Associate Pastors Are Not Second Chairs

September 13th, 2013

In an informal interview for an associate pastor position, I was once told by a senior pastor, “being an associate pastor is about paying the rent.”

“What’s paying the rent have to do with ministry?” I asked. I thought the church might be tight on cash! The senior pastor explained that paying the rent was about doing all the aspects of ministry that most pastors do not like to do, like working with youth groups. As I heard these words, I knew that there was something very wrong with this philosophy of ministry.

The senior pastor finished his thought with, “It’s about playing second chair to the senior pastor.”

In the relatively small market for books on associate pastors, a common image is portrayed: associates are like second chairs. In an orchestra setting, the second chair plays behind or next to the first chair, who is usually more talented or more skilled. The associate as a second chair is an analogy that is fundamentally flawed in its approach.

Associate pastor ministry is a calling, not a step on the vocational latter of ministry. Accepting a ministry position as an associate pastor should come out of a sense that God desires you to use your gifts in a particular way. The second chair approach to associate-senior pastor relationship is more often about power and authority. Senior pastors might be tempted to employ the use of this relationship, but it will leave associates feeling micromanaged and frustrated.

If the second chair approach to associates is not a fruitful one, then how should churches and pastors articulate the relationship of associates and seniors?

Clearly, there is a supervisor nature to the job of a senior pastor. A senior pastor, as a leader, must encourage and equip the associates of the church with the best direction for ministry. The temptation of senior pastors is found in micromanagement. Micromanagement can arise when the senior pastor chooses to do the job of the associate for him or herself. The senior pastor makes the decisions about how to succeed in meeting a goal instead of setting a goal and letting the associate achieve results with their gifts.

In music, there is a script and you have to play the notes correctly or the music sounds horrible. In ministry, there is no script or score that perfectly shows the way. That is why the second chair imaginary falls short. Even the best church or senior pastor can set out goals and vision, but sometimes God intervenes and changes the score. The Holy Spirit empowers and the music sounds different in how ministers work.

The second chair approach is based on hierarchy of skill and not calling. Treating associates as second-rate ministers does not encourage longevity and fulfillment. Senior pastors should see this specialized ministry with collegiality, healthy leadership, and mutual respect. Senior pastors may have different skills, but in God’s eyes, we read in 1 Corinthians 12 there are many members to the body and all are equally important.

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