Aren't we in this together?
Below is a part of the untold story that sometimes takes place behind the scenes on a church staff. You won't see it anywhere else because nobody wants to talk about the presence of conflict in a church office. The article wasn't written as a tell-all look at church reality. There's a greater story here about the need for pastors to work together with their associates and not against them. Not all church staff members deal with the same issues discussed here. Please focus on the positive aspects of what I wrote and not the negative ones. If you're reading this as either a pastor, an assistant or an associate, don't forget who you really work for! The need to work together is vital for the health of any church.
Many pastors have narrow viewpoints about the second man, frequently considered a servant, a dependent, a subordinate, a menial or an underling, also known as the assistant to the pastor.
Other pastors see their second men in a different way. They esteem him as a confederate, a colleague, comrade, partner or team mate, who's part of a joint effort and renders mutual assistance as co-administrator or the associate pastor of the church.
Some pastors would argue that both positions are the same. Roget's Thesaurus, however, makes a distinction between assistant and associate. It isn't merely a matter of semantics. Pastors themselves separate the two functions by the treatment of their coworkers. Men may be called associates but treated as assistants.
I know these things from personal experience gained through nearly twenty years in the full time ministry.
Pastors don't like to discuss the subject. Their attitude reminds me of a backslidden church member who gladly amens while the preacher hits on everyone else's problems. Relationships in these areas need discussion. Ignoring this problem won't make it vanish.
I appreciate my classrooms of hypertension as an assistant, for they taught me a wealth of knowledge about what deeply scars pastor/assistant relationships, lessons that couldn't be learned in any other classroom or from a book.
Church staff members of any denomination have many similar functions, including the treatment they might receive from their pastors.
Most assistants stay on a church staff less than two years, often because of friction that escalates between the pastor and his assistant. The friction and high turnover rate are frequently blamed on the associate. Regardless of that, some associates try hanging on at the same church as long as they can until the Lord releases them to serve elsewhere. They read magazines, attend seminars, and ask themselves the same questions. What must I do to survive as an assistant? How can I overcome the stigma of being a second class person, trouble maker, sower of discord, and a possible threat to the pastor? Why am I treated like a nobody?
Do all staff members leave a church under the direction of the Holy Spirit? This is true most of the time, but sometimes an associate leaves because he's driven away by his own pastor.
When this happens, the rest of the staff thinks, "Every time we get a good man, the pastor makes him leave!" For obvious reasons, staff members never openly express these concerns. Before the dust of departure settles though, the pastor explains to other ministers in the area, "You know how it is. It's the same old problem. Insubordination!" And so, another associate bites the dust.
A former pastor of mine once said, "You have a problem!" As with other associates who served the pastor in the same church, the accusation was thoroughly discussed with the wife. Advice from other sources was also sought. Everyone agreed that I wasn't a model personality. "Try harder," they said. "Ask God to change your heart."
After soul searching prayer, a new respect for the pastor developed in my life. Was it possible that when I joined the church staff I looked at myself as an equal to the pastor? Thoughts that perhaps I was disloyal troubled me. When I talked to the pastor about it, his words sounded convincing and I felt guilty about my poor attitude. Maybe I had some kind of a complex!
My job responsibilities were met with the greatest possible resolve. Schedules were rearranged to help follow the pastor's orders. There wasn't any reason to doubt my ability or performance! When I made a mistake, I corrected it quickly and I felt like the pastor and I understood each other.
The desk was often stacked with magazine articles about successful ministry teams. There were seminars designed to make me a more fruitful staff member. As far as I knew, I was going in the right direction but I soon discovered that magazines and seminars didn't supply all the needed answers.
Then came the staff meeting, what the world calls a "chew session". Meetings weren't usually called unless there was a problem related to the church staff.
"Your problem is, you only do what you're told to do." My pastor was paratly right, On the occasions when we did things on our own, the result was often a second staff meeting with an angry pastor who wondered why his staff messed everything up! Everyone makes mistakes, but the pastor never applied that truism to himself. Was he infallible?
One time the pastor said to another associate, "People have been complaining that you're gone too much on Sundays."
"Pastor," he humbly replied, "who's doing the complaining?"
"Certain members in the church," he curtly answered.
Only three Sundays were missed in a year's time. Two of the Sundays were with the permission of the pastor to preach in view of a call. The third Sunday was a vacation day.
"Who exactly are you talking about?" No names were supplied; the pastor finally admitted that he spoke about himself. Can a good rapport exist between a pastor and staff, if the pastor himself is deceitful?
When the pastor was about to leave town, his secret vacation plans slipped out. That's when his eyes flamed as he angrily said, "Loose lips sink ships!" He was so disappointed the church learned his secret that he canceled his vacation. How was I, the associate, to know the vacation was a secret? Nobody told me! I learned to keep silence about anything the pastor said.
Words, like arrows, can be harmful. Constant criticism by the pastor leads along a path of discord between him and his assistant. The assistant soon finds himself unable to understand the pastor or the pastor his assistant. Harmful criticism plants the seeds of destructive condemnation. What was once respect flares up into disrespect for the pastor as a man. Tears fill the eyes of many associates who don't understand why they're treated like second class citizens by their pastors.
There eventually came a time when the pastor couldn't be pleased. It was impossible to get to the church early enough or stay late enough. A day off was rare. It was like being on active duty in the army. As an assistant pastor, I never knew when all leaves would be canceled. Vacations, visits with friends, trips with the family, were all subject to change without notice and asking for time off was treated as an open sin.
What if the church knew about another staff meeting we once had? Finances were tight as they are with many churches. Not many people enter the ministry to get rich but they still need to make a living. The pay for the work performed is usually minimal. My responsibilities included several bus routes, children's church, newsletters, printing and addressing of church bulletins and related matters, visitation, promotions, plus the other regular duties an assistant performs. The work was done with low pay and no freedom to find extra income. Add that to a wife, a baby on the way and you'll have a formula for disaster. When my salary was reduced, I felt as if I was working for nothing and there was no way out!
This incident was one among many that soon left me disappointed with the full time ministry. I frequently asked myself if conditions could get much worse.
The pastor expects loyalty from his assistant, but is he loyal to his assistant? Does he desert him to sink or swim by himself when he needs support?
All the stress climaxed the night we held a teacher and worker banquet attended by both established workers and new prospects. An angry church member launched into an energetic personal assault on my integrity while everyone listened in startled silence. Every bad experience of the previous two years instantly flashed across my mind.
The pastor had earlier okayed what I did that upset this church member. Anger exploded inside me. Hot tears of frustration filled my eyes. A clenched fist thumped the top of the table as I listened to the venomous tirade. What could I do? It hurt!
A soft answer turns away wrath and I said little in response. "Surely," I thought to myself, "the pastor will want to take care of Sharon tomorrow in his office." When the pastor joined the attack, I learned what it was like to be alone. The fact he blamed me for what I did with his consent devastated me. I didn't resign that night, but it was the beginning of the end. My rapport with the pastor fractured itself. What little held us together was ripped away in the words of heated debate openly rehearsed in front of the church leadership.
As an associate, I held respect for the office of pastor without respect for the man who held it. Experience taught me a new lesson: what not to do if I ever became a senior pastor myself.
When an ultimatum was issued a few months later, only one peaceful solution remained. It was a choice between my sanity, self respect and my family or my staff position and church. The church lost. In those days, I wasn't only ready to leave the staff, but I was ready to quit church. Why was I driven to entertain this drastic idea? The pastor I knew as a church member was radically different from the one I served as a staff member!
Many hard lessons were learned the first two years I spent in the full time ministry.
More conflict takes place between a pastor and his associates than most church members realize. On the pastor's part there can be arrogance, jealousy, deceit, selfishness, and a lack of compassion. Yet, these are the very things pastors condemn their associates for. Ministry teams cannot survive with these elements. Who is really to blame? Is it only the pastor? Is it only the associate? More likely, both parties must equally share the blame.
Does the associate dare to tell his pastor the truth as a friend and a man of God? When he does, some pastors ask their associate for a progressive resignation. The intent is to relieve responsibility a little at a time and decrease the salary proportionately until a replacement is found. Ultimately, the associate works for almost nothing, yet has no liberty to do anything about it.
Church members sense the conflicts. "Is anything wrong?," they ask the pastor.
"Not a thing," the pastor says. He'll finally convince both himself and those around him that all is well. Everyone will believe him because he's the pastor. His statement of spiritual health, however, could be deceitful. Only those on the church staff know things aren't as they seem, but they won't talk. Who can blame them?
Not all associates go through what I experienced. Vast numbers of them, however, know the pain that comes from a pastor who feels he does no wrong.
We all learn from experience, whether good or bad. The lessons I learned in two years were mostly what not to do. It took me more than ten years as associate in another church with another pastor to prove to my own satisfaction that problems weren't always my fault, contrary to what my old pastor wanted me to believe.
Was I on your church staff? Did you treat me as a man of God and did you try to understand me? Maybe someone like me has an office in the church next to yours right now!
Both pastors and associates have problems, fail, and display arrogance and disloyalty. The ministry God has given belongs to Him and it is also our ministry. Today, each can ask for forgiveness, acknowledge human weaknesses and let God mend the torn fabric of their relationships. Aren't we in this work together?
And now you know one of the reasons why my name doesn't appear on this website. It's not because I have something to hide. More than a few of my readers know who I am and they know about a little of my background. They also know the same people that I know and they even know who the pastor is I wrote about. My desire has never been to lead people in my direction or to make them look at what I've done with my own ministry. Far from that, I really want people to look at the Lord and what He has done for them in the past and what He can do for them today and tomorrow. I can actually look back at some of these events and laugh about them. Though they weren't funny when they happened, God used them as life lessons that helped prepare me for the next phases of ministry. No matter what you think as a reader, we are all in this together. Let's get along with each other!