Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Special Circumstances: the Assistant/Associate Pastor becomes the Senior, part one

One of my "dreams" for the church is that pastoral transitions would go more smoothly for most, if not all, churches. I am convinced that one way for this to happen more frequently is if the transition is a planned "hand-off" of the outgoing Pastor's rather than a "from-scratch" restart of pastoral ministry every time the Senior Pastor (or any other pastoral staff member) leaves. I want to focus on this topic with a short series. There are four areas to consider:
  • Why a "hand-off" is valuable
  • Should the Associate/Assistant become the Senior?
  • Strategies for the newly named Senior Pastor
  • Planning for succession
I'll look at all three in their own post, starting with the first in this post.

Why would a church, or a search committee, consider naming one of their Assistant or Associate Pastors as their new Senior Pastor? Maybe a better question is, why wouldn't they consider it?

I'm often surprised that this is not considered a more viable option than it is. After all, in every other area of our lives, we would expect this to be the case: a hard-working employee might get first consideration for a promotion to management. A natural leader on an athletic team will be named as captain. An effective Sunday School teacher might be nominated for a church office. In almost every circumstance, it is not difficult to imagine that someone who proves their capacities in one area will be seriously considered in a similar area.

Why is it so difficult to imagine the same thing happening with a pastor? I can see three reasons that immediately commend giving serious consideration to an Assistant or Associate Pastor for any church that is seeking a Senior Pastor:
  • His abilities are known. Quite often, an Assistant or Associate Pastor has already demonstrated his abilities in most, if not all, of the areas of responsibility that the Senior Pastor might have. In many cases, he was what I call the "dump guy"-- in other words, everything that the Senior Pastor didn't have time for that week got dumped on his desk! Which means that he likely has a broad range of competencies, the capacities to handle many things competing for his attention, and the ability to get done the most important parts of ministry. You've probably heard him teach plenty, and unless the previous Senior was a pulpit despot, you've heard him preach a good bit, too.
  • His weaknesses are known. This one might be more important even than the first, because these are the things that are difficult, if not impossible, to get a sense of in a typical candidacy process (with resumés, interviews, etc.). You already know where he's going to be a disappointment! What is more, you've probably already gotten over the disappointment he'll bring in those areas, and have accepted those weaknesses along with all of the strengths and abilities that make him a good Associate Pastor. In short, the "honeymoon" ended a while ago-- and you're still together, even though you have a clear sense of what his ministry among your congregation will really be like. How much is it worth not having to go through those disappointments again?
  • His character is known. By this I mean, he has already earned the trust of the congregation, or at least of a significant part of it. No new Pastor, be they a Senior or Assistant, fresh from seminary or a well-known name in the denomination, has enough credibility to instantly have the trust of a congregation. Sure, there will be some who got to know him through the interviews and like him a lot, and there may even be some who know his name from a conference where he spoke or an article he wrote for the denominational magazine. But if he is new, most of the congregation will not grant him their explicit trust right away. Meanwhile, your existing Assistant or Associate has already done the groundwork to earn their trust, and he now has it. Which means that real ministry can actually happen.
Another way to think about this is by way of generalities. Generally speaking, most pastors say they were not able to have a true, impacting ministry until they had been at a church for five to seven years, minimum. Yet, the statistical average of how long a pastor remains at a church is somewhere around two years. See the problem?

Now, I know what you're thinking: of course, your next Senior Pastor won't be one of those who leaves in around two years. Of course, your next Senior will have true, lasting impact almost right out of the gates. Of course, your church isn't anything like the average church out there.

But if your congregation would name an Assistant or Associate Pastor as the new Senior, you've just done two things to counteract those two statistical points. First, you've all but guaranteed that he'll stay longer than the statistical average, because he's already been there for a little while, and now he'll stay longer than he might have otherwise. Second, you have just shaved off however many years he has already been there from that 5-7 year turning point: his real impact as your Senior Pastor will come a lot sooner, because he already had gotten through the "honeymoon" and earned the trust of the congregation.

There are some circumstances when the existing Assistant or Associate would NOT be a good fit for the Senior Pastor role; I'll consider these in part two. Barring them, however, I would challenge you to think in these terms:

If your existing Assistant or Associate Pastor is not fit to be considered as the next Senior Pastor, then what justifies keeping him on staff in his current capacity?

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