Always an Associate?

Post Author: Sarah Kinney Gaventa

colleaguesA little over a year ago, my husband graduated from seminary and we began looking for two clergy jobs.  Our search took us to the heart of Texas and to the suburbs of Detroit.  We daydreamed about Idaho, California and Maryland.  I dreamed, too.  I thought, finally, after two long stints as an associate rector (second-in-command pastor for those of you who don’t speak Episcopalese) I would finally seek a call as a rector.  Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was floating around the atmosphere and I was ready to take on a new mantle.

Except that I didn’t.  Finding a rector job and a solo pastor job (My husband is Presbyterian.) concurrently is pretty challenging.  In one search, when it came down to the wire, I pulled my name.  I loved that congregation.  They were right up my alley; I felt great chemistry.  But there was no imminent job for my husband nearby, and I just wasn’t sure I was ready to take on the extra responsibilities that rectors have.

My husband ended up taking on a solo pastor gig and I am working as an associate at a mid-sized church back in Virginia, just seven miles away from the church where I began my ordained ministry.

I’m pretty confident I won’t be an associate rector the rest of my life, but all in all, I really like the quality of my life as an associate.  Keep in mind, I have had pretty great bosses, who have given me great freedom and who have earned my respect.  That is not the case for every associate.  Here are the things I love about being an associate:

1. Work/Life Balance

As an associate, most days I am able to walk out the door at 4:00 PM to pick up my son from day care.  I commute 40 miles, so all of this takes about an hour.  As a solo pastor of a small church, my husband is able to be home by 5:00 PM most nights and cook us dinner.  Both of us, most of the time, are able to keep faithful to our days off.  There are always exceptions—the occasional funeral or youth group trip, but, in general, we have a quiet life with a lot of time to be together.  We try to schedule night meetings on different evenings, and we have a great babysitter on speed dial for when we cannot.

2. Focus on my Passions

For the first seven years of my ministry, I was able to focus on children’s ministry and newcomer integration, two areas of ministry I find to be really exciting and fun.  I wasn’t wrestling with budgets and angry parishioners and trying to solve staffing issues.  I was singing endless renditions of “This Little Light of Mine” and finding a home for people in the Episcopal Church.  In my new call, I get to stretch a little and do some more committee work, lead a women’s bible study, and coordinate our pastoral care systems.  I get to concentrate on very specific areas and go deep with people.

3. Playing the Fool

This is one of my favorite parts of being an associate.  As the associate I can ask questions a rector cannot.  I can play dumb at a vestry meeting and ask a loaded question about some sensitive part of the church’s history.  I can crack a joke later in the same meeting to lighten the mood.  I can name dynamics of staff relationships in a way that is not as threatening as if a rector did it.  I am fascinated by the way systems play out in groups and I get to really explore, and hopefully help, staffs and vestries work together well.

4. Playing on a Team

I love working with others.  I work best when I can bounce my ideas off other people.  During my time at Trinity Church in Princeton, the rector and curate were incredibly creative people.  Many ideas I brought to a meeting got tossed around and turned into something ten times better than I had planned originally.  Those meetings often devolved into absolutely hilarious repartee that gave me energy for the rest of the day.  I also like being an encouraging presence to a rector, helping the rector problem solve and brainstorm.  The “chief of staff” role feels comfortable to me.

There are tensions, of course, my ego being first and foremost.  A part of me hates that men with whom I went to seminary are now established rectors well on their way to “big steeple” churches.  I see so many of my women friends dropping to part time, or dropping out altogether, and I worry that somehow we are missing our turn on an ecclesiastical conveyor belt that won’t wait for us.  Even the most powerful, dynamic women rectors in my Diocese tend to be rectors of small parishes.  I haven’t been trained to be a rector of a small parish.  All my expertise is geared towards how large, multi-staff parishes function.  Will anyone hire me as a rector if I have a dozen years as an associate under my belt, but not one as a rector?

Secondly, during my national job search, I was disheartened to find that as an associate I made much more than many small churches were offering.  I had to lower my asking salary by a third just to be considered for these positions.  I had listed my diocesan minimum on my application, and it was sobering to realize how many churches struggle to pay their rectors.  Larger churches can often pay even an associate well.  Am I willing to sacrifice income in order to be a rector?

All of this ignores the more spiritual questions of call, of course.  I feel very much at home in my current congregation and absolutely believe God meant me to be here.  I trust that God will continue to lead my discernment, but an uneasiness remains.

How about you?  Are you an associate?  What are your joys and struggles?


The Rev. Sarah Kinney Gaventa enjoys her “balanced” life serving at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Ivy, VA. She is the wife of Matthew and mother of Charlie. She is grateful to NPR and WNRN for making her commute bearable, and to the wonderful teachers at her child’s day care who enable both her and her husband’s ministry.

Photo courtesy of the author.  Pictured, left to right, Sarah Kinney Gaventa with colleagues Paul Jeanes and Jenny Replogle at Trinity Episcopal Church, Princeton, NJ.

16 replies
  1. Betsy Tesi
    Betsy Tesi says:

    I know this feeling! I love being an associate and wish I could continue to be one, but I am feeling the pressure to be the one in charge. I wish I could just stay an associate, but trying to manage two careers in one family doesn’t let me do precisely what I want to do.

    Great article that touches on many a tender spot for me.

  2. Laura S-R
    Laura S-R says:

    Every time I get the itch to be a solo/lead pastor again, I remember the things you mention and end up back in an associate role. In general, it is a huge blessing – family time while doing meaningful ministry, and yes, usually better pay.

  3. Gillian B.
    Gillian B. says:

    I love all the things you list about being an associate, and would love to be one. However, almost every Associate position is some variation on “Children’s/Youth/Family Minister. That is not my passion. I have done it, and done it well–I worked as a lay associate of formation for 8 years in 2 different congregations before ordination. But my gifts at this phase of my vocational life are much more focused on preaching, stewardship, liturgical design, and adult formation, which are not generally perceived as “associate” sorts of things but rather “rector” things. (I could go into an analysis of why this may be, based on the history of formation ministries, volunteer and lay ministries, the feminization of certain areas of ministry, etc. etc. but won’t.)

    I would love to find a place where the rector was willing to share things such as stewardship, adult formation, long-range planning, worship planning and preaching evenly w/ an associate, and take a bigger role in formation of those < 18 or those w/ young children. I am single w/o kids, so am not the natural/stereotypical "young families' minister anyway–if I were in a team w/ a rector who was married w/ kids, I could take some of the stuff off her/his plate that would enable them to have more work-life balance, and maybe spend more time in areas of ministry that are still their passions. But it seems almost universal that Associate positions have certain focuses. I've seen a small handful that don't, but they are rare.

    Like you, most of my experience is in bigger places. I think that if not as an associate, I would actually be a much better rector of a mid-large place w/ program staff colleagues, rather than a small solo place, just as you describe, but the odds of being called as such w/o having been rector of anywhere else first are slim. Right now I'm in non-parochial ministry, but would love to return to the parish.

  4. Kelly Hough Rogers
    Kelly Hough Rogers says:

    I am currently an Associate and have always been during my years in professional ministry. I am also the mother of two young sons (3.5 years old and 11 months) but whether you are a parent or not – being an Associate is a vital and I feel can be a life long calling. I love that you pointed out that the work life balance is able to be prioritized. Also – playing the fool (love it!) very important. For the last 5 months, I’ve been the Acting Senior Minister as during our Sr. Minister’s sabbatical. Everything has fallen by the wayside. I’ve lost touch with friends. I’ve not stepped foot in the gym and the programs that I’ve so lovingly tended for the last two years got pushed to the back burner due to the preaching demands. While enjoyed my experience, I am not anxious to have it again. I think there is a certain grace and power in leading from the second chair… now if I could just make a living wage so that my husband could go back to school… that would be awesome. Many blessings in all that you do!

  5. Sarah S.
    Sarah S. says:

    I was an associate for the first 5 years of my ministry. I have been a solo pastor for the last 7. At this point, I’d love to be an associate again. I have realized that in those 5 years as an associate, I was actually able to do ministry. I was able to focus on things that mattered rather than the pettiness of some congregants.

    I felt called to be a solo pastor. I have been one. But, now, maybe I’m feeling called back.

  6. Katie W
    Katie W says:

    Right now I am an associate minister after applying for solo positions – and I have come to realize that this is the best place for me at this time. Being that this is my first call, being an associate has helped me learn the liturgical aspect of ministry that I was lacking from my seminary training. I was a teacher before seminary – so I have easily slid into children’s ministry (which is OK) and Middle school ministry (which I love). My passion is Pastoral care… and I had the opportunity to do a full year CPE program in an amazing hospital system before this call. I find in the associate position – I don’t get the opportunity to do the visitation that I would love. I see this time as an associate to be a training time for whatever God calls me to next. A question to all the other Associates – how do you keep from being burnt out on programming! The organization that has to happen with this programming just sucks me dry of creativity and energy! any good suggestions? ( I do protect my day off as a renewal time… but would love other ideas.)

  7. Melody
    Melody says:

    I am grateful for your honesty, Sarah; thanks for giving voice to what many of us experience.

    I have been an associate for all 7 years of my ordained ministry thus far, and I have loved every minute of it. I am incredibly blessed that I have served, in larger part, with clergy who have been collaborative and have really honored my gifts. And I am that odd associate whose title is NOT about children or youth. Though I have oversight of those, but my main focus is on adult formation, which is my great passion. I also get to share equally in the preaching and presiding, so I’m a happy camper.

    The reality is, I LOVE my job, and I feel called, specifically, to be an associate. I think that it fits so well with both my gifts and my passions. I’m great at playing the fool, and at “making the rector look good.” I do not now feel called to be a rector, and at this point I don’t ever envision being called in that way (though I’m open to God’s call!!!) But I also encounter some real difficulties with being an associate. Here are the three biggest:

    1. The personality of the rector matters… a lot. Who I work for and with will make or break my ability to live into my call. I am not called to be a gopher, a doormat, or a hood ornament. I am called to collaboration, and even leadership in my assigned areas. I need to work with someone who recognizes my gifts and gives me the ability to live fully into my call. We don’t have to be friends, necessarily, but we do need to be colleagues and have a good working relationship. This leaves me highly dependent on who the rector is at a church, which can be especially difficult when there is transition.

    2. People assume that I must want to be a rector. I’m often seen as “just” the associate, and clergy colleagues and parishioners frequently ask when I plan to be a rector. The ministry of an associate is rarely seen as a ministry of its own, but just as a stepping stone to becoming a rector. This is not at all how I view my call, and I wish that others did not either.

    3. Uncertainty. There is a lot of uncertainty with being an associate. You’re dependent on the rector, as some churches still engage in the practice of demanding the resignation of all staff when a new rector comes. And even if that’s not required, the chemistry of a staff really matters, and that can be a sticking point. Also, assistant/associate positions are on the chopping block. The two positions I’ve left so far were both because the church no longer had funds for an associate and went down to being a one priest (or in one case a supply priest only) parish. I would love to be in a community for a sustained amount of time, but when finances get tight the associate’s position is usually the one to go.

    Negatives aside, I love my job, my vocation, for all the reasons that you listed and many more. Here’s hoping I get to live into my associate’s call for a long time to come 🙂

    [email protected] says:

    I am a few weeks away from starting my ordained ministry as an associate in a big white steeple church. It’s scary and exciting. I feel like a ping pong ball bouncing back and forth between terror and excitement. Thank you Sarah for your article; I appreciate your perspective SO MUCH. You are a wise advisor and a great friend. Ps. I’m putting together a clergy care group made exclusively of associates – folks who work at “staff sized” churches under a head honcho. Does anyone have any experience in such a clergy care group? If so what has it meant to your ministry?

  9. Sarah KG
    Sarah KG says:

    Oh my gosh, I love the conversation going on here! So nice that people are responding to the article. I know so many of us have shared this tension. Betsy, you should write a whole article about the tensions of seeking a call in context of having a partner with specific professional needs, too! I think a lot of us struggle with that. Laura, with your interim work, has it always been associate? Gillian, I have certainly filled that role in the past, but there are definitely positions available that are more adult focused. Hope one emerges for you! Kelly, I hope your church is able to pay a living wage, too! That stinks that it hasn’t so far! Sarah–interesting that you have experienced both sides of the coin and are thinking of coming back to associate land. Katie, I get the understanding of of the associate role as a training ground and I think it is that for some people, but I wonder if we miss out and if associates are treated as “less-than” sometimes because of that understanding of ministry. Melody, preach it on the importance of the personality of the rector and uncertainty issue. Both make or break the experience. Jeff, I have had clergy groups that were made up of associates just by the nature of being young in ministry, but they didn’t really focus on the associate part. I hope you guys have a such a great time getting to engage in ministry together!

  10. Alan G.
    Alan G. says:

    Sarah, what a wonderful article. You have named some beliefs that I have held now that I have gone from Associate to Rector to an Associate. I too have had a far more positive experience as an associate and have been fortunate to work with some amazing rectors. Just to respond to a few points, the phenomenon of some of our male colleagues moving on like freight trains to become Rectors is in some ways as much a trap for men as it is a stained-glass ceiling for women. There are many like me that upon reaching that position have experienced the worst abuse they will ever encounter. There are too many that fall into the trap of late arrivals home, missed school events for the kids, and as in my case, among many other factors, become another statistic for divorced clerics. There is a much larger problem in the vocation of priesthood (or primary pastorates of any sort) as clerics are less spiritual leaders or theologians and more CEO. In a perfect world those called to be administrative leaders would be just as valued as those who seek to make pastoral care, stewardship, or yes even to spend their days goofing off with kids their primary vocation. While it may seem impossible, what would our diocese, synods, etc. look like if we all took home the same paycheck at the end of the month (perhaps a shallow measure of value but all the same in a flawed system this is the social standard for evaluating professional worth)?

    • Sarah KG
      Sarah KG says:

      Alan, I really like what you said about the “freight train” being destructive to men in ministry, too. I feel like so many men of our generation are more self aware about this stuff–it’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes out. And the idea of set salaries is really interesting, for sure!

  11. rabbiisa
    rabbiisa says:

    this is great. I can really late to a ton of this. I’m currently an Associate Rabbi in a large congregation (about 1000 families) and I’m finding it’s perfect for me at this moment. I have my realm within the congreation, and I love that. But I’m still not the end of the buck passing line. Thank you so much for writing this.

    I’m just too old and not Christian, so it looks like I don’t quite fit into your group, but I look forward to following your posts and learning from another young clergy woman.

    • Sarah KG
      Sarah KG says:


      I’m so glad you found our site! We often raise the question of how much we have in common with female rabbis. We decided to stay a Christian organization, but often long for a sister organization of rabbis to partner with us! I think it would be so interesting to compare the similarities and differences in our experiences. In any case, we are so glad Fidelia’s Sisters has articles that are relevant to you and look forward to hearing more from you!


  12. Katrina
    Katrina says:

    I too am an associate, and that’s where I plan on staying! I have never felt called to have my own church; being an associate allows me to experience many aspects of ministry, while focusing on my passion (education/discipleship). I love working with people, bouncing ideas off them, etc… and I too love that it allows me the flexibility (to an extent!) to go home at the end of the day and spend time with my family.

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