Associate Pastor Ethics 101

One of my favorite TV shows of all time is Seinfeld. In fact, I think most of life’s awkward moments can be tied to one of the many episodes of Seinfeld. In one particular episode, George gets fired for (I’m putting this delicately) having an inappropriate sexual encounter in the office with a cleaning woman. When his boss confronts him, George defends himself by saying:

“Was that wrong?”

“Should I not have done that?”

“I tell ya, I got to plead ignorance on this thing.”

“If anyone had said anything to me when I first started here that this sort of

thing was frowned upon…”

His boss interrupts his litany of excuses by simply saying, “You’re fired.”

When it comes to an associate pastor—in the context of the associate’s relationship to the lead pastor—what are the boundaries of appropriate behavior? In my twenty years of ministry, serving both as a lead pastor and later in an associate role, here are some of the unethical behaviors I have witnessed:

  • An associate pastor splitting a church to start their own church in the same city
  • Associate pastors engaging in and entertaining negative conversation about the lead pastor with other staff and/or congregants
  • An associate pastor getting fired and then sending angry open letters to members of the congregation
  • Associate pastors undermining the leadership and vision of the lead pastor
  • When a lead pastor was out of town, an associate pastor calls an elder board meeting to discuss the performance of the lead pastor

Sadly I could go on, but you get the point. In each of these examples, when the associate is confronted, they respond like George Costanza: Was that wrong? Should I not have done that?

Here are some principles to help guide the associate pastor in their relationship with the lead pastor:

1. The lead pastor is not mythical

Lead pastors are not mythical (and neither are associates). They are human. They have strengths and weaknesses. They have blind spots. They have varying levels of emotional intelligence. It is tempting to enter into an associate role having an unrealistic expectation of your relationship with the lead pastor. Your relationship with the lead pastor is like any other important relationship, there will be times when you will need to extend grace. There will be moments when you don’t see eye-to-eye. There will be misunderstandings. And yes, there will be arguments. The key to having a healthy relationship is HOW you handle those times. I have a great marriage with my wife Carla. Other than my relationship with Christ, my relationship with Carla is the most precious, beautiful relationship I have. As wonderful as my marriage is, Carla and I have walked through all the relationship minefields I just mentioned and even a few more! It’s two people working through their differences with determined grace that builds quality, longevity, and beauty in a relationship. The same can be said of the relationship between an associate and lead pastor. Never think that your relationship with the lead pastor shouldn’t have bumps and hiccups along the way because it will; it’s how you react to the rough places that makes all the difference. Work through your differences. Talk through your differences. Pray through your differences. And above all, extend grace and love through your differences.

2. It is essential to embrace the vision of the lead pastor

Before you ever sign on as an associate, you need to embrace the vision of the lead pastor. What is his/her vision for the church? Can they articulate it? Are they passionate about it? Is it a vision that is compelling? Is it a vision that you can embrace, own and promote? If not, don’t even consider an associate position under the leadership of that pastor.

What if the church you are currently serving calls a new lead pastor who has a vision that you can’t fully support? If, after meeting with the lead pastor, you can’t fully align with his/her vision, you need to graciously resign for the sake of the church and your integrity. An associate facing that dilemma will find it impossible to be effective in ministry, let alone follow the leadership of that lead pastor.

3. Develop healthy communication between you and the lead pastor

Meet weekly with the lead pastor. These meetings can either be jointly with other staff or one-on-one with the lead pastor, depending on your need and the situation. Always make sure roles and expectations are clearly defined. Use active listening when necessary; “What I’m hearing you say is this…. Is that correct?” Using active listening techniques will allow you to avoid misunderstandings so that you will clearly know what the expectations are. In church staffs, most unhealthy relationships begin with poor communication; healthy communication has broken down–it’s either not frequent enough or it is not effective. One piece of advice on communication: Never communicate emotion through text or email. If you are angry and upset, walk down the hallway and talk to the staff person who upset you. Never, never, never deal with a disagreement through text or email. It sounds elementary, but you’d be surprised how many times this rule is violated in churches. One final communication rule, never, never, never talk negatively about another staff person outside of that person’s presence. Again, it’s the Matthew 18 principle in play here. If you have a problem with a staff person, deal with that person directly. If you undermine a fellow staff person (an associate or a lead pastor) by talking negatively about him/her to a congregant, that is grounds for dismissal.

In Galatians 5, Paul describes what a life lived in the Spirit is all about. To effectively communicate the idea, he first describes what life lived in the flesh is like and the picture he paints is not pretty. In verses 19-20 he has a long list of behaviors of the flesh, things like sexual immorality, orgies, and idolatry. Yet in the middle of that list are sins of the flesh that are all too common in our relationships with others in ministry: enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions.

It is essential to understand what life in the flesh is like, before you can fully understand life in the Spirit. A life lived in the Spirit is marked by the fruit of the Spirit mentioned in verses 22-23. I’m not going to list the fruit of the Spirit; you know them well. I want you to notice how Paul closes this section on Spirit-filled living. After he lists the fruit of the Spirit, he closes by saying, “against such things there is no law.” He doesn’t have to write volumes on how to behave as a follower of Christ (or as pastor). When we are surrendered to Christ and filled with the Spirit, our lives will bear fruit and our relationships with others will be marked in a way that honors Christ.

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