Review: The Work of the Associate Pastor

A clergy friend once said to me, “the first three letters in the title of associate pastor should be emphasized the most.” “Why is that?” I asked. “Because that is what you will spend most of your time kissing as an associate pastor.” While this is a particularly jaded perspective on the role of the associate pastor, it is not too far-fetched from the experience of many who serve in this position. Unbeknownst to many in the church, the role of associate pastor contains its fair share of pitfalls.

In The Work of the Associate Pastor, Alan Rudnick attempts to raise awareness about the challenges that associate pastors face in congregational life. Rudnick shares the wisdom he gained after serving for a decade as an associate pastor; he knows intimately the rewards and risks of the role. This book reads like a manual, full of practical and tested instruction that would be helpful to clergy and lay church leaders alike. Any congregation that already has an associate pastor or is considering the addition of an associate pastor to their staff would benefit greatly by using this book as a resource.

The Work of the Associate Pastor aims to refocus the church on the importance of this specialized ministry by offering a deeper understanding of how congregations can nurture and improve their relationship with an associate pastor. Rudnick makes the case that the future vitality of the church is intertwined with the effort it makes to care for associate pastors. At first, this may sound like an overstatement, but the author reminds the reader that it is often the associate pastor who gives detailed attention to the various ministries of the church, allowing them to flourish. Associate pastors are a critical part of the ministry of the body of Christ, which makes it all the more troubling when Rudnick points out the research that shows a high number of associate pastors exiting ministry because of conflict and lack of support within congregations.

In an effort to help prevent further damage to associate pastors, Rudnick begins by shedding light on four major aspects of the associate pastor’s ministry. He focuses on how we understand the role, the expectations, the dangers and rewards, and the day-to-day experience. While examining these four aspects he explores more specific issues such as the different ways associates are categorized and the types of congregations where they are found. The author offers healthy approaches to dealing with staff and a wonderfully resourceful section of appendixes that offers examples of sample job descriptions, compensation suggestions, and advice on planning for an associate pastor. Rudnick provides the tools associate pastors and church leaders need to work together for the sake of strengthening their shared ministry.

Rudnick is effective in identifying the critical issues that associate pastors must deal with in their ministry. For starters, Rudnick raises one of the most difficult challenges of being an associate pastor: the challenge of forming a pastoral identity. Because of the nature of the associate pastor role, which often is specialized in particular areas like youth, music, or outreach ministry, it is difficult for the associate to develop their pastoral identity within the congregation. Parishioners, and sometimes senior pastors as well, label associate pastors in limiting ways, rather than viewing their work in these areas as an expression of their pastoral calling. Rudnick nicely raises the question at the heart of this issue, “aren’t all pastors, whether associates or senior or solo, called to the same gospel work as servant leaders of God’s people?” (pg. 15)

As a former associate pastor, I wish I had read this book before facing the challenges of the role. It would have given me a better understanding of the care I needed to thrive within a church staff. Many associate pastors, especially those new to pastoral work, are unaware of the support they will need from their congregation in order to function well within a church staff. If this support is not in place, especially a safe space to talk about the relationship between the senior and associate, the associate pastor is being set up for much frustration and potential abuse.

The church has chewed up and spit out many promising associate pastors because of its failure to support them adequately. Because of this problem I believe the most helpful offering from Rudnick is his exploration of the risks involved in the life of the associate pastor. Rudnick points directly to the pitfalls, which include burnout, pressure to be “all things to people," staff conflict, and micromanagement. I found Rudnick’s focus on burnout to be particularly helpful for me personally because he points out how easily associates can get trapped into filling all the voids left open in the congregation.

While I appreciate Rudnick’s willingness to look at the negative risks of the role of the associate pastor, I found it disappointing that he didn’t look more closely at the often complicated relationship of the senior and associate pastors. To his credit, he offers some helpful insights into how to build a healthy relationship with a senior pastor and challenges church leaders to pay attention to how power is used in the senior-associate relationship. However, he does not give serious attention to the area where an associate is most vulnerable and that is in the senior-associate pastor relationship. There is a dangerous lack of accountability in many congregations, which extend too much power to senior pastors in their dealings with associate pastors. In some situations the associates are left completely to the demands and whims of the senior pastor. It requires a mature and emotionally secure senior pastor to supervise an associate pastor in a healthy manner. Unfortunately, there are many senior pastors serving the church that are unfit for this task. Many promising associate pastors are being thrown to the wolves and in turn exiting the ministry to pursue work in more supportive environments.

Overall, The Work of the Associate Pastor is a significant contribution to the ministry of the church. It assists in filling a need for more guidance on how congregations can better support associate pastors. For the church leaders willing to heed its advice, I believe it will prove to be a helpful manual that allows them to address many preventable problems. Most importantly, it will give the body of Christ a clearer vision of how important the associate pastor role is to the future of the church. Rudnick succeeds in making a convincing argument that the vitality of the church is intertwined with how it supports the ministry of associate pastors.

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