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By Charles H. Chandler

In large multi-staff churches, forced termination of the pastor often involves bad staff relationships. When parishioners surround an associate minister (associate pastor, minister of Christian education, minister of music, or youth minister) with encouragement and begin to drop hints that he or she preaches and/or shows more compassion and attentiveness in pastoral care than the senior pastor, the stage is set for conflict. Many associates are younger and often less experienced than the senior pastor. Their egos are stroked and their “need to be needed” has been “scratched.”

Just as children are masters at driving a wedge between their parents, thus getting their way, some parishioners seem be born with the gift of division. If the parishioner further encourages the associate by pointing out that he or she is more effective and works harder than the senior pastor and is paid less, the seeds of discontent are sown and nourished. The associate moves from being happy with the job to feeling under appreciated, overworked, and underpaid. This was the approach that the serpent used to sow seeds of doubt and discontent with Eve in the Garden of Eden. The game is still being played today. It takes a very mature associate to recognize when he or she is being triangled.

I have served in full time pastoral ministry on both sides of the fence – senior pastor and associate pastor. I have seen the system work. I have also worked with several hundred ministers, including pastors and associates, who have been damaged when churches draw lines of support for one minister and opposition to the other. The church also suffers in the process. I know how easy it is to fall victim to these dynamics. But I also know how important it is to grow through challenging experiences. What can senior pastors and  associates do to prevent their relationships from going sour and everyone being hurt? Here are some suggestions:

1.  Know Yourself
Personality inventories can be very helpful in getting to know yourself. A church staff retreat led by a certified counselor or psychologist can help all staff members learn about their leadership styles, strengths, and vulnerable areas. Self-awareness can lead to a great degree of self-assurance. Self-assurance fosters a deeper level of trust. The retreat can help develop a stronger bond between staff members. Knowing yourself can also help ministers self-define and self-regulate. Learning to self-differentiate is one of the great gifts you can give yourself. And no one else can do that for you.

2.  Clarify the Relationship
This should be done as the relationship begins. Senior pastors need to know how to delegate. They also need to learn how to supervise in a way that builds confidence, calls for accountability, and insures support without micro-managing. Insecurity on the part of the senior minister can spill over to the associates. Leadership requires taking a stand at times. Part of the supervisor’s role is to mentor and protect those whom he or she supervises. Associates need to view their role as helping the senior pastor accomplish his or her job by carrying out that portion assigned to them. Their assignment is a part of the total pastoral role. Much of the senior pastor’s success will be dependent on the success of the associate. If the associate cannot be loyal to and work with the senior pastor, he or she should look for another position. If you work under someone’s supervision, you owe them loyalty. There’s no room for undercutting on the part of either.

3.  Stay Connected
A koinonia relationship has two essential ingredients, sharing of time and experiences. You cannot have a deep sense of love and belonging without spending time together. When church members are allowed to “peck away” at a healthy pastor – associate pastor relationship, distrust emerges. When feelings or thoughts of mistrust emerge, the best thing either the pastor or associate pastor can do is to arrange to spend more time with that person.  Staying connected involves communication. Talk through questionable issues. Talk to one another.
Refuse to talk about one another.

4.  Pray for One Another
It’s hard to mistreat someone when you pray for him or her on a regular basis. Prayer is a powerful tool. It was never intended to be for show or manipulation. Prayer at its deepest level involves more than words. It involves an investment. Knowing yourself, clarifying your relationships, staying connected, and praying for one another can go a long way in team building. When someone begins to “talk down” another staff member, a good approach is to ask, “Have you discussed this with him or her?” If the answer is no, then simply say “Perhaps you need to call them and schedule a time for the two of you to talk about your concerns.” That’s much better than being sucked into a triangle. One role of senior pastors and associates is to cover one’s backside. To do less is to be deceptive.

It’s time to stop contributing to forced terminations! Both ministers and churches suffer when this happens. It’s sad when all the energies of the ministers and church are dissipated within when there’s so much to do to fulfill our mission to reach the world for Christ. Determine that you will not be used in such a devious plot where no one wins.

Charles H. Chandler founded Ministering to Ministers Foundation in 1994 after experiencing a forced termination. He spent the next 23 years caring for ministers in all faith groups who also experienced conflict and/or forced termination. We owe a debt a gratitude for Charles’ devotion to ministers and their spouses.