Associate Ministry

Associate Ministry

Thoughts from the Journey 


In recent months I’ve had occasion to consider best practices in associate staff ministry several times.  First, in the context of the new clergy group I facilitate which is predominantly associate pastors; second in the interfaith religious educators group I meet with in my city; third in the context of the boundary awareness training groups I co-facilitate for our conference.  


It was surprising to me to realize that I’ve spent more time as an associate pastor than as a solo or senior pastor.  This has not been a matter of feeling called to associate ministry. Instead, with each search process I’ve balanced the available positions with my life circumstance in determining which call to take.  At the beginning of my ministry I was the full time breadwinner while my husband was in graduate school. The full time position available was an associate position. When our son was born, we both worked 3/4 time serving as a solo pastor. I later served as a full time interim senior pastor.   More recently, I’ve served as a half time associate pastor while my husband works more than full time. This choice has made possible more time with our son, as well as additional paid and volunteer ministry. I am the denominational counselor to UCC students at Harvard Divinity School, a boundary training developer for our conference, and a climate activist.  I foresee a return to full time solo/senior ministry in the future.


I’ve reviewed this list of positions simply to show that I’ve seen both sides of the associate and senior coin and feel allegiance to both types of positions.  Thus when it comes to best practices, I’m more likely to lean into best practices for any pastoral position, whether associate or senior. I have also experienced the challenges and the blessings of both solo/senior and associate ministry.


It’s fascinating to look back and compare the challenges and blessings of associate ministry and senior/solo ministry.  In my current associate ministry, I am blessed that the buck does not stop in my office. I am not the only pastor able to or expected to respond to a pastoral emergency. My schedule is lighter and more flexible than it has been in full time or solo positions.   I have very specific responsibilities and when I go beyond those responsibilities it is usually by my own choice to take on a project that I am passionate about, and I do so with the collaboration and support of my colleague. However, I very much miss preaching weekly, and the spiritual and scholarly discipline that requires.  I am also aware that I am not the primary vision casting leader, and on the rare occasion when my sense of vision for the congregation varies from my colleague, her vision is the one we pursue. She has final day to day decision making authority, although our congregational polity brings congregants into most of the big decisions.  The power dynamics in a multi-staff context are also complicated, and I have less influence over those dynamics as an associate. Finally, in associate ministry, my professional satisfaction is closely intertwined in my relationship with my senior pastor.


The interview process for an associate position is one moment when we can get a sense of what we are  getting into. I suggest talking to someone who has served as an associate with this particular senior minister.  What is the level of trust and support I’ll receive from this senior minister? How does the senior pastor cast a vision, empower the full team, and manage power dynamics?


In the interview process, I would ask a senior pastor and their reference these questions:


How involved will you be in my day to day ministry?

Do you want someone to direct, or someone with whom to collaborate?

Will you listen to my opinions?

Will you have my back?

Will you honor confidences I share with you?


What follows are my suggestions for associate ministry based in my own experience in multiple settings.  Asterisks indicate these are suggestions for solo/senior pastors, too. I’ve noted where these suggestions come from specific books or resources.


*Get a life.  This is a word from Marie Fortune of the Faith Trust Institute and means, have a robust personal life outside of your professional setting.  Practice both sabbath and self-care, and attend to relationships outside of the congregation.


*Get support.  My clergy covenant group has saved my spirit, kept me in ministry, and showed me what beautiful ministry looks like.  My spiritual director reminds me I am a beloved child of God and a minister with a lifelong colleague, no matter what my current ministry setting is or what challenges I face in ministry.  Therapists have helped me figure out how my family history influence my reactions and responses in ministry.


Stay in your lane.  In my own time as an associate this has been the most challenging thing for me.  When I perceive a ministry need that is not being addressed, I want to step up, but I need to check in with the senior pastor before doing so. When people in the congregation ask me for my opinion about something, I always have an opinion, but sometimes the best response is, I support the senior pastor on this.  When congregants ask me to function in ways that are in the senior pastor’s job description, not mine, I have to set aside the ego bump I get from the invitation and remember not to overfunction.

Sam Sanders of NPR  recently shared in a podcast episode his daily prayer: “Lord help me find my lane, Lord help me stay in my lane, Lord help me move in my land at the appropriate speed.”  (It’s Been A Minute, April 17, 2018)


Have professional projects where you can fully lead, and about which you are passionate, outside of your congregation.  This is especially important if you are often feeling a desire to move out of your lane in your ministry setting.


Lead where you have the opportunity to lead.  Many associate ministers are specialists.  For example I am fully authorized to lead the children’s programming at my current church so I do my best to lead this program area well.


*Stay on your side of the triangle. Bowen Family Systems Theory describes relational triangles.  ( ) As I understand it, I am not in charge of other people’s relationships.  I do not try to fix other people’s relationships. I attend to my own relationships.    The senior pastor may need to set behavioral norms between other staff members but the senior pastor cannot fix other people’s relationships.  I also cannot fix anyone else’s behavior.


Margaret Marcuson writes: “Here is the heart of what it takes to sustain leadership. We move from the impossible – controlling others – to the merely difficult- managing ourselves.” (Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry  This book has an excellent chapter on navigating ministry triangles.)


*Don’t triangulate.  When people come to you with a complaint about another person within the system, help them find ways to express their concern directly the person.  Don’t do anything with what they’ve told you.


*Generational Loyalty   This concept relates to the idea that parents must be on the same page with each other in terms of their decision making and then present a united front to children.  In the congregation, generational loyalty means that disagreements between senior and associate are processed behind closed doors. When the door is open, both show outward facing support for the decision made.  Whomever is leading a particular effort, the other follows their lead. We do not speak badly about one another with members of the congregation. We do not let congregants draw us into listening to negative commentary about our colleagues – we ask the congregant to take the concern directly to the colleague.  Additionally, generational loyalty means that the senior and associate give each other heads up about potential problems or conflict. As Kevin Lawson and Mick Boersma say, “We are family first, not just leaders of an organization….A radical love for one another, even if there are hard things to be faced and worked through, must characterize our relationships together on staff.” (Supervising and Supporting Ministry Staff: A Guide to Thriving Together by Kevin E. Lawson and Mick Boersma) In another book  of their books, Lawson and Boersma write, “As an associate, when you recognize the benefits that can flow from a good working relationship with your supervisor, the logical question to ask yourself is, what can I do to help bring this about?”  (Associate Staff Ministry: Thriving Personally, Professionally, and Relationally  Kevin E. Lawson and Mick Boersma)


 To the extent that I am able I try to show collegial support and grace to my colleague behind closed doors as much as in public.  For an interesting contrasting perspective on what to do with triangulation and generational loyalty, see Doug Bixby’s Navigating the Nonsense: Church Conflict and Triangulation.


*Go overboard on communication and transparency.  My first senior pastor made this a clear requirement of my position by telling me never to surprise him.  I work very hard to inform the senior pastor of what is going on in my ministry area and what I am sensing within the congregation.  


*Document.  Because it’s always a good idea.


*Game face / positivity  Once the door is open, I put my game face on.  For example: there is a very important Christian holiday that involves a special service.  In one setting where I served as an associate, I did not like the senior pastor’s design of this service.  I expressed my opinion behind closed doors, realized that it was outside my lane to design or critique this service, trusted that the deacons and the senior pastor had consulted, and painted a smile on my face for the duration of the service.   


*Stay calm.  Take a breath. Say a prayer.  Think big picture even if you aren’t the painter of the big picture.  Take notes for later. “In any crisis, our own response contributes to the outcome.”  (Marcuson)


*Integrity and Ethics At the same time, I am not obligated to behave in a manner that goes against my own sense of integrity and ethics.  In such a moment I have many resources available to me, within the congregation (the pastor staff relations committee or moderator) and in my judicatory.


*Tend one’s own relationship with God and celebrate a larger sense of calling.  Ministers are ultimately called by God to do ministry; the ministry of a specific time and setting is subordinate to God’s calling.  “It seems that for real thriving in ministry, nothing is as foundational as the quality of our own relationship with God.” (Kevin E. Lawson and Mick Boersma, Associate Staff Ministry: Thriving Personally, Professionally, and Relationally)


Use the time to learn for the next ministry setting.  Some folks have stayed in the same associate ministry setting for their entire multi-decade career.  God bless them for their fortitude and patience. Even as I revel in the blessings of my current associate ministry setting I am simultaneously filling in the gaps of my experience and knowledge in preparation for a future call.  I am adding to my professional network and profile. 

As you consider an associate position – whether you feel “called to the second chair” or your current situation matches with such a position – I pray that you will be as blessed in your ministry as I have been.




Sermon: Intersections


A Sermon for The Eliot Church

Rev. Reebee Girash

April 22, 2018


Audio Recording (Including Liturgist’s Scripture Reading):





1 John 3:16-24

16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him

20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.




Surely, Lord, you are in this place.

    The Charles River, and its watershed.

Surely, Lord, you are in this place.

The land of the Mashpee Wampanoag.

Surely, Lord, you are in this place.

The city of Newton, place of both abundance and need.

Surely, Lord, you are in this place.

This sanctuary, with these your beloved children.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be always acceptable in your sight, in this time, in this place. Amen.




On Wednesday of this week, on the most beautiful spring day, between snow storms, I walked this place, this neighborhood.  We are in a beautiful neighborhood, you know? And on Wednesday, the crocuses were still out and the forsythia had bloomed overnight, the daffodils were starting.  I even saw three or four pioneer tulips. The sky was cobalt blue with whispy clouds, the air was crisp but not cold, children were playing in the park and people were out talking to their neighbors.


I walked down toward the church and was excited as I am every time to glimpse our shiny solar panels turning the sun’s good rays into electricity that powers every switch in our building. And I thought about our boiler, which is aesthetically speaking quite ugly but hiding down there in our basement is a thing of high efficiency beauty.  And I thought about our Level III Green Church certificate and I was mighty proud of this church, I tell you. Mighty proud.


And this naturally led me to think about Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 7 Episode 9.  Actually, everything gets me to thinking about Star Trek. In college my idea of a good time was to watch Star Trek with friends, and heaven help us John and I have been watching the entirety of Next Generation with Zac, including recently Season 7 Episode 9.  What, the plot of “Force of Nature” is not something you have memorized? Let me just tell you: it’s the climate change allegory episode, although IMDB says it’s about a problem with the warp drive. To the Enterprise crew’s shock and dismay, two scientists from an isolated world prove beyond a doubt that using warp drive to zip across the galaxy at high speeds will lead to devastating subspace rifts.  Their planet, is already on the verge of being uninhabitable. And so, the Federation issues an immediate directive: no more warp travel in fragile corridors. No more warp travel over Warp 5 except in emergency. The Federation takes immediate and clear action and saves the galaxy once again.


I love Star Trek, I tell you.  


The episode ends with Captain Picard staring wistfully out at the stars, waxing eloquently: “I’ve charted new worlds. I’ve met dozens of new species. I believed that these were all valuable ends in themselves,” Picard says. “And now it seems that all this while I was helping to damage the thing that I hold most dear.”


The episode aired in 1993.  You know, five years after climate scientist James Hansen told the Senate that global warming was increasing, was human caused, must be addressed in order to preserve a habitable earth.  


In a hit-you-over-the-head reference to emerging climate change science, the writers of that episode declared when the science is clear, you must take decisive action.  I love Star Trek. It’s so perfect.


Except it wasn’t.


See, this radical change in how the Federation would travel through space, this sacrifice for the sake of neighbor and creation?  It’s a footnote in two more episodes – when the crew chooses to break the new limit – and then, magically, in the next Star Trek series they changed the angle of the warp nacelles and magically solved the problem with technobabble.


In Star Trek, all you have to do to solve an existential crisis is to make a minor tweak to the engines and then never think about it again.  You can save the galaxy and miss the big picture; you can travel at warp and skip all the intersections.


Let me confess that I’ve spent a lot of time in Star Trek land –

Land of the simple fix,

Land of, if we just do this one simple easy discrete thing, everything will be fine, for everyone.


In my early days of climate activism I was drawn to climate work because of the risk to everyone, vulnerable populations, poor folk around the world.


But neither I nor the organizations I joined were  listening to, or partnering with, any of those people.  Not with Native Americans working to save the water sources on their land nor the women walking miles to get water in West Africa.  Not with folks advocating for cleaner and more frequent buses in Four Corners nor with those whose backyards were bisected by leaky pipelines.  Because I was working on fossil fuels, carbon parts per million.


I think in the last couple of years I’ve, at the risk of an overused phrase, woken up a bit.  Seen that in this particular time and place I also need to be thinking about and working on racism, about land use, about militarism, about poverty, about water rights.


I was at a racial justice retreat for the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC last year when a certain prophet, a woman of color from Western MA, helped me see how the climate movement is seen by some folks.  We were talking about the conference’s most recent conference email. All that’s ever in there is climate this, environment that.  That’s all this conference thinks is important she said.  We were sitting there at a racial justice retreat sponsored by the conference to help launch racial justice trainings, but around the room there were nods.  She was not the only one who felt there was some tunnel vision. I tried, stumbling, to express that one of the underlying reasons I was committed to climate action was because of racial justice.  It didn’t fly. The folks talking about climate were not the folks showing up at Black Lives Matter rallies or Poor People’s Campaign events. We weren’t working intersectionally. We were traveling in separate ships at warp speed.  


I am increasingly converted to what Dr. Barber calls the moral fusion intersectional movement building that works across communities and causes for the greater good.


Just one example:


Puerto Rico, post Maria, exists at the intersection of

    The most intense hurricane ever


    A new tax bill that taxes Puerto Rican goods at foreign good rates


    An island wide blackout 7 months later


    System Racism


    Climate Change


So an intersectional response has to deal with economic justice, racial justice, and climate change.


At the Revolutionary Love Conference at Middle Church, I learned about Middle’s Puerto Rico response.  They are both doing hands on repair work and fundraising – and installing solar panels in partnership with local folks (you know, the only spots not in blackout last week).  Most of the folks in leadership from Middle are Puerto Rican or have relatives there. And of course, they’re doing their work in the interior of the island, so that they can be Middle in the Middle.


You heard the scriptural basis for Middle in the Middle in our text:


16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.


I want to get to the place where my climate action is intertwined with my solidarity with Black Lives Matter; where I show up for the Poor People’s Campaign both to protect our planet and to call for a living wage; where I protest a pipeline as much for its impact on the neighborhood as for its carbon emissions.  


Because, it really is true that if we cut carbon emissions to zero, poor and vulnerable people are going to be stuck in the same place.


The next steps in the climate struggle are deeper than how many cities will choose 100% renewable electricity.

The next questions are more complicated and require something more of us.

The next steps connect the dots of systemic racism and economic inequality to the health of the planet.


Love and justice exist at the intersections.  It is complicated, though, and occasionally overwhelming.  There are soooo many crises in our world – and we have to connect the dots between them?  


It was much simpler when I could just keep saying 350 over and over again.


But.  The good news is right there in our text:


19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and God knows everything.


God is greater than our hearts; God is greater than our confusion; God is greater than this complexity; God is greater than all of these problems combined.


Put another way – in a verse that stood out for me in Jen’s Bible study this week from Matthew 19: The disciples, asked, Then who can be saved?”

26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”


At this moment, we may be beyond the easy fix.  


But we’re at a moment where by working intersectionally, it is possible we might live into a world that is a bit more just for everyone, all the same.  We are building the world we want to live in.


We will do everything we can,

We will love our neighbors as Jesus commanded us,

We will abide in him,

We will take care of creation while standing in solidarity with our neighbors,

We will notice the intersections,

And we will hope that nothing is impossible with God.




Sermon: Context Shifting

Context Shifting

A Sermon for The Eliot Church

Rev. Reebee Girash

April 15, 2018

Audio Recording:


Text: Luke 24 36-48


While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence. 44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”






On a blustery bitter cold winter morning, he was driving down Centre Street to pick up a friend in Watertown Square, and as he came down the bottom of the hill, just out here, his car began to sputter and bump and clatter and generally make terrible noises.  He hit the turn signal and slid onto Church Street where his car came to a stop and would not start again. He popped the hood and tried to figure out a solution on his own, to no avail, so he reached for his cell phone to call a tow truck and his friend, waiting at the bus stop.  He managed to get through to AAA but then his cell phone battery was as dead as the car.


But, he was across the street from a church.  Not a church guy, really, but, any port in a storm.  So he made his way into our building, walked down the hallway until he found me, in my office.  I was meeting with someone but we were both willing to pause our conversation to help this man in need.  He used my phone to make a couple of calls, and at some point I invited him to wait in the chapel, where he could see his car and the tow truck when it came.


It took a long time, that tow truck.  I went in and out of the chapel to check in.  Eventually his friend walked from Watertown Square to join him in the wait.  


They asked me about food.  Did we have a food pantry here?  We get this question all the time, Tasha, Susan and I, from visitors in varying states of need.  So I gave them my well prepared response: we support two food pantries and a community supper, we collect food for them but those seeking food need to go to Arabic Baptist or to Brighton Allston Church.  We do not have a food distribution here. Did you need that information? I can give you info on all of the local food pantries and community suppers, we have all that on a hand out. But, in the middle of my speech, the tow truck pulled up and he thanked me for letting him wait in a warm place and I wished him good luck.


Last Thursday, I met him again.  He was walking across our parking lot as I arrived.  Oh, hey there, friend, how are you, I asked? We chatted for a moment, laughing about AAA. He pointed over to where his car was parked, working fine now.  And then he said, would you tell me again about your food pantry?


I started my prepared response: we support two food pantries and a community supper, we collect food for them but we do not have a food distribution here.  I was ready to keep going but he said, oh, that’s great, I wanted to know because I’m going to the store to get food to drop off. Tell me, he said, what’s most needed?  


Context – shifting.  


I had written his entire story in my mind.   He was supposed to be on the receiving end. He was supposed to need my help.  He was not supposed to be the one practicing compassion, gratitude, generosity.   It took me a moment to shift the context, to say, come on in and let me show you the wish list.  



Our passage this morning starts this way:


Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.


They were startled and terrified.  He was not supposed to be there. He was dead.  They’d seen him on the cross, and they knew where he was buried.   Most of the Easter resurrection appearances start this way: with those who were closest to Jesus, his dearest friends, who had spent every waking moment of three years with him, not being able to recognize his risen self.  A risen Jesus was so out of context their minds could not reconcile it. Their eyes were playing tricks on them, it was an optical illusion.


2000 years later we have retold the resurrection stories so many times but it still shocks us when he shows his hands and feet, when he joins them for a fish dinner.  Is he incarnate again (eating fish), is he an apparition (he comes in through a locked door)? Some hear the story metaphorically, others are attached a literal telling –  some of us look at the story they way the optical illusion of the wine glass / face in profile works. One day we see bodily resurrection; the next we see a moment when their memory was so strong they thought he was in the room.  


Recall that this happened, according to Luke, the evening of the same morning when the women found the tomb empty.  The evening of the same afternoon that two followers hearts burned within them, from the risen Christ’s teachings. It’s the same day.  It’s just three days after the cross, three days after trauma. These are traumatized people. And Jesus stands before them, alive but scarred, and says, peace.


Maria Theresa Davila says, “Jesus’ invitation to the disciples to see his wounds is meant to show God’s salvation, a salvation that did not require the decimation of opposing armies or a the spilling of blood in a coup.  God’s salvific activity in the resurrection embraces and transforms unjust suffering so that the work of building communities of justice and beauty within history can continue. The work of building the beloved community takes place within history and within our wounded bodies.” (Quoted in Podcast for a Just World)


He says, Peace, and he eats a meal with them.  And he says, you are witnesses.  From there, the context shifts from grief and defeat to hope and victory over death.  


William Barber has a couple of words on Easter.  He says, “If you mess around with the resurrection and the kind of love that flows out of the resurrection, it will radically reconstruct your way of thinking.”


Encountering the risen Christ brings about a context-shift in Jesus’ followers.  They have been fearful followers of a small town preacher killed atop a Roman garbage heap; now they are pioneers of the Way of a risen Lord.  They have been in a state of desperate, scared, grief and now they are in the context of new possibility. They have been focused on their own inner circle and now they are invited to turn outward to spread justice and mercy, not just with those few thousand Jesus had encountered, but with the nations.  


They had to choose to change their context.  After the fish supper, after Communion on the Emmaus road, after breakfast by the sea. Turning to each other, they didn’t ask – have we all experienced a mass delusion?  No, they asked each other: will we be witnesses? Will we proclaim defiant hope? Will we teach that oppression, death and empire lost, that love and justice will ultimately prevail?  They did this as people who witnessed the cross and met the risen one. They did this as people who saw the wounds, saw his hands and feet. Dr. Barber says, “Hope without going through the cross is optimism, not hope.”    They had to choose to context-shift.


Beloved, the same choice is before us: the choice between an inward focus and an outward focus.  The choice between despair in the midst of late winter blizzards and tweet-storms, and deliberate hope.   The choice to huddle in a sanctuary or to be witnesses to love and justice.


We are Easter people.  Our context is hope. We choose to be witnesses.


Comments from the Rev. Dr. William Barber, II from a sermon offered on April 8, 2018 at the Revolutionary Love Conference, from my personal notes. Maria Theresa Davila quoted in Podcast for a Just World –




From Ruby Nell Sales: My grandmother would say, you see that wall?  That’s not a wall, it’s just another space to walk through walls.  Friends, keep walking. Amen.