Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Solo-to-Senior Edition

Post Author: Askie

Dear Askie,
Help! After serving for years as a solo pastor, I’ve been called to a senior pastorate, at a church with an associate pastor (she is, as it happens, a somewhat-younger-than-me clergy woman). Yay! I’m excited about the possibilities this new call holds, but a bit concerned about working with an associate pastor for the first time. I’ve supervised staff in my previous churches, but never had a colleague in pastoral ministry. And I’ve heard so many stories about terrible senior pastors who make the associate pastor’s life miserable, I don’t want to mess this up! What do I do?
Rookie HOS

medium_6726325417Dear Rookie,
Simply asking this question is a great first step! I’d be willing to bet that the terrible heads of staff you’ve heard stories about approach their supervisory roles with much less circumspection.
Have you worked with any heads of staff you held in high esteem? Maybe you had a wonderful supervisor in a seminary internship? Or was there a wise senior pastor colleague in a local ministerial association at a previous position? Askie can offer some general rules and guidelines, but the senior-associate relationship is very much a matter of individual personalities and styles, so do try to have some conversations with trusted advisors who know you and your leadership style as you continue to step into this new role.
Also, have you had much of a chance to get to know the associate pastor yet? I hope that your new congregation made sure that the two of you spent time with each other during the interview process (lay leaders, take note). If not, you’ve got a phone call to make! As the two of you get to know each other, make sure to have some conversations about your respective personalities, gifts, growing edges, work habits, and conflict styles. If she’s been there much longer than you, she has key information about your new congregation and its culture, so use her as a resource.
A lot of specifics depend on your respective roles, and on your congregation and its polity – is the associate pastor a generalist, or does she specialize in certain areas? Are you supposed to be her supervisor, or do you both report to a personnel committee or judicatory body? Regardless, here are a few guidelines that hold true in a wide variety of settings:
Treat her as a pastor and a colleague, and make sure your congregation sees her that way too! Great senior pastors empower their associate pastors to do ministry. Make sure that she is seen presiding at the communion table and the baptismal font, at weddings and at funerals. Give her opportunities to preach, and not just on Labor Day and “low Sunday,” when the church is empty anyway. Leave her truly in charge on your vacation and your day off. Speak affirmingly of her ministry, and refer to her as “one of the pastors,” not as “my associate” or (heaven forfend) “my assistant.”
Give credit where credit is due. As the senior pastor, you have the challenge and blessing of crafting a vision for your congregation. When things go poorly, you will be blamed; when they go well, you will hopefully be lauded. When something goes well that was actually the associate pastor’s doing, remember to give her credit! (Extra bonus HOS points if, when she messes up, you can help her to save face.)
Don’t micromanage, but do stay connected. Give her space to take ownership of her areas of ministry, but don’t let the fear of micromanaging keep you from checking in and asking questions. Each of your ministries will be stronger if you’re in regular communication. Ideally, you’ll be able to build a mutually supportive, collaborative relationship, but regardless, you each need to have a general sense of what the other one is up to. Set up a standing weekly meeting, if possible, or drop by her office on a regular basis (but don’t expect her to be at your beck and call).
We’ve all heard horror stories of overbearing, authoritative, patronizing heads of staff, and none of us wants to repeat their mistakes. Remember, though, that we young clergy women tend to be more likely to err on the side of being too easy-going, too non-confrontational, too meek. You’ve been called to lead, sister, so don’t be afraid to claim your authority when necessary – to graciously and compassionately hold people accountable, offer vision and direction, and give feedback, in your relationship with the associate pastor and elsewhere. It’s your role, your job, and your calling, so claim it with humility, but without apology.
Blessings to you, your new congregation, and the associate pastor as you begin your ministry together!

Image by: Geraint Rowland
Used with permission
2 replies
  1. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I speak as a female associate (feeling less young every day, but still only 38) with a wonderfully supportive lead/HOS. One of the most important pieces of this is the bit about showing the congregation that you trust the associate. You say, ” Great senior pastors empower their associate pastors to do ministry.” and this is very true. One of the best ways to do this is to include them in events that are important. Celebrating communion, if that’s your tradition. Not just preaching on the “low Sundays,” is a big part of it. But also, do things together. If the associate is only seen on her own and not working in tandem with you on important things, you can SAY she is included, but you are not actually including her. Show the congregation.

  2. Karen
    Karen says:

    In my previous call as an Associate with a female senior pastor, I say trust and support are the most important. Regular meetings to maintain communication. My senior didn’t want to assert too much authority, which is probably better than the alternative, but I came to find it frustrating that she wouldn’t tell me what she wanted me to change. She tried to gently guide me to my own conclusions (which should be the same as her own) but it was confusing. It took me YEARS to figure out that she wanted me to do some things differently. Instead of a short conversation where I expressed my opinion, she hers, and I either changed my opinion or deferred to her wisdom, we wasted so much time. Also, I needed her to make tough decision regarding vacation days and leave, but she acted like I shouldn’t ask. In reality, my friend will have a wedding the same weekend as your family reunion. I needed her to just make the call. “Yes, we’ll get another staff person to preach” or “no, you can’t go.” Finally, practice what you preach in terms of sabbath time off. You set the example
    Make it healthy!
    Blessings on your new role!


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