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. (http://www.vermontcenterforfamilystudies.org/about_vcfs/the_eight_concepts_of_bowen_theory/ ) 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.