Specialist or Generalist? The Associate Pastor Role in the Large Church

by Susan Beaumont

Audrey and Libby are associate pastors serving mainline Protestant churches in the same city. Both enjoy their roles and both are considered effective in ministry. The challenges of life in associate ministry produce an immediate bond between Audrey and Libby when they meet at denominational gatherings. The two associates often discuss the challenges of leading without being the primary vision-caster, and without having regular access to the pulpit. Each struggles to claim authority for her ministry while also demonstrating commitment to the leadership of the senior pastor. And both have had the experience of being pitted against the senior pastor in a triangulated relationship, thanks to the manipulation of an unhealthy congregation member.

Although these two associates share similar role identities, they face remarkably different challenges in their roles. Audrey is the associate pastor in a church with a weekend worshiping community of 375. Libby is an associate pastor in a congregation with a weekend worshiping community of 850. Both are considered large churches. However, congregational size differences significantly impact the shape and experience of their associate ministry roles.

The Generalist
Let’s begin with Audrey’s role as the single associate pastor on staff in her congregation. Audrey and her senior pastor are the only two full-time clergy on the staff team, which includes administrative support personnel and several part-time ministry professionals who round out the staff team by providing program guidance in the areas of music ministry, children’s ministry, and youth ministry.

Audrey’s role is a generalist role. She bears specific ministry responsibilities for adult discipleship and religious education in the church, but she is also expected to help lead worship each week, engage in regular pastoral care responsibilities, teach regularly, preach occasionally, and attend all board meetings. Along with the senior pastor, Audrey carries responsibility for the full membership base of the congregation. The activities that Audrey engages in parallel the activities of the senior pastor, and she often takes direction from the senior pastor about how to do her job. In any given week her priorities shift considerably, given the senior pastor’s availability and changing expectations.

Serving as the “second” generalist on staff sometimes creates role confusion for Audrey. She receives conflicting signals about how she should be spending her time and focusing her efforts. The senior pastor seems to have one set of expectations, while congregational leaders have another. And she has her own set of hopes and dreams for the position. Sometimes her role feels like the dumping ground for everything that doesn’t fit someplace else in the church. And sometimes it feels like the senior pastor snatches away parts of her role just when she is starting to make some progress. People expect a great deal from her ministry, yet someone is always challenging the legitimacy of her decision making.

Audrey thinks of her position as personally developmental. She is relatively new in ministry and hopes someday to lead a large congregation of her own. She enjoys the associate role most of the time, and feels that she is learning a great deal by observing both the successes and mistakes of her senior minister. She expects close direction from the senior leader and would like to serve as an associate for another two years, but then she hopes to step into a solo or senior pastorate of her own.

The Specialist
Libby experiences some of the same frustrations in associate ministry that Audrey reports.  However, the size of Libby’s congregation (850 on average) creates a unique set of role challenges and expectations.1 Libby is one of twenty-five members of her staff team and one of four ordained clergy on the team. Each associate minister in the church operates with a specialized portfolio of responsibility. Libby is the associate minister of discipleship and spiritual formation. She regularly shares in pastoral care visits with other ordained staff, occasionally leads worship, and rarely preaches. Her ministry focuses only on the adult membership in her congregation. Other members of the staff team carry responsibility for the spiritual formation of children, youth, and families.

Developmental is not a word that Libby uses to describe her position. She sees the role as a vocational destination. Libby spent many years honing her skills and abilities in the area of spiritual formation and has done postgraduate work in spiritual direction. She has no desire to serve in the capacity of head of staff, now or in the foreseeable future. She doesn’t want the burden of weekly preaching and staff team administration to take her away from her first love in ministry.
Libby takes overall direction from her senior pastor regarding the strategic priorities of the congregation and her position. Beyond that she operates in a sphere of her own, shaping her own vision of the ministry and acting on that vision once it has been approved by her senior pastor. She meets biweekly with the senior pastor to establish outcomes and align her focus with his, but those meetings seldom result in sudden priority shifts. Libby’s senior pastor wouldn’t presume to direct Libby in how to do her job. Libby knows far more about faith formation and discipleship than the senior pastor is ever likely to know, and both she and the senior pastor understand this.

Libby doesn’t share the same sense of role confusion that Audrey reports. The boundaries of Libby’s role are firmly established and she understands where her authority begins and ends. Libby’s greatest challenge lies in figuring out how to shape the direction of her ministry and how to garner support for her initiatives without regular access to the pulpit and without full access to the governing board. Libby doesn’t sit on the governing board and attends meetings only at the invitation of the senior pastor. She often feels that her ministry area gets short-changed in the operating budget and she has little voice in budget allocation decision making. The senior pastor is always willing to represent Libby’s ministry from the pulpit and in board meetings, but it’s not the same as being able to share her aspirations directly. These limitations of the role sometimes result in Libby feeling disempowered in the larger congregational system.
There are times when the strategic vision of the senior minister doesn’t seem large enough to hold Libby’s vision. She sees some things that the senior minister is missing in terms of goal setting and action planning. Although she doesn’t want the senior minister’s job, she does think at times that she could do the job better, particularly with regard to oversight of her ministry area.

The Right Fit
Libby and Audrey face different organizational challenges by virtue of the fact that they minister to different sized congregations. It is clear that somewhere between the 375 and 850 weekly worship attendance number three significant shifts occur in the role of the associate pastor. The shift is gradual and unique to each ministry context, but clearly observable: from a developmental pass-through role to a vocational role, from a generalist orientation to a specialist orientation, and from porous role boundaries to firmer role boundaries. When large congregations do not accommodate these shifts in the associate role, they are likely to experience misfit problems between staff member and congregation.

The “newly corporate” congregation that narrowly defines an associate ministry role as a specialist role is likely to discover that it does not have a large enough staff team to accommodate specialization. The person who accepts a role in this church expecting to operate as a specialist will become resentful because others continually want to relax the boundaries of the role and pile on responsibilities well outside the scope of a desired ministry specialty. On the church’s side, resentments emerge because the associate seems resistant to chipping in and helping out as needed in all areas of ministry.

Similarly, if the very large congregation mistakenly structures an associate ministry role as a generalist position, it also frustrates itself and its minister. The work of the generalist associate will be compared to the work of other associates with more specialized ministries, and the generalist’s performance will be labeled substandard. People will look for specific areas of excellence and will register their disappointment that the associate is neither as good a generalist as the senior minister, nor demonstrating the kind of program brilliance that they see from other specialists on the team.

Creating a healthy associate pastor role requires clarity about the impact of congregational size on role definition. Both congregation and minister must be clear about the suitability of generalist versus specialist role expectations. They must have clarity about the developmental versus vocational nature of the position, and the type of oversight that will accompany the role. Finally, they must specify whether the position will operate with firm or porous boundaries.

The associate pastorate in the large church can be an effective and rewarding role for its occupant. It can be a critically helpful role for the congregation and the senior leader. Minimizing role confusion and role conflict is one of the keys to maximizing role impact and employee satisfaction.

NOTE
1. The strategic church averages 800–1,200 in weekly worship attendance. To understand more about the dynamics of leadership in this size congregation, refer to Susan Beaumont’s “Beyond Corporate: New Insights on Larger Churches” in the Summer 2008 issue of Congregations.

Congregations Magazine
Fall 2009