"So what exactly do you do?"
This is the question I get asked most when I tell people that I'm an associate pastor. That along with, "So when are you going to lead your own church?" That's because being an associate pastor is kind of a weird position. At best people think you're second in command; at worst they think you're paying your dues before you move on to bigger and better things (i.e. leading your own church).
You're like an assistant coach of a sports team: It's an unrecognized job. After all, no sports team is known for its assistant coaches. No league hands out Assistant Coach of the Year awards. The same goes with associate pastors.
So if you're not exactly sure what an associate pastor is or what they do, don't feel bad. It's an ambiguous role in the church. And to make matters worse, this position doesn't get talked about much. So I thought I'd share a few universal truths that may help clarify this unique role.
1) Associate Pastors Support the Senior Pastor
Here's the main thing church members should know: an associate pastor isn't supposed to help the church; he's supposed to help the senior pastor. The associate pastor isn't supposed to fulfill his vision for a church; he's supposed to help fulfill the senior pastor's vision for the church. In other words, "If you're an associate pastor, never forget that, in the providence of God, it's [the senior pastor's] church, not yours."
This may sound kind of weird. I mean, isn't the associate pastor serving the church? Yes, but he does this by supporting the senior pastor. Think about it. If an associate pastor comes to a church and tries to implement his own personal vision, what happens if its contrary to the senior pastor's vision? Conflict. Division. Splits. This doesn't mean the associate pastor is a silent lap dog. He should speak his mind.
But at the end of the day, a good associate pastor always recognizes that his role is subordinate to the senior pastor's role.
2) Associate Pastors Have Complex Jobs
In Leading From the Second Chair, author Mike Bonem points out how complicated it is for an associate pastor to be successful. That's because they're constantly living in a paradox - two seemingly contradictory truths that must be reconciled at all times. And there are at least two paradoxes an associate must navigate through.
The first paradox is that as an associate, you're both a leader and a follower. You lead the church but you also follow the senior pastor. This sounds simple, but it's confusing being a commander one moment and a foot soldier the next. You must be strong yet weak; confident yet humble; bold yet teachable.
The second paradox is you must be content in the present while dreaming about the future. Associate pastors will always have their own personal vision, but they must constantly temper this so that they can be faithful in the present. None of this is easy, but it's all necessary for the sake of harmony.
3) Associate Pastors Have Comfortable Jobs
What I described so far may sound unappealing, but don't feel too bad for us. For the most part, our jobs are pretty comfortable. We work hard, but we're not stressed. We sacrifice, but we're not dying. We lead, but we're rarely criticized. That's because we're not really seen as the leader, which kind of sucks but it's also pretty awesome.
When a sports team wins, nobody praises the assistant coaches. But when a sports team loses, nobody blames the assistant coaches either. That's because on a sports team, the head coach will receive all the glory but will also receive all the criticism. The same applies in the church. When things go wrong, nobody blames the associate; members always point the finger at the senior leader. So when looking at it from this perspective, it's quite comfortable being an associate.
4) Associate Pastors Have a Unique Perspective of the Church
People tend to think nobody understands the church better than the senior pastor. However, this usually isn't the case. In fact, as Mike Bonem writes, "[T]he senior pastor has the worst seat in the house when it comes to pulse taking." Why so? Well, church members don't tell the senior pastor what they're really thinking. That's because they know criticism of the church is often equivalent to criticism of the senior pastor.
So who do they usually share with? The associate pastor. They'll usually share with him all the problems they have at church. And if the associate tells them to share this with the senior pastor, church members will respond, "No, no - you tell him." In other words, they want their complaints to be known but in an anonymous kind of way. And associates are the way to accomplish this.
So while senior pastors tend to have the clearest picture of where the church should go, associate pastors tend to have the clearest picture of where the church is at.
5) Associate Pastors Have Undeveloped Roles - Esp. in Asian Churches
Here's a secret: You know why most of us don't know what associate pastors are supposed to be doing? It's because most senior pastors don't know either. That's why the role of an associate pastor looks different at every church. Some associates help with preaching. Others lead the singles ministry. And others are doing administration.
Why the discrepancy? Well, I think pastors are still trying to figure out this role - especially in 2nd gen. Asian circles. You see, while a lot of Asian pastors used to be youth pastors, not many of them have experience being associates. Those roles simply didn't exist in English Ministry. However they're beginning to arise in 2nd gen. Asian churches. But what are they supposed to do?
Perhaps the answer will always be "to help the senior pastor." There's nothing wrong with this answer, but it does make his role confusing to the rest of the church.
A Word to Senior and Associate Pastors
As an associate pastor, I think there are many things that senior pastors should consider more. For example, I think senior pastors need to DTR (define the relationship) often with their associates; they should constantly encourage them; and they should always ask them for their perspective of the church because they see things you don't.
But most importantly, I think senior pastors need to invest in their associates. Just as the associate is there to help the senior pastor, the senior pastor should also be there to help the associate. A senior pastor shouldn't just think what their associates can do for him, but he should also think what he can do for his associate (I'm thankful my senior pastor does this for me). It helps us serve with joy
And to my fellow associate pastors, I want to again emphasize that God has called our senior pastor - not us - to lead the church. We are not submitting to him but to the position God has placed him in. So even if he does things we disagree with or makes decisions we wouldn't make, we're ultimately there to get his back. We lead but we submit.
And when done faithfully, I can't think of any pastoral role that helps someone look more like Jesus than this one.