When the senior pastors gather around the water cooler, it’s a favorite topic.

“Have you heard what my associate (music, education, youth, you-name-it) has done now?” Unfortunately, that question is often followed by a tale of woe.

As more and more churches become multi-staff, they’re also developing multi-problems, many of which mirror the personnel issues in other settings. It’s a three-sided issue, of course: ” How should the associates act?” “How should the senior minister act?” And perhaps most important, “How should the congregation act?”

In this series of articles we’ll deal with each separately.

First, associates should choose their job and their supervisor carefully. Because the nature of an associate role in a church is to support the ministry and philosophy of the church, you should be sure you agree with the church’s direction before you accept a job.

If you’re into traditional music, and the church doesn’t want to sing anything written before last week, you probably don’t want to be their minister of worship. Find out what direction they’re going before you sign on.

Even more important, find out if you can work with and respect the leadership of the senior pastor or other supervisor. Regardless of how the staff is organized, the senior pastor is key to the direction of the ministry. If you can’t buy into his/her vision for the church you shouldn’t go. If you can support the vision but can’t accommodate the working style of the senior pastor, you still shouldn’t go.

Second, associates should view their ministry as a calling, not a job. In most traditional Baptist churches an associate minister is called (hired) by vote of the church, usually with the recommendation of the senior minister. That creates an ambiguous situation and raises the question, “At whose pleasure do you serve—the pastor or the church?”

The answer, of course, is both. Conflicts arise when either the pastor or the membership, but not both, want an associate to stay or go. One way to get around the difficulty is to stay close to our own sense of calling.

Ultimately, as ministers, we serve at the call of God. God, for example, does not call us to stay in a job when we are no longer effective or joyful in our work. Nor does God call us to leave just because the church is going through difficult times. The call of God, as Henlee Barnette writes, “occurs at the intersection of your ability and God’s opportunity.” Like any other minister, associates need to stay in touch with the Spirit in order to know when their calling may be changing.

Third, associates should eschew territoriality. One of the primary difficulties in associate ministry is the tendency some associates have to create a little kingdom of their own with its own constituency within the larger family of the church. Inevitably, over time, some members will develop loyalty to a particular associate. There’s nothing wrong with that loyalty as such. But when an associate knowingly uses that loyalty to protect his/her area from scrutiny or change, it becomes an attack on the well-being of the church.

This is especially an issue when associates stay in a congregation past the term of a single senior pastor. Simply by virtue of presence, without knowing or seeking adherents, an associate may become de facto pastor of a church. An associate in that situation has only two ethical choices: Leave, or seek the office of senior pastor.

Fourth, associates should see themselves as part of a team and examine their own performance as assets to the church’s ministry. During my own long experience as a senior pastor, my belief was that an associate should be able to do his or her job better than I could. That’s why the church called them.

As much as possible I tried to focus on doing my own job and to keep my dialogue with associates on the level of the consultation of colleagues. My experience was that sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t.

Unfortunately, as in any other profession, associate ministers will sometimes lose motivation, get greedy or attempt to avoid doing their job. A good discipline for every associate is to ask yourself at least three or four times a year: “Is what I’m doing now what I was called here to do? Am I fulfilled? Am I helping the church? Are there aspects of my ministry which I need to reshape in order to perform better?” This kind of ongoing self-evaluation can help keep ministry focused and productive.

Finally, associates need to take good care of themselves and their families physically, spiritually and emotionally. You can’t do a good job if you’re not healthy. And that means getting rest, recreation, exercise, spiritual nurture and family time. Too many ministers see their calling as necessarily repeating the sacrifices of Jesus. That’s poor theology. The Lord suffered and died once for all precisely so that we don’t have to.

Indeed, failure to take adequate care of the personal aspects of your life is a failure of stewardship. It fails to recognize that God loves us and wants the best for us, even if we’re on the church staff!

Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary.

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