Friday, May 15, 2009

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

  • In part one, we considered why the hand-off is valuable. In this post, I want to consider the question, "Should the Associate/Assistant become the Senior?"

There are numerous circumstances in which the answer to that question ought to be a resounding, "YES!" and only a few in which the answer ought to be, "no." Think of it this way: below are some diagnostic questions about the Assistant/Associate Pastor which suggest reasons why the answer might be, "no." If a Search Committee can answer all of these questions in the negative, I see little reason why he should not be the primary choice for the next Senior Pastor. Furthermore, even if one or more is answered in the affirmative, this doesn't necessarily mean that he should NOT be the next Senior-- only that further consideration may be necessary.
  1. Was the Assistant/Associate Pastor hired for a specific niche in ministry? It isn't uncommon for a church to bring on an Assistant or Associate Pastor for a very specific aspect of ministry. I don't mean something like, "Pastor of Adult Nurture" or "Minister to Families"-- these are broad enough to incorporate most, if not all, of the qualifications that a Senior Pastor would require, and are not a factor. But if your Assistant/Associate's title is, "Pastor of Junior High Guys," "Sports and Leisure Ministries Pastor" (I'm not making that one up, folks), or "Counseling and Grief Minister," it may be that they are too "niche" to easily make the transition. (It may also be that such a niche Pastor may not have the training, giftedness, or experience to be a Senior. Or he may-- that's not the point; the point is that his ministry among YOUR congregation has possibly been to narrow to effectively transition directly into the Senior Pastor role.)
  2. Had the previous Senior Pastor been the Senior for a long time? Very often, a long pastorate by one Senior Pastor can lead to difficulty in adjusting for the next Senior Pastor-- as I discussed here. (This isn't a deal-breaker for the sort of succession I'm talking about; in fact, I think that good succession planning can be the solution to this problem.) If the Assistant/Associate being considered has not also been around for a while, it may be difficult to execute an effective hand-off. If he has been on staff for a couple of years, it's probably not going to be a factor-- and if he has been around for only a year but was brought in with an eye toward effective succession, it should be fine. But if the previous Senior was there for 15 years and the Associate has been there only six months, there may be difficulty in such a transition.
  3. Did the previous Senior Pastor leave under difficult circumstances? Having a pastor-- any pastor-- leave under difficulty can cause instability in a church that should give way to further consideration about what is next. Here again, I believe that good succession by an existing Assistant/Associate Pastor may actually be the most healthy way to go-- but only if a couple of other factors are properly addressed:
    • Was the Assistant/Associate a part of the difficulties that led to the previous Senior's departure? It isn't always the case, but sometimes a Senior's failure is due to factions and rifts that split off in support of other leadership, including an Assistant or Associate Pastor. If the Assistant/Associate was a part of such a circumstance, naming him as the new Senior will likely further the division in the church, not re-unify it for health and vitality. (And if the Assistant or Associate was actively involved-- in other words, he encouraged the division-- then he probably ought to be let go.)
    • Has the congregation faced the circumstances surrounding the previous Senior's difficult departure honestly, and with repentance? When a church has problems enough for a pastor to leave poorly, everyone has some fault. Further, certain individuals within the congregation need to be rebuked and brought into accountability, with discipline if necessary; others need to be sought out for individual apology and asked for forgiveness. If the congregation has not owned its sin and sought repentance and forgiveness for it, they are not ready to be led yet. Better for the pastoral staff that remains to urge them toward the healing and health that comes with such repentance FIRST, and THEN work on who will be the next Senior Pastor.
  1. Will the outgoing Senior Pastor remain in the area and involved in the life of the congregation (or has he)? Obviously, this is a factor in ANY new Senior Pastor's ministry-- a former Senior who lingers around can be a blessing of support, encouragement, and understanding of complex and history-filled circumstances. More often, however, he presents a difficulty for the new pastor in the newest of circumstances. With a succession, however, the problem becomes more complex: it is too easy for the members of the congregation to continue to relate to the former Senior Pastor as if he is still the Senior, and the new Senior Pastor (who was the former Assistant/Associate for the other guy) as if he is still the Assistant or Associate Pastor. (And if you think that sentence was confusing written out, just think how confusing it can get on a relational level.) Here again, this doesn't HAVE to be a deal-breaker-- but it certainly presents a context where executing an effective hand-off is harder and more complicated.

As I said before, an affirmative answer to one or even most of these does not necessarily indicate that it won't work! Only that further thought and consideration-- and probably a lot more pro-active planning than is usual-- will be required.

If, on the other hand, you have an existing Assistant or Associate Pastor, you're looking for a Senior Pastor, and none of the above apply, then why aren't you considering your Assistant/Associate as your primary (and maybe your only) candidate?

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