No matter how your church is organized, if you work on a church staff, in most cases there is one person who is regarded as the “Senior Pastor” with the rest of the staff being – to some degree – subordinate to him. Even though there seems to be movement toward more of a team approach, from what I can tell there is still some hierarchy in most staff situations.
This post is probably going to be most relevant for the person serving in more of a traditional hierarchical structure, but what I’m writing can be useful for those working in a setting where those lines are not as firmly drawn.
For the sake of discussion, I’m going to refer to those who are not in Lead Pastor or Senior Pastor roles as “Assistant” Pastors. Churches often use the term“Associate,” and sometimes people are called “Pastor to (insert area of special focus).”
I’d like to suggest that being an Assistant Pastor is not an easy gig. Not that being a Senior Pastor is a bowl of cherries either, but each role has its own challenges, and I’d like to offer some suggestions on how those of you who serve as Assistants can make that work. I spent 2/3 of my 40 years in ministry being an Assistant Pastor, so I know some of the frustrations – and joys – of that role.
It goes without saying that before you accept any ministry position you need to do due diligence about the church that has interest in you. Hopefully you have an opportunity to visit at least once or twice, spend a few days with the rest of the staff and leaders, and see at least one typical Sunday. But even after doing your best to get a sense of whether a particular situation is where God wants you to be, you can’t know everything about a church or those you’ll serve with. But do your best to find out as much as you can.
Here are three suggestions for those of you who contemplate serving, or are serving, as an Assistant. I believe following all three of these will make your life easier and your ministry more productive.
Support Your Pastor
There are a number of ways in which you can show support to the Senior Pastor, but here are two that are not related to the particular role in which you serve.
First, as an assistant you should be eager to assist. While you may be primarily responsible a specific area of ministry within the church, the Senior Pastor generally has responsibility for the whole enterprise. Of course one hopes that he is working with a group of other Elders. But from the standpoint of the day-to-day functioning of the church, his desk is where the buck stops. Try to develop a sensitivity to his workload and offer to help where you can. Perhaps there is something that he is doing that you can take on as a way of making his load a bit lighter. I know – you’re busy in your own role. But look for ways to help.
Second, be a resource. If you know he’s preaching on a certain subject, or if you know that he’s dealing with a particular issue, keep your eyes out for books or articles that might be helpful to him. I am not suggesting that you become a research assistant. But you may find something in your reading that will encourage him or help him with his work.
Know Your People
Associate Pastors are often responsible for a specific area of ministry. In 1980, when I first came to the church I most recently served, our staff consisted of a Senior Pastor, an Associate Pastor (who preached on occasion, taught, and handled hospital visitation), a Youth Pastor, and then a part-time Minister of Music. In addition I initially worked part-time as the Director of Christian Education.
If you are serving in an area where your primary focus is a specific sub-section of the church (youth group, seniors, children, choir), it can be possible to find yourself out of touch with the rest of the church. But I want to encourage you to look at the whole congregation as your flock.
I don’t know what it’s like today, but when I started out, if I visited a church member who was in the hospital, there were times when that person would be unhappy that the Senior Pastor didn’t come. I hope that attitude isn’t present today, but I’ll bet that in some places it’s alive and well. But if it is, it can change.
In our church I was responsible for the entire education program of the church, but I spent a good deal of time developing a ministry to younger couples. When I started we had a half-dozen couples in their 20s and early 30s. But within a few years I was teaching a Sunday School class of 80-90 people in the “younger couple” age bracket. However, I also made sure that I had time for other ages, and gradually as people got to know me, my visit was just as good as being visited by the Senior Pastor.
Know Your Place
Your Pastor has the right to expect support and loyalty. You may not agree with every decision he makes, but you should never be caught talking to other church members about what you perceive to be his failings or about disagreements you have with him. If some individual or group is giving him grief, tell him that you’re praying for him. If you think differently than he does on a matter, decide if it’s worth talking to him about and then find a respectful way to express it.
Finally, knowing your place also involves making sure that you don’t look at your current role as a stepping stone to something greater. Most Assistant Pastors eventually move on to either another position or to a Senior Pastor’s role in another church. Nothing wrong with that. But as long as you’re serving as an Assistant where you are, serve wholeheartedly and let God plan your future ministry.