Do & Don’t: An Open Letter to Older Male Senior Pastors Regarding Your Working Relationships with Younger Women/Femme/Non-Binary* Associate Colleagues


Post Author: Andrea Roske-Metcalfe


The author officiating at a baptism in partnership with her
colleague, Pastor John Matthews, at Grace Lutheran Church in
Apple Valley, Minnesota.

Several months ago I received a phone call inviting me to speak on a panel to a cohort of women clergy who met monthly. Several of them were associate pastors, struggling mightily with how to claim any authority at all in their respective ministry settings.

The facilitators were inviting me, they said, because I was an “outlier” in my own call; the relationship between my older male colleague and I was understood to be an anomaly because we functioned as partners more than anything. They knew that we shared a genuine, mutual respect and that we actually enjoyed our working relationship. They knew that I exercised considerable agency and authority in my role, and that my colleague supported me in that, rather than being threatened by it. They knew that we pushed each other to be better, more authentic, and more courageous in our pastoral identities, and that both our congregation and the wider community were benefitting as a result.

Let that sink in for a minute – my pastoral colleague and I have a functional working relationship built on mutual respect, and we enjoy each other’s company. That makes us outliers.

This is a problem.

It’s a problem for the church in general, but it’s especially problematic for the thousands of younger women, femme, and non-binary associate pastors in this country and around the world who are routinely treated by their older, male senior colleagues as if they have none of their own God-given gifts for ministry, even in ministry settings and denominations that claim to believe otherwise.

Another member of the panel that morning was a younger male associate pastor. At one point in the conversation he was beside himself with grief at what he was hearing from the women in the room, and he wondered aloud about how he could be sure he didn’t become the very problem they were naming so clearly. Not wanting to assume that we in the room had all the answers ourselves, I posed his question to several online clergy groups, garnering responses from hundreds of women, femme, and non-binary associate pastors in a wide array of Christian denominations.

As you can imagine, their responses ranged from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous. They offered examples that were uplifting, heartbreaking, and everything in between. As best I can summarize, their responses to the question “What do you want older male clergy to know about how best to function with their younger women/femme/non-binary associate colleagues?” are as follows:


Do use the name, title, and pronouns[1] your associate colleague wishes to be called. Do use her title in all situations of public speaking and writing. Do make note of how many parishioners call you by your title but call her by her first name. Don’t assume this is because they are good friends.

Do understand that your associate colleague is your partner in ministry and be very public with that understanding. Don’t assume she’s an empty bucket just waiting to be filled with your singularly-wonderful wisdom about how to do this work. You are her colleague, not her mentor. She is your colleague, not your intern. She will most certainly learn things from you, but if you assume there is nothing you can learn from her, then you are missing more than the point. To this end, do share sacramental leadership: She can (and should!) perform baptisms, too. She can (and should!) preside at the Eucharist, too. Do share with her the ministry of marrying and burying people, as well.

Do realize that your associate colleague is also a preacher, and that she too has a message to bring to your people. Do share preaching responsibilities for the “big” services of Christmas Eve and Easter morning. Don’t relegate her preaching only to the “Associate Pastor Appreciation Sundays” – the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, for example, or the Sunday after Christmas. Do understand a pastoral model where associates and other staff share regular preaching responsibilities to be a clear indicator of a healthy congregation. Don’t be one of the hideous senior pastors who schedules their associate colleague to preach once a month, only to revise her preaching schedule to once a quarter after they discover that she’s an excellent preacher and the congregation enjoys her sermons. If your ego is that fragile then do go into another line of work, and quickly, please.

Don’t make assumptions about how the two of you will divide the work of the church, especially with regard to gender stereotypes. Unless it’s written into her job description, your associate colleague is not the default children’s ministry facilitator or nursery supervisor. She may not be the one to lead the women’s Bible study or the moms’ group. She might be a better fit than you are to take the lead on stewardship, or finance, or the property committee. Do take the time to learn and regularly reassess where her gifts and passions lie, and make sure she has opportunities to put them to use and to cultivate them further. Do this even if it means giving up a part of ministry that you love or taking on a part of ministry you could do without. In a similar vein, don’t assume that your associate colleague will stay to do dishes after the potluck dinner while you chat with people or go home early. If she’s expected to whip up a batch of cookies for the bake sale, then I wanna see your cookies, too, and they better not be store-bought, either.

Do advocate on behalf of your associate colleague when it comes to pay and benefits. Women and femmes, as well as non-binary people, are far more likely than men to be underpaid in the church, and those who serve as associate pastors (rather than solos or seniors) even more so, which sets them up to be underpaid for the entire rest of their careers as well as into retirement. Do recognize your power and privilege in these conversations, and don’t assume that your associate colleague will always ask for what she needs. Our culture has conditioned her to believe that she is simply lucky to be here, when in fact, you and your congregation are lucky to have her. If her spouse or partner has a job, great! Don’t assume this means she doesn’t need health benefits.

Speaking of benefits, don’t put off establishing a humane parental leave policy until she (or you or anyone else) actually needs it. That said, absolutely don’t ask her anything at all about if or when she will need to put this policy to use. Do understand that parental leave should apply to parents of any gender, for the birth or adoption or fostering of a child at any age, and consider a clause for bereavement in the case of infant or child loss. Don’t parade around with this 6 weeks garbage, either, like that’s doing anyone a big favor rather than the absolute bare minimum. 12 weeks paid is a good place to start. You and your people have the creative capacity to make that happen; I know you do. (And once you put that in place, do talk about it and advocate for similar shifts on both regional and national levels in your denomination. Do trust me when I say this conversation is long overdue, and the church is not the leader it fancies itself to be when it comes to prioritizing children and families.)

Do recognize how much more credit you have with the congregation than your associate colleague does, simply because of your title and position, and especially if you’ve been with the congregation for a longer period of time. Don’t hoard your chips. Spend them on her and the ideas she has and the risks she’s willing to take. Do support her in public at all times, and don’t criticize her – even constructively – anywhere other than behind closed doors. Do establish this as a mutual expectation at the beginning of your working relationship. That said, don’t define your working relationship as one where every time you hear negative congregational feedback, you feel the need (even behind closed doors) to reel her in or limit her future prospects for preaching or ministering in your context.

Do take your vacation time, and your sabbath days, and your continuing education time, as well as any sabbatical time you are granted. Do spend down your continuing education and pastoral expense budgets on things that make you a better pastor to your people. Do encourage your associate colleague to do the same. When you take time off, don’t make jokes about how the place will fall apart while you’re gone. The associate pastor is perfectly competent and able to function on her own, and your absence allows your congregation to see this. Don’t be a work-a-holic, which only makes your associate colleague look like a slacker when she practices appropriate boundaries and self-care. Also, working non-stop is a terrible example to set for your parishioners, so do kindly knock that sh*t off.

For the love of all that is good and holy, don’t make yourself the boss of your associate colleague’s wardrobe choices. I promise that Jesus did not die on the cross so the church could be in the business of policing the bodies of women/femmes/non-binary people for millennia, so let’s do go ahead and stop, shall we? Unless it involves a wardrobe malfunction or a medical emergency, don’t comment on her body, hair, clothing, nail polish, makeup, jewelry, or any other part of her physical appearance. Do re-direct the conversation when parishioners make comments to you about her physical appearance, preferably with something relating to her work.

If your associate colleague is doing something wrong, don’t wait for her to figure it out before you make her aware of it. (If she’s simply doing something in a manner different from the way you might do it, then do recognize this is not the same thing.) If parishioners or staff members come to you with complaints or criticism about her or her work, don’t agree to hear them out without her involvement, even if you tell yourself it’s for her own good. (It’s not, nor is it good for the parishioner or staff member who’s trying to avoid an awkward or difficult conversation.) Do send those folks directly to your associate colleague, telling them that out of respect for her she needs to hear these things directly.

Do believe every single thing your associate colleague says about how she experiences being a woman, femme, or non-binary person in the church and in the world, including in your shared ministry context. Don’t assume that you have any expertise or advice to share in this regard, because, in fact, you have none. When she tells you about that one parishioner who makes her really uncomfortable, don’t dismiss it by making excuses, saying “Oh, he’s just like that.” Do make note or even ask her about the concessions and calculations she makes all day long to protect herself – the fact that she refuses to be in the church building alone, for example, even if it means leaving early when she had planned to stay later to work on a project; or the fact that she clutches a hymnal to her chest with one arm while she shakes hands following worship to create a barrier between herself and the men who insist on hugging without asking for her consent. Do realize that she is making these concessions and calculations all day, every day. Don’t bother to wonder whether it’s exhausting. It is.

That said, do realize that all the power differentials built into the senior/associate relationship are exponentially magnified if and when the senior pastor is white and the associate pastor is a person of color, or if and when the senior pastor is cisgender and heterosexual and the associate pastor is not, or if and when the senior pastor is able-bodied and the associate pastor is dis-abled. Don’t assume that these forces of oppression are not at work in your ministry context, even if your congregation is open and affirming for LGBTQ+ people or has a Black Lives Matter sign posted at the front entrance or has made the building more accessible. Do check your privilege every single chance you get, and do invite your associate colleague to call you out when you are failing at this task. That said, do recognize that this labor should be yours, and not hers.


My pastoral colleague is set to retire at the end of 2019. My call is co-terminus, which means our congregation will receive my letter of resignation together with his. When I fill out my paperwork in search of a new call, I will have to check boxes to indicate which roles I’m open to serving. Among the options will be Solo Pastor, Senior Pastor, Associate Pastor, and Co-Pastor.

I will check all the boxes except for Associate Pastor, which is funny, because more than anything in a new call I want another colleague with whom I can share the ups and downs of this strange and wondrous work. With that in mind one might assume I’d check all the boxes except for Solo Pastor.

But I am not naïve. I have been paying attention for the better part of a decade to what this particular kind of call does to so many people, and I know how rare my situation is, even if I don’t think it should be. I would rather do this work on my own than be treated as anything less than I am, and I am a damn good pastor. Hear me say that I am not a perfect one; far from it, in fact. I make mistakes and I say the wrong thing and I let things fall through the cracks on occasion.

But I am creative and passionate, and I am willing to do hard things together with God’s people for the sake of the Gospel. I love this work more than I ever thought possible, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let some senior pastor on an ego trip[2]

 strip that away from me. I’m Lutheran, and Lutherans are big on grace. But God is God and I am not, and I have very little mercy in my big huge heart for pastors who damage God’s people and God’s church in this way.

***

The cohort meeting of women pastors ran long, and I had to sneak out near the end. I tried to leave quietly, but as I did one of the women shouted to me, interrupting the whole conversation, “You’re the living manifestation of all our hopes and dreams!”

If that sounds like hyperbole, it wasn’t. This pastor had been weeping only a few minutes before, out of sheer frustration. She meant every word of what she said to me in that moment.

Quite frankly, I don’t want to be the living manifestation of her hopes and dreams, not for this reason. I want my pastoral colleague experience to be the norm and the safe assumption, not the exception or anomaly or outlier.

Do better, colleagues. Do better, church. This is unacceptable.

________

*The inclusion of femme and non-binary individuals in this conversation is incredibly important, as erasure of their existence as such (and assumptions that they are heterosexual and/or cisgender women) only serves to exacerbate the justice issues raised here. If these terms are new for you, see here and here.

[1] While most women and femmes will use the pronouns she/her/hers, this is not necessarily the case for everyone, especially non-binary individuals. I have intentionally chosen to refer to the associate pastor using the pronouns she/her/hers in this article, as a way to focus on gender dynamic at play, but if your associate colleague uses different pronouns, then you should clearly use them, and educate and hold your congregation accountable for doing the same, even if it means you need to practice the right pronouns in a mirror for five minutes every day.

[2] While this article focuses squarely on the behavior of older malesenior pastors, a number of associate pastors also report similarly destructive and dismissive behavior on the part of their senior female colleagues. Pointing this out runs the risk of feeding the #NotAllMen apologists, but it’s worth noting that almost all the advice offered here applies to senior ministers of any gender in relationship with their associate colleagues.


The Rev. Andrea Roske-Metcalfe serves as the associate pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Apple Valley, Minnesota. She earned her MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and she lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Luke, and their two daughters.


Image by: Don Blumenstein
Used with permission
5 replies
  1. James Olson
    James Olson says:

    Thank you for this. This happens to gay men too, and it is embarrassing and demeaning. I am tired of fragile alpha males who are in turn threatened by, frightened of, or even secretly tittilated by me.

    Reply
  2. Jennie
    Jennie says:

    Many of these same things happen to men who are associate pastors. I wish the term “Senior Pastor” was done away with. Pastor seems perfectly fine. When you have a “Senior Pastor” and “Associate Pastors”, there is even more distance between the two.

    Reply
  3. Luci J Baker Johnson
    Luci J Baker Johnson says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I’ve posted a link to our churches Facebook Community page. Our last several vicar’s have been female.

    Reply
  4. Rev. Julie LaHam
    Rev. Julie LaHam says:

    I have only been a solo pastor. I just retired with great feelings of bitterness and regret over a life wasted–although in all honesty, I managed to do some good. I was treated as badly, and likely worse than what I’ve read in the article, by male and older female church members who never found themselves able to treat me with respect, even though I am a highly intelligent, well educated, strong, called woman of God. I followed God’s call, but I would never do so again. Men rolled their eyes when I spoke, smirked when I taught, etc. I was given respect for my sermons, but nothing else. I had to watch as these lay people destroyed the church because they could not work with a woman pastor. No, it was not a clash of personalities. Older women admonished me to be subservient to the men. And so much more. I have been in an abusive marriage, so I know what that is. The last church I served was that and more. I got no support from my synod even though I asked.

    Reply

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