The Associate Pastor in Times of Transition

Rhonda Abbott Blevins
Pinnacle Associate

“Everything’s going to be OK,” I proclaimed the Sunday after the senior pastor’s retirement. Attendance was low following the senior’s last Sunday the week before and Easter Sunday two weeks prior. The only people present that day were the come-every-Sunday-come-hell-or-high-water crowd. The senior pastor served that church over seventeen years. The crowd that Sunday (mostly) mourned his leaving and fretted about the future of our congregation. “Everything’s going to be OK,” became the theme of that Sunday’s sermon, and the theme of nearly every conversation with parishioners and church staff since. It also happens to be what I most need to hear as well.
I’ve known how important my role as associate pastor would be following the senior’s retirement, and now that time is upon me. Times like this can define a ministry. Will I join the congregation in fear and worry? Tempting. The future is just as uncertain for me, if not more so, than for them. Or will I somehow remain faithful, grounded, and trusting through the process that leads to our next installed pastor? With the congregational anxiety swirling around me, I’ve decided to put in place some intentional practices to guide myself and my ministry through these tumultuous days.

The first rule of pastoral care is ever-present on my mind right now. “Be a non-anxious presence.” Commiserate but don’t collaborate. Listen and love those that express anxiety or irritation about the change happening in the church, but don’t join them. They need me to be their pastor, not their buddy. Show them another way of seeing the transition—a hopeful, grace-filled way. Yes, the new interim pastor does things a little differently. That’s okay. The new senior pastor will, too. Assure them it’s perfectly normal to feel uneasy through the transition. “Nobody likes change—not even a wet baby.” But also assure them that the church’s future is bright. Help them remember that God has carried the congregation since its inception, and there’s no way that God will abandon us now.

While the “non-anxious presence” rule guides my being, the “everything’s going to be OK” phrase guides my acting. If the congregation experiences me as anxious, their anxiety will be heightened that much more. I must have the calm, reassuring voice of the shepherd leading the flock to new pastures. A neurotic shepherd produces neurotic sheep. I’m trying not to be neurotic. I tell the congregation every chance I get that I’m there for them, and how proud I am to be their pastor. I teach them that the interim period, though uncomfortable, can be a time of rich reflection and growth, if not numerically, then at least spiritually and emotionally. Undergirding every sermon, every newsletter article, and every conversation is the encouraging word, “everything’s going to be OK.”

I’ve established some guiding principles for myself as I walk this journey alongside my people. Here they are:

Maintain congregational practices while helping the people adapt to change. It’s not going to be the same without the long-time pastor. Change is coming. It will serve the church well to help them acclimate to little variations without allowing them to go over a cliff. I can support, bless, even want some changes, but now is not the time for me to be the change-agent. Now is the time for pastoral care and support.

Refuse to take messages. This guiding principle should be in place for every church staff, especially during times of transition. I like to think of myself as a highly accessible pastor, which makes it easy for parishioners to want to send messages to other leaders through me. “Would you tell the deacon chair this?” “Would you tell the interim pastor that?” My standard reply to requests like this is, “I’m not in the habit of taking messages, but I’m sure so-in-so would be happy to discuss that with you.” This tends to deflate the complaint (which is what these messages often are). If there’s truly a problem, I offer to serve as a third party buffer or witness while they deliver their own message to the other leader. (Rarely does anyone take me up on this offer.)

Give it a couple of weeks. With any new way of doing things, if we give it a little time we often grow accustomed to it. When parishioners complain about something new, my standard line here is, “Give it a couple of weeks.” My intention is not to be dismissive, but rather to help them remember that you have to break in a new pair of shoes before they are truly comfortable. Granted, some shoes (and some congregational changes) never feel good. Get rid of them. But if we “give it a couple of weeks,” we might just enjoy this new thing in our midst.

Support, bless, but stay away from the search process. I like to be involved in decision-making at the church. I like to know what’s going on. But the search for the new installed senior pastor is off-limits to me. This is the labor of the laity. They need to do the work of self-discovery without me. They need to determine what type of leadership they need for the future. Do I have ideas? You bet I do. Do I have ecclesiastical experience and education beyond the laity charged with this task? Yes. But my advice to myself these days is simple: “Butt out.” Is it possible they will call a senior pastor who will take them down a different theological path? Yes. Is it possible they will call a senior pastor who leads the staff in a dictatorial way that will be unacceptable to me? Yes. Is it possible they will call a senior pastor who simply won’t like me or vice-versa? Yes. If any of these scenarios manifest, I will likely need to move along. If I can’t offer my loyalty to the next installed senior pastor, I am ethically bound to leave. I hope this isn’t the case, but I remain aware of that possibility.

For an associate pastor, the waters grow muddy when there’s a vacancy at the top of the ecclesiastical ladder. The work of discernment is difficult enough without parishioners asking, “Are you going to seek the senior pastorate?” or telling me, “You should be the next senior pastor,” or telling me, either pointedly or circuitously, that I would not be their chosen candidate. Here are the rules I’ve established for myself related to the possibility of me stepping into the senior pastor role.

Listen and discern. There’s no need to be hasty—this process will take some time in a congregation like mine. This is the time to pray and engage in other spiritual practices. A time to read . . . a time to retreat. This is not a time for ego. This is not about climbing a ladder for the sake of the climb or for the paycheck at the top. This is not about me. This is about an amazing group of people called the church and about what God is leading them to be and do into the future. This is the time to seek what’s best for the people of God and to lay aside egoic aspirations. The people charged with the task of introducing the next senior pastor to the congregation need to search high and low for the best possible person to lead this unique congregation forward. If at the end of that search, they come back to me, then we can talk.

Trust and respect. I am not the only person God leads. I am a part of the dynamic body of Christ. With that, I must trust the process and the people called and chosen to lead it. They think differently than me; they operate differently than me. Ultimately, however, they are the chosen individuals to stand in the gap between the congregation and the candidates exploring a call with the church. Trust and respect are vital for this process to go well.

I’ve done some thinking, listening, and praying about what the future holds for me related to the ministry at this church. I understand it’s the rare congregation that calls an associate pastor into the senior pastor role, but it happens. If I put my name in the hat, I must do everything in my power to promote unity within the church. I’m a poor pastor if I am the cause of church discord. So I’m operating under an important rule these days: refuse to be divisive. And whoever the committee brings before the congregation as the chosen candidate, I will chair the welcome committee for that person (figuratively if not literally). If possible, I will make the motion that the church call this candidate, even though I’ve never made a single motion at any other church meeting. I will support, strengthen, and follow the new pastor’s leadership. If at some point I cannot do those things, I will seek another charge.

So that’s it. Second chair is never easy, especially in times of pastoral transition. But I’m discovering this new era to be full of beauty and possibility, at least when I’m not being neurotic.

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