Thursday, March 8, 2012

On Being an Associate Pastor--WORST CASE

Yesterday I shared about my own experience as an associate pastor. As you can see from that post, I don’t claim to be some expert in being an associate pastor. But I still didn’t touch on what to do if you find yourself as an associate in a bad set up. So today I want to offer some “worst case” suggestions—some of these I’ve used in small ways to handle particular situations, and I’d suggest these same techniques are helpful in a range of difficult working relationships.

First of all, my entire approach to working with others is largely shaped by the family systems approach, which I think at base suggests it’s pretty silly to try to change other people. If you’re IN the system, you CAN change it. Perhaps not as quickly or even in the exact way you’d like to, but it is absolutely possible.  And the way you do that is by changing the way YOU function. So I’m going to suggest some ways to do that.

Sometimes, though, all the best techniques and approaches will not help. As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, you and your senior pastor just will not vibe. I would suggest, though, that you not jump to that conclusion but rather make a hearty effort to try to change your behavior and see what happens. I suspect there are some senior-associate positions that could thrive if the associate earnestly changed their behaviors and approaches—and that this could eventually not be a burden for them to do so.

But when it just cannot be fixed, when the $#!& hits the fan, make sure you handle it in an appropriate way. Never vent your frustrations to other staff or members of the congregation. You are co-workers, but not peers with other staff. Even if there are multiple associates, it is not appropriate to trash your boss. Talking together to find ways to work better, sure. Reflecting together on something that has happened? Ok. Just be careful not to turn into teenagers.

So who do you turn to? Insofar as possible, be direct with your senior pastor. It may be difficult, but at least try to touch on concerns you have before you take them up the ladder. Rely on whatever persons or structures in your denomination are specifically identified as those supervising pastors. As a United Methodist, if it’s beyond a matter of making some tweeks to the relationship or seeking clarity (something an SPRC could be helpful moderating) go to your District Superintendent. Always share information as factually as possible, and never tell them what to do. Seek their advice, don’t try to give them yours.

Be aware that if things are really bad and you want to be moved, you do not get to pick where to. You enter the fray like the rest of us. And that fray may entail you staying where you are for a bit longer and making it work as best you can. Yes, sometimes you just have to put your head down and push through. But always try to make sure someone knows that’s what you’re doing. Don’t suffer in silence and expect things to magically change. Neither your senior pastor, SPRC, DS or bishop can read your mind. But they also are not to be subject to your least controlled emotions. Share all concerns professionally, and with a willingness to actually be led and taught.

But what if things are yet that bad, but you’re struggling to feel like you’re thriving in the associate position? Try these techniques that for me are grounded in family systems approach (if you’re in this situation and you haven’t read Generation to Generation, go buy a copy and read it today).

Be your best self.
No matter how your senior pastor is behaving, don’t be anything other than the person God is calling you to be in terms of conducting yourself.  Your senior pastor may be lazy, vindictive, immature, inappropriate or any other list of terrible things. If you feel like any of your senior’s behaviors have reached the point of needed to be share with whoever is above you, you have the ability to do that. But know that once that happens, it cannot be taken back and may start a chain of events far beyond your control. So use that with great trepidation. NEVER take your senior pastor’s inappropriate behavior as an excuse to be inappropriate yourself. Be responsible, conscientious, use your skills to the best of your ability, and conduct yourself maturely. Keep in mind that if your senior pastor’s bad behavior is so evident to you, others see it as well. You will be well respected if you can be the bigger person without being a jerk about it (or telling people, “Hey, look, I’m being so much more mature!”) This is your life, and just as your senior pastor should suffer the consequences for their behavior, you will suffer the consequences for yours, and you cannot use the excuse that they were doing something wrong so it seemed okay for you to as well. Basically, be a grown up.

Don’t protect your senior pastor from the consequences of their actions.
We live in a world where we are often trying to protect people from the consequences of their actions. This has reached a critical condition for our children, many of whom reach adulthood without fully understanding how to face the consequences of their actions (that’s a hard lesson to learn suddenly in your twenties). Sometimes covering for your senior can be a caring thing, but it often gets out of control, and can easily lead to you enabling their bad behavior. Do your job, but don’t step in to protect them from the consequences of their actions. Hear me, though: don’t CREATE consequences. Ever. Don’t add to it. But don’t protect them either. Sometimes that means watching something fall apart when you know you could step in and save it. But if you’re always covering for them, they will never understand the severity of their behavior, and others may not realize it either—how would your DS know there’s a problem if there are never any symptoms of it?

Excel but don’t compete.
Do your job and do it well. Seek to do better and better each day. But avoid the temptation to compete with your pastor. Don’t play to people who straight up praise you while down talking your senior. Thank them for the complement and either say something nice about your senior, or if you can’t do that, at least don’t engage. OR, find a way to spin their negative feedback toward a constructive approach. I think it’s okay to acknowledge a concern, but try to do so without feeding the fire, or while sharing suggestions you’ve learned about working with that weakness. Again, people will respect you for this, especially if they see what’s going on and realize what a difficult position you’re in.

Be a safe place for others to voice concerns but don’t become an opposing force.
This is related to the above point. I’d rather an upset person share that with the associate than others, than engaging in gossip, because sometimes it can also help the associate identify parts of the system they might be able to improve without having to engage the senior pastor (as in, areas that they can change their behaviors to help address a concern). I think as an associate you can have immense influence, but you have to do it within the appropriate structure. There’s probably more room to do that than might first appear. But don’t get into a power structure. You’ll lose. Or you should, at least.

Avoid making the senior pastor the diagnosed patient.
In Generation to Generation, Edwin Friedman describes the danger in a system of blaming one person for all the dysfunction in the system. If you feel like there is dysfunction going on in your congregation, it is unlikely it’s ONLY your senior pastor’s fault. If he or she has been there for a length of time and seemingly successful, the congregation has embraced and celebrated this behavior. Perhaps past staff and associates have covered for the senior so no one knows the problems. Maybe something has changed in the senior’s life or mental or emotional state that has created a crisis. If the senior has not necessarily thrived, you at least find yourself in a situation where people’s silence and unwillingness to act upon concerns to the level needed has enabled the behavior. Be aware that in these cases, simply changing the senior pastor will not make everything better. In some cases it may help a lot, but even in those cases, much work will need to make what has become a dysfunction system functional again. Therefore, you can already start to help promote healthy relationships in others, which will in turn likely either start changing the senior pastor’s behavior (though it may cause a crisis first) OR may so clearly highlight the issues that the system itself starts seeking ways to remove or change the senior pastor.

Friedman talks about being a non-anxious presence. And really, that’s all I’m getting at. There’s so much more involved in that, but it works. You CAN change a dysfunctional system, though it may mean causing great disruption. You may not be safe, and you may get a lot of push back. Consult with others who are appropriate to do so, if nothing else then as a check for whether you are being wise and discerning whether you are acting out of humility and love for the church or your own pride and arrogance. We are not good at seeing that. And make sure those you seek out for advice are ones you believe will actually be honest with you. Sometimes your spouses can be that person, other times they will be too biased. But seek others’ wisdom. If you try to ride it out and act as a lone ranger, you are probably part of the problem. Or you will certainly become so.

These are just a few suggestions. If you find yourself in a really tough spot as an associate, you will need support and encouragement. Make sure you have that—if you feel both under pressure AND isolated, the likelihood of you acting inappropriately is quite high. Protect yourself, be your best self, and avoid doing anything that would reflect poorly on you.


  1. excellent two posts on being an associate pastor. I wish I had read this before I started my first position has an associate.

  2. I just came across these posts when I was about to write my own version, and they are great. Thanks so much, from one associate to another.

  3. chickpastor directed me to your posts as we had been having conversations about these very issues. Thank you for your clarity and advice. I am new to the associate role and your writing really helps to put some things in perspective. Thank you!