Associate Pastor: An Awkward Ministry

February 6th, 2012

It was a typical Sunday morning ritual as the congregation gathered in the narthex following worship to drink coffee, eat cookies, and chat. My colleague, who is an associate pastor in this congregation, was enjoying the fellowship when a church member tugged him on the arm. “Jim, do you mind if I introduce you to friends of mine who are visiting with us today?” she said. Before my friend could respond, the woman was already pulling him away from his current conversation towards the corner where a new family stood clearly overwhelmed by well-intentioned church members.

Despite the feeling of being dragged into this conversation by a pushy parishioner, my colleague put on his most friendly face as the woman introduced him to the visiting family—not as the associate pastor but as the youth leader.

This might seem like a minor detail, but when done repeatedly it can really wear a person down. As my colleague told me this story over coffee, I could tell that his blood was about to boil. With a look of frustration in his face he told me, “Despite the fact that the title on my office door has read ‘associate pastor’ for the last four years I am still referred to regularly as ‘the youth leader’ even though it is a small part of my overall role. I’ve done several funerals, baptisms, and weddings for this congregation, and they still refuse to see me as their pastor. My title will eternally be ‘the youth leader.’” I could tell that my colleague was more than frustrated; he was hurt.

The challenges of full-time ministry are great, especially these days when expectations of clergy are often unrealistic and unhealthy. As if these challenges are not daunting enough, there are even more complex issues facing clergy who make the decision to enter into the role of the associate pastor. From my firsthand experience as an associate, I can say that this role is often difficult and awkward. The role is often misunderstood by senior pastors and congregations alike, which leaves many associate pastors struggling to define what exactly their role is within the life of the congregation. When dealing with issues like the one mentioned above, there are not many resources to turn to for help. I find this disappointing not only because of the large number of clergy serving in the role of the associate pastor but also because many of the brightest and most promising young clergy in the church are left stranded in this position, a trend that does not bode well for congregations that are in desperate need of quality leadership from younger generations.

After my own experience as an associate pastor, I feel responsible to share some of the wisdom and practical insight I gained in this role.

Personality and Gifts

The personality of your senior pastor is a crucial part of your experience as an associate pastor.  I understand that not all associate pastors have the luxury of being overly selective in the positions they choose to accept or the senior pastors they work with; however, I think it is important to examine as closely as possible the personality of your senior pastor.

Young clergy need mentors that will assist them in developing their gifts and skills for ministry.  They must ask themselves, will this person nurture and support me as I learn the ropes of full-time ministry? No matter what your age, you will ideally have a senior pastor who honors what you offer as a pastor and looks for ways to utilize your gifts in the ministry of the congregation. Of course, you also want someone who will grant you the basic respect you deserve as a colleague. Don’t assume every senior pastor is eager to extend this basic respect to you. While the congregation may see the strengths of one minister compensating for the weaknesses of another as a positive situation, senior pastors sometimes feel threatened by the gifts of an associate pastor and will act out of this insecurity in ways that are harmful. An associate pastor that I know was often given pats on the back in public and then belittled and verbally abused behind closed doors in staff meetings and one-on-one encounters. A secure, emotionally mature senior pastor is necessary for your own emotional well-being.

Power Dynamics

Second, it is important to take note of the power dynamics in the relationship with your senior pastor. How do they understand your role? Unfortunately, there are many senior pastors who still insist on viewing associate pastors as sidekicks and personal assistants, rather than as colleagues. In this type of power structure, where the senior pastor holds tightly to the reins, it is easy for associate pastors to feel devalued or underappreciated. I often hear from associate pastors that they feel more like interns than colleagues because they are not given the chance to regularly engage in the essential parts of the ministry of the congregation.

The following are good questions to ask to gauge how much your senior pastor is willing to make room for you: How often will I preach? How often will I lead at the communion table? I know an associate pastor who felt that she was not trusted because her senior pastor rarely let her preach. She was not given the opportunity to preach even when the senior pastor was returning from a mission trip in another country in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Another associate was upset because he was not allowed to celebrate communion during the first year and a half that he served at his new church. It is very frustrating as an associate pastor to be in a relationship with a senior pastor that is unwilling to provide opportunities for you to grow in your vocation. The importance of being in an environment where power is shared cannot be emphasized enough.


Another piece that fits into the question surrounding power dynamics is the issue of boundaries for associate pastors. I am referring to the unrealistic expectation that the associate pastor will always be available to the senior pastor. It is safe to assume that if your senior pastor holds all of the power there is a good chance it will be a battle to keep healthy boundaries in place. For instance, it should not be expected that the senior pastor is able to contact the associate pastor at all hours of the day. I understand there are emergencies such as the death of a church member or a family in crisis that require contact during off hours but besides these particular situations the associate pastor should not be expected to be available at the whim of the senior pastor.

This can also lead to the expectation that the associate pastor and other staff be available to assist the senior pastor in things unrelated to the ministry of the church. A colleague of mine was often asked to drive his senior pastor to and from different events. On one occasion, he was asked to provide transportation to a location five hours away so that the senior pastor could go to a ministry event that my colleague was not attending. Again, this is a product of the belief that the associate is the personal assistant to the senior pastor.

Congregational Support

Third, it is necessary to look closely at the relationship between your predecessors and the congregation. If at all possible, you should contact them to hear about their experience. This is essential because you want to discover whether or not the congregation supported them in their ministry. Often congregations fail to support associates because they have not received any training or guidance in how to appropriately care for them. A lot of time may be spent relating to the senior pastor, while very little if any attention is given to associates to make sure they are finding the resources they need. Because of this common problem, I suggest that you require a support group or pastor parish committee of your own made up of church members that you trust and respect. Under no circumstances should the senior pastor be part of this group. It needs to be a space where you can speak in confidence about any issues that are creating difficulties in your ministry. Also, it should be made clear that you get to meet with your congregation’s version of a personnel committee without the presence of any other staff members. These two actions will give you an opportunity to express concerns about your relationship with your senior pastor or other staff members without worry of repercussions. Also, do not be afraid to seek support from your denominational support staff. Even in denominations that are more congregationally based, there are often staff in place that can provide wisdom on how to navigate through issues related to your ministry and at the very least provide a listening ear.

The role of the associate pastor is best utilized when it involves the sharing of pastoral responsibilities with the senior pastor, such as preaching, teaching, administrating, and crisis care, and also gives the freedom to the associate to use their unique gifts. It is essential for the senior pastor and congregational leadership to be intentional about providing opportunities for the associate pastor to preside over events such as baptisms and funerals so that they do not get cornered off into one area of ministry within the church. While it is expected that the congregation will rely on the senior pastor in many ways, those in the pews need not shortchange themselves and the associate pastor by treating him or her like an intern or understudy.

Even so, the reality is that the current model for associate pastors might be broken beyond repair. Perhaps ministry in the 21st century demands a new model that moves away from the senior and associate relationship, which tends to place all of the power in the hands of the senior pastor. It is not uncommon today to see congregations that are embracing a co-pastor model that recognizes the need to share power within the congregation. Other congregations define specific roles for their associate pastors such as Minister of Outreach or Minister of Congregational Care. These approaches invite church members to think more thoughtfully about how the ministers on staff relate to one another. It seems to me that it is our responsibility as clergy to challenge our parishioners and colleagues to think deeply about what it means to be a leader within the body of Christ. My colleague, Rev. Jason Jones, even says “the senior-associate model might be antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” After all, Jesus did not rule his followers with an iron hand but invited them to be in community with him and encouraged them to learn what it means to be a disciple through the sharing of resources.

Despite the challenges facing the role of the associate pastor, I believe that it can be a fulfilling ministry. I have witnessed firsthand relationships between senior and associate pastors that enrich both the work of the pastors and the congregations they serve. It is a beautiful sight to see church leaders working hand in hand with deep respect and concern for one another. These relationships not only give me hope but also remind me that whatever form the role of associate pastor evolves into in the future it will be crucial for the associate pastor, senior pastor, and congregation to work together to ensure that everyone is relating well to one another. It is the responsibility of the congregation as much as it is for the senior pastor to assist the associate pastor. No longer can the church afford to let its clergy, especially those who willingly serve as associate pastors wither on the vine because simple steps are not being taken within congregations to prevent toxic situations.

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