How An Associate Pastor Can Flourish

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Michael Scott: "Now I know there's some rumors out there and I just kind of want to set the record straight."
Dwight Schrute: "I'm Assistant Regional Manager. I should know first."
Michael Scott: "Assistant to the Regional Manager."
- Scene from Pilot episode of NBC's "The Office" 

In a given church staff setting, you have your lead or senior pastor who is most likely responsibility for the bulk leadership, vision, and teaching of the church.

And then, there's everyone else. 

These are the assistant or associate pastors, or "assistants to the pastor" (according to Michael Scott's character). 

Depending on a church's history, its cultural context, size, budget, and a few other factors, the roles and responsibilities of your average associate pastor may vary. 

In some contexts, the associate pastor will exist as a generalists who will literally do whatever the senior pastor asks him to do. In other contexts, an associate may function as a specialist, expected to catalyze a certain demographic or sphere of the church. 

But while the roles and responsibilities may vary, the associates' stories appear to be somewhere along the following: Some become associate pastors and do relatively well, while others struggle to find their footing under their lead pastor. 

As an associate pastor myself, I've personally seen the landmines and opportunities in the life of the associate. 

Here are a few strategies I've personally found to be helpful: 

A quick qualifier: I do not believe there is a simple formula or magic sauce for how associates can succeed. Because every ministry setting has such different cultures, every point will have to be thoughtfully infused into an already existing church context. 

Furthermore, I believe leadership is like an iceberg in that 90% of what's ultimately important will not be visible. So while these points may be fully adapted, there are no shortcuts for daily character, perseverance, and discipline. 


1. Think like a lead pastor. 

"Think like a lead pastor? How would that be helfpul? Wouldn't that kind of thinking mislead an associate into a power struggle with the lead pastor while distracting his mind from his own ministry sphere?"

Notice, I didn't say act like the lead pastor, but think like a lead pastor.

Meaning, while you wear your personal ministry hat(s) (worship director, or young adults, etc.) you simultaneously wear the lead pastor glasses so that you fulfill your responsibilities from your organizational position with the organizational perspective of those above you.

In other words, wear your hats with his glasses. 

 Odd, but they'll work fine. 

Odd, but they'll work fine. 

See, while most associates have the benefit of zeroing in on a ministry sphere, every lead has to focus on steering the church as a whole.

So while a lead will often come into a meeting wanting to make decisions for the entire church, most associates will enter the same meeting with the natural temptation to make decisions with the grid of his own ministry. You can see the tension this creates. Both lead and associate pastors can easily bypass the other. 

While this is a difficult and ongoing tension, I believe this is every associates' opportunity.

As the associate applies "entire church view" glasses as the guiding principle for how he runs his own ministry, his lead will find this refreshing. Chances are, the lead will think the associate is trustworthy and arouse a greater inclination to see through the associate's glasses and may even be more enthusiastic for the associate's overall input. 

This is not to say the associate should never speak up from his department's perspective, but that when he does, he's already taken into account the perspectives and viewpoints of the lead position. This will catalyze the lead to listen more carefully when the associate does speak up because he'll know the associate is speaking as a partner, not as a silo. 

2. Learn and lean into your lead pastor's passions. 

Every lead has certain ministry passions. 

Some really care about intensive Bible exposition and oversea missions, while others care about cultural engagement and local evangelism. Some are all about building strong small groups and children's ministry, while others only want to talk about the gospel, but everyone has their passions. 

If associates want to do well, it's worth learning their lead's passions. This is because no matter what your lead says is important, his head, heart and hands will ultimately find their way back to his passions.

Which means every associate is currently either leaning into a few of those ministry passions by embarking on a shared ministry project or initiative or he's on the other side of the fence. 

"But this sounds too lead pastor focused. I want to have my own convictions and passions."

I agree. You don't have to be 100% on board with every single one of your lead pastor's passions. But you have to at least be passionate about one of them and supportive of the others. If not, there are even deeper issues, like why are you even at that church? Are you just collecting a paycheck? If you're really convinced about having differing passions, then why not test your convictions by courageously considering another ministry opportunity so that you could be a part of something you really believe in? Otherwise, aren't you leeching off your church's resources? And odds are, your lead already senses this. 

If an associate doesn't know what his lead's passions are 1) The lead is either too young to have formed concrete ministry passions 2) The associate isn't listening 3) The associate has never asked. 

Regardless, the associate can take the initiative to ask his lead. 

3. End the mediocrity. 

I have a theory: Every associate traps his lead. 

Every associate traps his lead on a continuum of two polarities to either think, "Man, how do I prevent this associate from leaving my church?" to "Man, how do I get this guy to leave my church?" 

Why do I think this? Because that's how I feel about my volunteer staff and they're church volunteers! But everyone is on a continuum of "gotta keep on board" and "gotta off-board." So why would it be less intensified on a church staff level? 

"But doesn't this put the associate in a difficult position? He can't after all, control the mind of the lead pastor or the decision making of a board. What's he supposed to do?"

He's supposed to do the one thing he can do: Control himself. He can control himself to be a more faithful, responsible, strategic, and growing leader, every single day. (Besides, isn't self-control one of the qualifications of a pastor?)

Another way of putting this is that the associate should manage or lead himself. He should be the kind of person who is self-motivated to lead his ministry, who cares about what he does, fostering ambitions for how he could better lead others, and so forth. 

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It would be an interesting experiment for associates to take personal inventory of themselves: what time they wake up, how they portion their meals, how they utilize their time, the sensibility of their workflow, the development of their ministry game plan, etc. 

Leadership expert, John Maxwell (The 360 Degree Leader: Developing Your Influence from Anywhere in the Organization) describes the impact of self-leadership in his book - “Nothing will make a better impression on your leader than your ability to manage yourself. If your leader must continually expend energy managing you, then you will be perceived as someone who drains time and energy. If you manage yourself well, however, your boss will see you as someone who maximizes opportunities and leverages personal strengths. That will make you someone your leader turns to when the heat is on.”

Could you imagine if associates stopped thinking, "What do I need to do to get my pastor off my back" and started thinking, "How do I set an example of excellence for my lead pastor?" It would have the potential to reverberate for health for an entire church. 

4. Support your lead pastor publicly. 

There are associates who spew dirt about, vent regarding, and even make fun of their leads behind closed doors.

And then there are all those other associates, while wise enough to not publicly slander their pastor, fail to love him through proactive public support, which appears a little bit like a quiet vote of disapproval, at least from the lead's perspective. 

The reason why this matters is because in the church world, perception is the reality. If a church senses an associate doesn't really like or supports his pastor, they will deem that to be reality whether its actually true or not. That will have a ripple effect for the lead and the associate, their relationship, and their leadership. 

For exampe, if the associate who dishonors his lead has a million great ideas, why would the lead be inclined to absorb his ideas? Out of the kindness of his heart, right? The same kindness of heart from the associate that slanders and eye-rolls? 

But if a lead senses genuine support from his associate, don't you think he would feel more inclined to hear out his ideas? 

I love how pastor and podcastor, Craig Groeschel phrases it: "Honor, publicly, results in influence, privately." 

If associates receive praise for their ministry fruit, it's helpful to have a formed kneejerk response like, "Praise God." But it may also be helpful to additionally say, "It's because of the support of my lead and the leadership." 

5. Be a solution provider, not just a problem expert.

Some associates make it their personal project to know the problems in their church because they believe if they know the problems, they will have their lead's ear.

This is only partially true. 

It's true as far as the lead pastor's desire is to collect data, but it's untrue for nearly everything else. 

This is because the lead's ministry plate is full, weighty, and tiresome. When some young buck walks in and says, "Hey, pastor, guess what ministry fire is smoking now!" The subtext of the conversation becomes, "The lead pastor is now responsible to do more" which may even be true, but it's not helpful. 

 This associate is shooting himself in the foot. 

This associate is shooting himself in the foot. 

Associates who constantly squeak on the problems, will begin to look like the problem. A strange optic adjustments happens for the lead. It's like there was "problem osmosis" where the messenger begins to look like the news. Would you feel inclined to ask advice from the guy who only sees the problems of the church? 

I think associates would do well to heed Henry Ford's words when he said, “Don’t find a fault; find a remedy.

I make it a personal rule of thumb to not bring up issues to my lead unless, (1) I have a solution or (2) am willing to project manage the solution, or (3) it's absolutely necessary. What I've discovered through this filter is that a large portion of the issues I want to raise are rooted in preference, rather than conviction. 

Associates need to be the kind of person their lead pastor greets and thinks, "I love seeing that guy" rather than, "Oh no, what now..." 


Concluding Thoughts

If you're an associate pastor, have you ever considered that one of the key ways to love your church is to love and support your lead pastor? Have you considered that doing so will facilitate a kind of chemistry felt by the entire church? Do you love your lead pastor? Do you want to see him succeed? 

If you're frustrated by your lack of voice in decision making, don't pout and start getting to work. Pastoral ministry from the associate's position is largely meritocratic. Even if your lead denies that in the spirit of the gospel, ask him if he'd be okay with your ministry numbers dropping in half, and half the congregation complaining about you. If he says "It's all ok." He's either lying or he's a poor leader.  

Clay Scroggins (How to Lead When You're Not in Charge: Leveraging Influence When You Lack Authority) writes, "When I’m not a part of the decision-making process, my default response is to check out, to abdicate my opportunity to lead…That kind of rotten attitude doesn’t win in leadership. It won’t make you a better leader either. It’s the easy way out." 

Furthermore he states, “Each of us has a unique opportunity to create something right where we are. It doesn’t require special authority or a fancy title or having the corner office.” I agree with Scroggins. Crush your ministry responsibilities. Your lead will feel compelled to listen to you, even if he's not on board with all your choices, and that should be enough for you. 

If you're a part-time or half-time pastor and you want to know how to become a full time associate, consider having an honest conversation with your lead. Ask him, "What's preventing me from getting full time? What can I do to bring value to this organization to receive full time hours?" If you can't have that conversation with your church's culture and/or he gives you ambiguous answers, I'd encourage you to prayerfully consider moving on. 

If you feel like you really need something from your lead, be sure to proces what exactly it is you're trying to ask for. Don't give him an accusatory word vomit. Think. Pray. Process. Clearly and directly lay it out for your lead. 

If you're a lead pastor, please know that a strategic way you can love your church is to take care of your associates. After all, if you're truly honest, aren't your associates the ones in the deeper trenches of your church? Aren't they the ones bleeding and sweating it out in a particular sphere or demographic of your church which may be largely marked by your absence? 

The implications may be relational, emotional, financial, etc. And it is not enough for lead pastors to say, "That's not my responsibility. My associates are grown men." But if you're in a position of leadership over your associates, your position demands responsibility. If the successes and failings of associates ultimately trace back to the lead, so does and should the other things in between. A good starter could be by asking, "I can't be everything for you, but I do want to support you, what's one way I can be a support and encouragement to you?" 

If an associate is struggling, please consider that while your associate's personal calling and gifting matter, his ability to flourish also depends on you and the culture you've created through your ministry systems. If you have a track record of underperforming associates, it's time to look in the mirror. If your associates aren't "getting it" and they keep saying things aren't clear, maybe it's not their heart issues but your lack of clarity. You can blame and point fingers but author & podcaster Carey Nieuwhof is right when he says, ,"You can make progress or excuses, but you cannot make both.

Lastly, please be appropriately and wisely honest and transparent with your associates. While an unsafe leadership culture is one where the lead sounds off on anything, anytime, the contrast is the leadership culture of silent uneasiness. If you see a problem with an associate's performance, it may be helpful to him for you to have a conversation with him. Odds are, your demeanor and body language around him has already given away a lot of your thoughts.

Furthermore, it's a ministry opportunity for you to develop, coach, and at the very worst, inform him it's not working out but that you'll help him land well somewhere else, a brutal honesty he may not appreciate at the moment, but may love you for later. 

And don't hesitate to create a ministry vision for your associates. If your associates merely exist as cogs to fufill your vision, the best ones may end up leaving. Please be willing to work with your associates for what God may have in store for them.  

May we together believe Jesus is building his church, not ours. May we do everything in our power today, in submission to the words of the King, compelled by the love of Christ, in step with the Holy Spirit, to be pastors who point to the Chief Shepherd over all our souls.