In churches that have more than one clergyperson on staff, it is good and right for the congregation to look to the associate pastor(s) for leadership when the senior pastor is away. That associate pastor has the training and the big picture understanding to keep ministry moving forward during the senior pastor’s absence.
Things get tricky, though, when we’re talking about the long-term leave (such as sabbatical) or the resignation of a senior pastor. In these instances the capabilities of associate pastors do not change, but their capacities do. A senior pastor’s two-week vacation typically means temporarily-added stress for an associate pastor, who might take on more worship leadership, preaching, pastoral care, and administrative (e.g. meetings) duties than usual. That is doable for a short span. Carrying those extra responsibilities for months, however, could easily lead to resentment and/or burnout on the part of an associate pastor. After all, she is doing more than the job to which the church called her. And all too often congregations don’t recognize, bring in help for, or compensate this essential yet supplemental work.
How, then, can these common gaps in senior pastor leadership be navigated well? Here are a few thoughts:
Senior pastors can
- Make the effort to communicate to church leadership how much time they spend on the various aspects of their ministry so that those leaders can make good decisions about coverage.
- Invite their associate pastors to ask questions, share concerns, and state needs around the responsibilities that might fall to them during long-term senior pastor absences.
- Secure temporary assistance for their associate pastors during sabbatical periods and advocate for additional compensation during and time off after the leave for their associate pastors.
- Help the church be pro-active about budgeting for temporary assistance and additional compensation so that the funds will be there when needed.
Associate pastors can
- Talk with their senior pastors, pastoral relations committees, and/or personnel committees about their hopes and fears around their senior pastors’ absences.
- Keep track of all of their responsibilities and the time needed to do each well. Be prepared to share this information with church leaders and to help them do the math. (“If you want me to pick up X responsibility, what would you like for me to drop?”)
- Ask for what they need. What kind of help would be most useful? Who might provide it? How much recovery time will be required after the church is fully-staffed again? How much additional pay would be fair for taking on senior pastor duties?
- Go on vacation beforehand. Have something to look forward to afterward.
- Ensure they have breaks built into the time when they’ll be running point.
- Recognize their associate pastors as pastors, all the time.
- Take care to appreciate their associate pastors’ extra effort and to note the toll it takes when the senior pastor is gone.
- Acknowledge that associate pastors pick up extra emotional labor when senior pastors are absent due to added anxiety in the system.
- Mobilize to pick up some of the duties that would otherwise fall by the wayside when the senior pastor is away.
- Listen to associate pastors when they say that expectations are unreasonable. Even better, invite them to share concerns in advance of the leave and work to resolve them.
- Give associate pastors some choice in what they pick up and what they hand off to others during senior pastor absences. Some associates might be eager to preach more. Others might want to stay closer to the areas of ministry to which the church called them.
- Budget for additional pastoral help during stretches without a senior pastor in place. In other words, be ready to call at least a part-time interim minister following a senior pastor’s resignation, and be prepared to pay for temporary help during a senior pastor’s sabbatical.
A senior pastor’s absence can be a time of growth for the associate pastor and the congregation. In order to harness this opportunity, though, it is important to be thoughtful and pro-active. Otherwise, expect the associate pastor to begin imagining herself elsewhere.