wears a hat for his church. Associates serve a particular function.

But the issue is - does the lead pastor only see the associate for the hat they wear, or do they see the person underneath the hat?

A lead pastor might say, “I don’t know how to care for my associates. I never had someone do that for me before.

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But doesn’t the sword cut both ways? Can the associate said, “I don’t know how to be a good associate. I’ve never had anyone teach me how to lead well from the second chair”?

Wouldn’t the lead pastor say it’s the associate’s responsibility to figure it out? So doesn’t the application cut both ways?

I wonder if lead pastors can overthink what it means to care for their associates.

Genuinely caring for an associate isn’t so much about figuring out leadership tactics, and it certainly doesn’t mean to be their personal therapist. A lot of it is taking a little time here and there to learn the pains, thoughts, and questions of the associate.

It’s creating space to occasionally sit with with the associate for who he is.

This may not always be the best use of a lead pastor’s time, but this would still be less time than the actual time needed for a lead pastor to plug the holes of a continually turning-over staff.


Concluding Thoughts

I presently serve alongside and under a lead pastor who tries to walk into these practices to the best of his abilities and I’m grateful for it.

But the reality is - there's no such thing as a perfect lead pastor.

Associates, your lead pastor carries a weight you and I don’t fully comprehend or experience.

There’s a reason why the double role of General Manager and Head Coach is becoming less popular in the NBA. It’s just too much responsibility for someone to bear.

But the lead pastor has to function like the general manager, head coach, assistant coach, teammate, and cheerleader. In other words, it’s impossible for him to be perfectly balanced.

He can’t be the perfect pastor, friend, boss, and coach for you, much less the entire congregation. Something has to give.

Sure when everything goes well, he ends up getting the credit. But in church ministry, that’s rarely the case, there will always be something wrong, meaning he’ll also get the blame.

 It’s a heavy load.

It’s a heavy load.

Now it’s true that it’s his choice and decision to be the lead pastor. It’s true that some ministry problems are the result of his own poor decisions. Yes, in many cases, he has no one to blame and must take personal ownership of his decision.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t be sympathetic or make attempts to better understand him.

What kind of an associate are you? Do you genuinely care for your lead pastor?

If you’re not sure how you’re doing as an associate, this may be a helpful grid for you - if your future associates modeled themselves after the kind of associate you are to your lead pastor presently, how would you feel about your future leadership team?

Does it fill you confidence? Or would it make you nervous at how much they’d gossip about and roll their eyes at you?

“But you don’t understand. There are real ways he hurts the church and the team in ways he doesn’t even realize.”

That’s probably true to a certain extent of every single leader, not just the lead pastor.

But your lead pastor being blind to his weaknesses or unwilling to take responsibility for himself, does not give you an out for taking personal responsibility.

You and I can still do our best. We can give it our all. We can operate out of a posture of love, humility, and support.

Eventually, he’ll realize this or you’ll know its time to move on. Until then, let’s stop making excuses and do what’s best for our churches.

Lead pastors, you play a bigger role in the lives of your associates than you think.

A carelessly spouted opinion, opining a narrow attitude with biting sarcasm, or passive aggressive messages can have a much larger ripple effect than you could imagine.

Your associates care what you think about them. Your associates want to know they’re valued. They want to know you believe in them. And your silence can be deafening.

No, this doesn’t mean you need to retool your leadership strategy or to spend hours per week pouring into your associates.

I’m just saying the tiniest of efforts to converse by the water cooler can make all the difference in the well-being and confidence of your associates.

If you’re unsure of how you might be doing as a lead pastor, this may be a helpful grid: Would you work for yourself based on the ways you treat your associates?

And if you’re inclined to say “yes” would you be willing to test that by asking your current associates what they think about your leadership? How about your former associates? Would they recommend others to sit under your tutelage?

See, this is an invitation to the little things - a text of encouragement, an acknowledgment of the person outside of the job description (“How’s life? Anything new?”), an invitation to the table (“Any feedback on my sermon?”).

 It’s the little moments at the mundane places.

It’s the little moments at the mundane places.

I think some of the greatest confusions and pains for associates come, not always from big betrayals, but the silent weeks and months of feeling invisible and used.

You may be saying, “I used to care more, but I’ve been burned by a few associates before, so I’m done with that.”

But isn’t a part of leadership continual exposure to the possibility of pain? As the lead pastor, shouldn’t the lead model and demonstrate the incarnational ministry he asks of his associates for their respective ministry spheres? Isn’t the lead the first in line to imitate Paul when he said he shared “not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us (1 Thessalonians 2:8)”?

Yes, the lead pastor has to bleed. Not because he’s the lead pastor, but because he’s a leader.

But as he bleeds, every one of his associates will be standing next to him and behind him, bleeding alongside him.

There is no pain-free leadership.

Leadership and pain are bound together like good friends. They’re bound together like a wooden cross and suffering.

And this is perhaps the greatest privilege of leadership - that our pains serve as an aroma to the humble servant leadership of Christ who bled on a cross on our behalf paving the way for a greater, reconciled, redeemed future.

Let’s praise God for lead pastors. May they live for God’s praises and God’s praises alone.

May associates and church members pray for their lead pastors.

May lead pastors lead their associates and people for health and the continual advance of God’s Kingdom.