It’s been a little over four years since I wrote, The Work of the Associate Pastor (Judson Press) and a lot has changed. As church budgets get smaller and the pews reveal increasingly empty space, many church leaders cannot fathom having an associate pastor on a church staff. A Hartford Institute for Religion Research study found that from 2010 to 2015, part-time clergy jumped from 29% to 38%. If it’s hard enough to staff one pastoral position, how could a church even think about two?
The answer is: it’s time to consider another model of associate pastor.
As I wrote in my book, the traditional model of a full-time, seminary trained, and ordained associate pastor is becoming more and more difficult to fund. The average length of stay for an associate pastor or minister is about three years. Just as an associate begins to become effective many leave for greener pastures. This leads to church leadership questioning the need and role of the associate pastor in their church.
It is extremely important for churches to consider seeing their staff as ministers. The “priesthood of all believers” is a common theological distinctive in many denominations. I encourage churches to change titles of “director” to “minister”. Seeing the music director as the “music minister” helps empower the leader to see themselves as a partner in ministry. Having a church see their youth leader as the “youth minister” communicates that ministry to young people are not only valued, but are important.
Some denominations and congregational systems make it easier to empower associates. Many African-American churches have a portion of the staff as part-time and unpaid associate ministers and pastors. Other denominations allow congregations to use the title of “pastor” and minister differently. Other church polity systems allow for churches to become creative with ministerial positions that may include designations of local-pastor or lay-minister.
In my book, I describe and outline what these untraditional associate pastor and minister positions can look like. In addition, I encourage pastors and church leaders think more creatively about the concept of the position of an associate pastor. Don’t think about money, think about people. Can your next associate be part-time? Paid? Volunteer? Retired? You do not always need a full-time seminary trained and ordained staff member to fulfill the role of associate minister.
Seeing professionally educated clergy as the only avenue for an associate pastor or minister is extremely limiting. As bi-vocational ministers are becoming more and more common, churches can look to their own ranks for leaders gifted to support the mission of the church. As you think about ministry in your own church, consider more creative ways to design an associate minister position. Dream about outreach. See abundance in resources and not scarcity. Who knows? Your next associate maybe sitting in your pew.