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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ask the Matriarch — A Shoe That Doesn't Fit

This week, we look at a very tough challenge for anyone:

I had to leave a congregation a couple of years ago because of a family move, due to my spouse's work. It took seven months for me to find a call in our new home. It is an associate pastor position, doing work I love with children and youth, women, social justice, evangelism. In the past, I have had really great experiences working with a senior pastor--in fact, they have been more co-pastorate positions. But this one is turning out to be more difficult in terms of co-ministry.

I don't have near the autonomy I have had in the past, even when fresh out of college. I constantly feel second-guessed, or questioned on decisions I make--or, at times, dismissed! My colleague is a wonderful pastor, someone I like and respect deeply. But the second-guessing has come back, usually in matters of opinion or theology.

In addition to speaking to the colleague directly, I have spoken also with my pastoral liaison; it is too early to start looking for another position, but I've realized I am not happy here.

So how long until it is ok for me to start looking at other opportunities? In my heart, I know I am being called to expand on my worship gifts and skills more, and leadership, and yet on the other hand, I want to honor the time and effort the people in the congregation put into the search and call process and the ministry with which I am engaged. How can a congregation be happy and not me? How much am I called to sacrifice for the greater good of the ministry at the expense of what I feel individually called to?

Ann says:
Sounds like you have been forthright in addressing this with the senior pastor and other appropriate people. He may be a great pastor for others but not for you. The first thing to recognize is you are not colleagues. He is the boss and you are not. I am not sure how much power he has to make your life difficult or fire you, so am sort of making assumptions from the information you've given.

If the congregation called you and is happy with your work and you are happy with your work for and with them, the question becomes how much can you let the relationship with the senior pastor just "be." It is not going to be collegial - and he will no doubt continue to behave as he has so far. You can't change him no matter how nice or strategic you are.

Have confidence in yourself and your work - get some other real colleagues outside the church to meet with regularly for check in about how much time you are spending on his issues. Do not waste yourself in trying to make him happy (something in the Bible about casting pearls before swine?) Be yourself and do the work you love.

Is it possible to let his comments go with a mental "thank you for sharing"? That might help you to move within the area where you have work to do.

As to leaving - definitely seek out information on what is available, and if something calls to you - go. God is happy when you are furthering the kingdom—not withering!

Jan says:
Dear Bad Fit,
If you are looking to (maybe) leave anyway, what's the harm in confronting head of staff with your concerns and reminding him/letting him know that healthy churches are permission-giving churches? Just so you are working within the core values of that congregation, you should be able to do your work as you see fit. For him to second guess you constantly is to discourage your ministry. Ask him if he can imagine someone (the elders?) doing that to him.

In the event that he's also second guessing every other volunteer/staffer, remind him that this kind of thing is harmful to the health and success of any congregation's ministry. But if he'sonly second guessing you, ask him if he is threatened by you for some reason. Okay, this is super difficult to do. But, if you're leaving eventually, this will actually help him discern his own issues and help the next associate pastor.

I'd talk with him as fairly and honestly as possible.It sounds like you appreciate his ministry.Maybe it's a generational thing?

Assuming it takes at least a year to be called to a new position, I'd start looking. A year would be the minimum stay, I'd think. Can you talk honestly about the seriousness of your concerns with your liaison? If you are so unhappy, you are ready to move on, someone needs to know this. They called you because they wanted you. I assume they'd make attempts to keep you.

Have you ever run across this in your ministry? Share your insights in the comments. And as always, we welcome your questions at


  1. In my first call, the Senior Pastor I worked with second guessed me all the time. I never knew when he would demand that I run my decisions by him first, and when it would be ok for me to go ahead with what I was called by the congregation to do! It was so frustrating, and as a new pastor straight out of seminary, very intimidating too.

    In the end, it took time and some very frank conversations. He was worried I was going to mess up his system (control issues, anyone?) so what we needed to do was to intentionally truly get to know and trust each other. And that takes time and the willingness to be open to each other. With some folks, unfortunately, it is not wise or safe to be open and vulnerable with them. I don't know if this pastor you are working with would be willing to expand your relationship. And if you're looking to jump ship, you may not be interested in expending the time and energy. But this was what was key to making things work for us. Developing a relationship of trust and respect, which takes time and commitment and patience by both.

  2. These are great answers to a very difficult problem.

    In the UCCan, there is no designation of Senior and Junior pastor. Given equal education and qualifications, co-ministry is simply that - shared equally. No one is boss. The Presbytery has oversight, so they would be the closest thing to a boss in the situation.

    That said, there certainly have been situations in which full-time ministry has been viewed as "Senior" and part-time ministry as "Junior". In these cases, it is often a matter of perception being more true than reality. It is very frustrating, but it seems to me that we have the basis of a system that could work with the right players.

    When one clergy is the boss of another, it's only a matter of time before power issues rule the day. Just my 2 cents, speaking from (very bad) experience.

  3. Good answers to a sensitive question. I wonder if the senior pastor would be open to working with a coach/therapist of some kind with the associate pastor to build the relationship and work on the trust issues. In a place I served the Senior pastor demanded that when the new associate came there be time and money set aside for them to do this work. It made for a very good start for the associate and helped to form a strong team for the ministry of the church.

  4. I realize how blessed I was in my one and only "assistant curate" appointment. Case in point...the Rector (senior pastor) asked me to visit a fairly long list of senior parishioners. I took for granted he wanted a report on how the visits had gone, how everybody was. In the clearest way, he cut me off after about 15 seconds and said, "This is YOUR ministry, I don't need you to report back to me unless you hit a snag." And that's how it went. He was there to help and advise, but not to look over my shoulder.

  5. I've had both types of positions that you speak of -- and I have had to think about all these issues a whole lot. I think you hit the nail on the head when you noted that in your first situation you were in a "co-pastorate" and here you are considered a subordinate. These are the two different known models of having multiple ministers on staff. In a manner of speaking, the first model is based on true teamwork, the second on a corporate business model. In my denomination, you will find both.

    In the first, the responsibility is shared. This is both a good and bad thing -- it means you have autonomy, but you are feel to mess up and YOU will feel the heat for such a mess up. If the system you are working is a well system, then there will not be (much) of a search for blame. However, if it is an anxious and dysfunctional system, you might get burned. Thus, for most congregations, this model works if they are healthy and will naturally gravitate to the second model if not.

    The second model will occur when they Sr. Pastor feels responsible for everything in her/his charge, when the Sr. Pastor has control issues (for a variety of reasons) or when a dysfunctional congregation has begun to engage in "the blame game." It's not an evil model -- it just is. It occurs to assist people (leaders and congregations) to handle excess anxiety. The key for the associate is to keep extremely clear and open lines of communication to the Sr. Pastor. You have to let the Sr. know everything you do/say or see. Otherwise, if an anxious person "gets to" the Senior Pastor first, this first report takes on a certain amount of believability -- and trust will be eroded. If two people in any stressful situation do not intentionally communicate, then the space between them can fill up with all sorts of garbage -- and believe me, anxious parishioners will quickly fill it up. Even if the Sr. is not communicating with YOU, it is your responsibility to communicate with her/him. This type of model has it's good and bad points: if you continue to communicate with the Sr., all "blame" will tend to be diverted from you to him -- after all he/she "knew" what was going on. In the first model if you give this amount of detail in your communicaton, you will get an irritated response -- "it's your ministry -- I really don't need to know."

    Personally, I got a lot of insight out of a book entitled "Leading from the Second Chair" by Mike Bonem and Roger Patterson. They have a website here and a blog. I also enjoy the Alban Institue's Conversations. Third, I received some valuable information from other second chair leaders -- along with some affirmation that I really wasn't crazy! Having solid information about how these systems work was so useful.

    Leading from the second chair is difficult at time, but also very rewarding. I hope you get something out of these resources -- they sure helped me a lot.

  6. In my third call, second with a senior colleague, we went to therapy together after being in place for a year. We learned a LOT. A lot about expectations and assumptions. I only wish we'd gone sooner. If you can see someone separately and then together, they may be able to help you both create a more workable situation.

    Management folks say that it takes three years to figure out a new job. When you get to year four and five you get good at it. Year seven you're looking for a new place to be. Or a new challenge in the old job. What this points to is the need to take some time before bolting unless you are so abjectly miserable as to cause issues of depression or other serious stuff.

    My mom used to supervise interns and we often agreed "you can do anything for a year". Only you know how long you can hang in there. If the call becomes a short one, just be prepared to explain why in very clear terms to any future call committees.

  7. I worked very part time as an associate for 3 years. We were able to function best together when I thought the ministry of the church as the sr pastor's, and my role to assist her in creating her vision. This wasnt always easy or possible, but I kept lots of mental notes and learned alot about what I would or would not want to do in the future.

    I had a very quick search process and it still took a full year from the time I began working on my materials, to my last day of work at the church, so if you are thinking of getting out, it's probably a good idea to get your stuff together.

    As you leave, the wisdom I have always heard is that you should not try to tell everything in an exit interview. A sr pastor who goes thru a lot of associates very quickly tells his own story!

  8. One suggestion to add. Try changing the focus of the convesation to focus on the fact that you are in tranistion from working for yourself (as it were) to 'working for' a boss. Which, as others have pointed out, is a very different relationship-- try enlisting your senior priests help in managing that transition and getting both of your assumptions about your role out on the table.


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