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Associate Ethics for a Senior Pastor

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“Did you hear what happened at First Church? They have a new pastor coming in, so all the staff has had to resign!” Once upon a time custom in many churches dictated that the staff served at the pleasure of the senior pastor. Most churches have come to believe such a policy is too extreme.

On the other hand I once accepted a pastoral call with the specific stipulation that I could not dismiss any of the existing staff. That represented the opposite error.

Somewhere in the middle lies the optimal pastor/staff power ratio. The task is to forge a positive pastor/staff relationship in the context of the fluid dynamics of ministry. Much of the responsibility for making the relationship positive lies with the senior pastor.

First, begin as you mean to go on. When you enter a multi-staff situation as senior pastor, you should make sure that you understand how the church is governed and what precisely your role is in the supervision of staff. Some churches give their pastor the power to hire and fire. Others do not.

Generally speaking, you don’t want that power. All staff members have a constituency. Being the person responsible for firing a minister who is beloved by some will hurt your relationship with those people. A functioning personnel committee which acts with your input and consent is often the best arrangement.

The key is that you need to be comfortable with the relationship as it is set up. If you intend to function collegially, don’t go into a situation in which you are expected to monitor others’ performance and demand accountability. If you prefer hands-on management, don’t go into a situation in which your supervisory authority is limited by the structure.

Second, clarify expectations. Most people who choose to serve on a church staff respond well to clear job descriptions and periodic evaluations. Every staff member should be evaluated by their supervisor and a representative of the laity on at least an annual basis. These evaluations should be written, along with mutually identified goals for future performance.

Less formally, the senior pastor should conduct staff meetings in such a way as to create a team dynamic which elicits the best from each staff member. When everybody feels a part of the team, and knows their work will be reported in front of their colleagues, there’s a strong incentive to perform well.

The senior pastor’s role is like that of a coach. Emphasize the common good. Hold everyone accountable. Deal with situations as they arise. Don’t let conflicts fester. Offer support and encouragement to all.

Most of all, be the pastor. You live in an inevitable tension in your conflicting roles as someone’s boss and pastor. There will be times when you must be confrontational, set boundaries, demand performance. Still, your goal must always be to do what you do in a spirit of loving care for your colleagues.

As much as possible, you want to empower them to do their best. That may mean you have less control than you’d like. But being a senior pastor is not about being in control. It’s about equipping the saints for the work of ministry.

The key is balance. In business very often managers will sacrifice an individual for the sake of the organization. In the church, we must always be aware that we are an organization of individuals, each of whom is precious to Christ.

Even if someone must be let go, that should happen only when we and the church leadership are convinced that action is best for all concerned. The welfare of the organization is important, but so is the welfare of every soul associated with it. Leading with both integrity and compassion marks a mature senior pastor.

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

See Part 1: Ethics for Associate Ministers