So You Want to Be a Senior Pastor
Looking back on seminary I often wonder why I was not better prepared for certain experiences that have been pivotal in pastoral ministry. There was never a class on how to deal with ministry jealousy. No one ever warned me that it would be tempting to wish I had another man’s gifts, ministry opportunities, and recognition. Furthermore, there were no classes on spiritual warfare. In fact, I don’t remember anyone telling me to expect spiritual warfare. There were no lectures that addressed the fact that as I grew clearer about the gospel, I would become a bigger target for the evil one. And there were no syllabi regarding what it would mean for an associate pastor to transition into ministry as a senior pastor.
A recent edition of the 9Marks e-journal focused on the life and perspectives of a senior pastor versus an associate pastor. The articles were very helpful, but one set of questions were not addressed: What should you expect of the transition from associate pastor to senior or lead pastor? How are the roles different? How can associate pastors prepare as they think and pray about being a senior pastor one day?
This is a major transition in some ways and a difficult one because many men are just not prepared. I recently made that transition. I know. Though the move is deeply challenging, I was well prepared for what I faced and not because I am naturally wise or an out-of-the-box catalytic leader. Rather, I learned at the feet of several men who shared their insights, and I took assiduous notes on the life and demands of senior ministry while I was an associate pastor. In fact, I have lost count of the times I have thought to myself, While it was pretty challenging at the time, even heart-breaking, I am so thankful I experienced x or y moment in ministry because of how it has prepared me for this role.
Seven months ago I turned the page on associate ministry and began a new chapter as a lead pastor. This was a transition my wife and I had been praying about for a few years, and anticipated with both fear and resolve. In a season of testing and sanctification the Lord made us wait, learn, grow, and trust him. Then, in a way only the Lord could manufacture, he led us clearly to Chapel Hill Bible Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I feel as if I have learned not only a seminary course, but also a whole degree’s worth of knowledge and experience. Brothers, may it help you in some small way as I share a slice.
Be prepared to shepherd your fellow ministry staff first.
You may have one colleague or you may have 20. Make it your priority to shepherd your fellow pastors first. That might require a conversation with your elders so there is room on your plate to do this, but it will pay huge dividends. This does not mean everyone on your staff will find you their ideal supervisor, mentor, or even colleague. But if you present yourself as someone who wants to love and shepherd them well, it will take a big edge off of what might be an inherently tough transition for your staff. They are the folks you work with most closely every day. Pray for them. Spend social time with them. Find ways to shepherd them as you would your entire congregation.
Be prepared that not everyone will like you.
In a healthy transition, most people will embrace, enjoy, and encourage you. They will appreciate what you bring to the table as a pastor: preaching, leadership, personality, your family, and your doctrine. Some will not. Even the healthiest and most unified churches have people who are going to respond negatively, some with petty reasons. Some, including leaders, will leave. You cannot control that, but you can shepherd through it.
Here is a suggestion: Go out of your way to invite personal interaction, especially if people are struggling with your leadership. Invite people to talk with you. In my experience, everyone who has taken me up on that offer has had a genuine heart and wants to see a way forward. Every meeting ended well. Those who are not going to meet with you are beyond your responsibility. Always seek input, aim to grow as a godly pastor, and be faithful to the Word. At the same time, accept the fact that your new profile as a senior pastor is going to put you in the way of stronger opinions, reactions, criticism, and rejection.
Be prepared that a lot of people will love you.
As I said, in a healthy transition, most people will like you . . . and some will like you too much. It is easy for a pastor who does his job well to meet a need in people’s lives that only Jesus should meet. Furthermore, you are going to get more positive feedback by way of "atta boys" after sermons, along with notes, invitations for meals, free tickets, and opportunities to speak elsewhere. Strong, adept people are going to seek you out for leadership. Just as the cross of Christ has to be your approval and identity for the days you get gut-punched with criticism or news of another family leaving the church, you have to make the cross your treasure when people think you hung the moon.
In fact, I would strongly exhort you to think far more about this context as a means of holding fast to the gospel, even more so than days of criticism and discouragement. A story that makes me wince comes from a friend who had just moved to a new city. He was invited to a community luncheon where a prominent pastor was also in attendance. The pastor introduced himself but did not offer his name, assuming he would receive recognition as a high-profile leader in that community. When it became obvious that my friend did not know who this pastor was, the pastor offered his name and said, "Don’t worry, you’ll know who I am soon." As far as I know, this pastor is a wonderful man with godly desires and a robust gospel ministry, but, at least in that moment, he let grabbed for the glory for the favor God had given him. Put another way, be prepared to deflect praise back to God.
Be prepared to make more money.
Of course this may not happen. You may make less money if you move from a large church in an affluent suburb to a small church in a working class neighborhood. But, in general, moving from an associate ministry to a senior ministry means a larger salary, better benefits, more study time, support for continuing education, and additional vacation days. Be prepared to be a good steward of these resources so that you have a clear conscience before God and do your best not to let it interfere with your relationship with your staff.
I appreciate the example of the two senior pastors I worked for as an associate. My former church did not reveal what each person made. Of course we knew our boss made significantly more. I was more than happy for that. But neither of them lived a lifestyle radically different from mine. Sure, they had some cushion and other freedoms, but I also knew they said no to a lot of freedoms and rights, too. That removed footholds of jealousy for the evil one. So be thinking now about what it will mean for you and your family to have more financial support in ministry and yet to live a life above reproach.
Be prepared to eat crow for all the critical, quickly arrived at, ungracious feelings and words you had toward the upper leadership in your previous church.
Associate pastors often gripe about how the elders and senior pastor are missing it. Like a child, it is easy to second-guess mom and dad . . . until, well, you become one. Once you become a senior pastor you are going to realize that leading a church is not as easy as you thought. There is much more nuance to partnering with lay elders, leading meetings, shepherding a staff toward unity, helping a congregation grow in following Jesus ultimately (not you), and balancing family, sermon prep, leadership, administration, and personal shepherding.
Even though you are in your gifting wheel-house, make more money, and get to do the cool stuff, the responsibility is quite demanding and sometimes exhausting. You will struggle with regret at some of the ways you reacted to the "upper management" back at the old place. My word to you is this: Be prepared by growing wise, measured, and godly as an associate. Be a blessing to your current colleagues and those over you in the Lord by wising up in this season. This will also prepare you to lead a future staff well as they struggle at times.
Be prepared that your transition may entail some unusual moments of spiritual attack and suffering.
I am not promising this will happen. Some of my friends have enjoyed gloriously smooth transitions. Also, ministry in general is a cross-event, so I can definitely promise you ministry-based suffering as a regular event. Paul told Timothy in no uncertain terms, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3.12). But there is something about transitions that beckons the attention of the Devil and puts your head above the parapet.
Transitions are gospel opportunities. They are opportunities for a preacher of the Word who treasures the gospel, who wants to make Jesus’ name great, to either lead a church away from drift, sometimes replant a church who has almost closed, lead a church toward continued gospel strength, and to generally stake a stronger flag in the ground for God’s glory. Satan does not like this. His dominion is threatened. He will attack. I have had some interesting moments, some of which defy reasonable explanation. Expect greater inward temptation: sexual sin, pride, despair, self-identity issues, how you use your new authority, and other places of temptation.
Scripture and church history both reveal patterns as godly men take up the mantel of spiritual leadership. Satan does not give up ground easily, whether within the church or territory your church is about to take for Christ’s name. Prepare yourself by expecting it, asking for prayer, holding fast to the regular means of grace, and putting some godly elders around you to fight with prayer, accountability, and common strength. By all means trust the pattern of Scripture: When Satan attacks Gods people, God ultimately protects them and uses the event to judge Satan.
Be prepared to experience loneliness.
It is lonely at the top, they say. This can be true, at least at first. Your new role is going to put you within a frame that can keep colleagues, lay leaders, and congregants at arm's length. There is often reticence to take up your time. Senior pastors intimidate people. There is an aura around the role that can kill intimacy and the ability to make friends. Also, you will feel tempted to keep your cards close to your vest and to even assume a defensive posture due to the horror stories you have heard from senior pastors who saw vulnerability create problems.
Feeling a little alone at first is okay. Take it as an occasion to appreciate the fellowship of the living God. Dive into the community of your family, if you are married. Seek out other pastors in your area (this is super important, actually), and trust God to provide friendships in your community and even among the congregation. It is tricky to form friendships as a pastor, isn’t it? Make it a priority, but expect it to be challenging at first, especially as a new senior pastor.
Finally, prepare your family.
Start with the question: Is this opportunity good for my family? I don’t think it is wrong to consider your wife’s social fit, schools, cultural context, and other factors as you pray over a possible church. Considering your family is only setting everyone up for a more effective and long-term ministry. Once you have arrived, continue to make your wife and children a big area of focus. Ask for prayer. Ask for help. Shepherd your family in this time. This is a big transition for everyone. Remember, your ministry is theirs, too.
There is a lot more that can probably be mentioned, but those suggestions have been on my heart, and I hope the Lord will use them in the life of some associate pastor who may be feeling that tug of the Lord toward senior ministry. Though I never learned this stuff in seminary, I did have some good brothers who went before me and share some of these thoughts, among others, which I have found invaluable. I pass these reflections along in that vein.