How Should You Relate to Your Assistants?


Many potential “giants” for the Lord have been stunted by full-grown giants who were unable to reproduce themselves in others. Often a young man, called of God to the ministry, seeks a position as an associate pastor to solidify his abilities and develop better
ministerial skills. The pastor for whom he chooses to work, in some cases, may be a hero-idol to the young man. Although the senior pastor has a great record of accomplishments in the ministry and church work, he may not possess the management skills to nurture a young, ambitious, zealous associate successfully.

There have been numerous churches, on the other hand, which have had their thrust for Christ quieted by an over-zealous, ambitious associate pastor who had not tempered his zeal with knowledge. Pastors who have found themselves with this situation, in many cases, have resigned the church rather than try to tolerate the attitude. Still others have taken the drastic measure of firing the associate, defending their pastoral leadership and eventually being faced with rebuilding the church. These situations are not 20th century inventions. David had to deal with a similar situation with his first-born son, Absalom. Elisha was confronted with an associate who took advantage of the position God had placed him in and sought to fulfill his greed for wealth. Paul, in his early ministry, had to send an associate on his way in Acts 13.

But the pastor/associate pastor relationship can be beautiful, harmonious and spiritually fruitful. Both men must enter the
relationship with a clear understanding of what each expects to gain from the arrangement and how the expectation is to be fulfilled. Each must have a definite understanding of the other’s role. And above all, each must enter the relationship with the attitude that, as Paul writes, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).

Before a pastor determines that he needs or wants an associate, he should carefully prepare a thorough job description for the position. An appropriate salary for the position should then be established along with the benefits which apply. The pastor should not reflect upon the salaries he received as a young associate. Financial trends have changed and so have the living standards. Therefore, the finances for underwriting the new position should be given utmost consideration.

Those who seek an associate pastor position should prepare a checklist of the things which are to be gained from this experience. The key to preparing this list is having a clear understanding of what you believe to be God’s will for your life. All those items within the list most likely will be self-perceived areas of weakness which you feel would hinder you as a senior pastor. Another list should also be prepared which includes those areas you believe to be your strengths. Comparing the lists will be beneficial in discovering your ministry gifts, and will aid you and the pastor as the job description is reviewed.

Once the decision has been made to hire a new associate pastor, the senior pastor should begin a period of “indoctrination” in which he imparts to the new associate his vision, his methodology, his priorities for the future of the church, his short- and long-range goals, and his view of himself as the leader. As this is imparted, the pastor should be careful to explain to the associate the areas in which he expects the associate to become strongly involved and those areas in which he should remain passive. All pastors have certain areas in which they believe no one can achieve the desired response as effectively as they can. This is not a negative character quality. It is a positive leadership trait. Those pastors who are honest with themselves recognize their own leadership deficiencies. These deficiencies should be the strengths of the associate.

This is not a new philosophy of management for the pastor. Exodus 4:10-16 relates the story of Moses’ conversation with God concerning his leadership role of the nation of Israel. Moses recognized his own weakness and protested the assignment. God responded by giving him an associate who was strong where Moses was weak. The deficiency did not disqualify Moses from the leadership position but served as an opportunity for God to strengthen Moses spiritually and to solidify his position as leader. It also provided Aaron the opportunity to be used of God in a supportive role. In verses 27-3 1, God spoke to Aaron and directed him to the wilderness to meet Moses where Moses shared the instructions of God with him. This relationship between a pastor and associate pastor allowed both men, each being called of God and led by the Holy Spirit, to exercise their individual dual gifts and abilities for the glory of God.

Before examining this situation further, it is needful to point out that no pastor/associate pastor relationship will be fruitful unless each man’s relationship with God is correct. Each man should consider that his calling, although it is a leadership role, is to minister (serve). Christ confronted His own 12 disciples, those whom He had personally chosen, with this aspect of their calling. Mark 10:35-45 relates this confrontation. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had asked Christ to place them in the foremost positions in heaven. This action caused no small stir among the remaining 10 (v. 41). Christ then rebuked them with the explanation that, although the practice of lordship was prevalent among the Gentile leadership systems (v. 42), it was not to be the rule-of-thumb for the disciples (v. 43). He further explained that, although some of them would possess leadership gifts
and capabilities and would attain to “be great” and “the chiefest,” they were to use their positions, not as a lordship, but as a minister and servant (v. 43, 44). Christ is saying, “If you aspire to be great and to be the leader, first, be a servant to all. ”

Verse 43 uses the Greek words homon diakonos, “your minister. Diakonos is a general word for servant and is used in numerous ways which include the technical sense of our “deacon. ” Its most prevalent use is applied to ministers of the gospel. Verse 44 employs the word doulos, ” bond-servant, ” “shall be servant of all. ” This is a complete reversal of popular management philosophy today.

Paul the Apostle carries this theme in his writings. In Philippians 2:3, 4, he writes, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. ” The secret to a strong, productive relationship in any situation is the spirit of cooperation and service. Christ tells us, “In everything do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12).

The pastor, when the associate is hired, becomes responsible for the success or failure of the man’s ministry for God. Teaching and training young shepherds is not an easy job. There are so many pitfalls and dangers which only an experienced shepherd can know. It is a daily God-given obligation and opportunity to be used of God to train someone who has the potential to become a giant for God.

Pastors are responsible for the ministerial training and growth of the associate. Joshua received such training from the leadership of Moses. At Moses’ side throughout the 40 years of wilderness wandering, he noted the methods Moses employed to handle situations and individuals. Evidently Joshua received personal instruction from Moses as Joshua 1:7 relates. “Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee……

The blessedness of the relationship is that while the pastor is training and teaching the associate he is also going through a learning experience himself. The pastor has the opportunity to strengthen his personal communication skills both verbally and by modeling. Training someone else involves teaching by example. Some of the traits which served to make the pastor successful may have been forgotten once certain life-ministry goals were reached. As he imparts his knowledge and experience to the associate, new fires of zeal may be rekindled within the pastor. “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (Prov. 27: 17). This type of benefit has been derived from the pastor/associate pastor relationship by several senior pastors.

A Baptist pastor who leads one of the largest congregations in the Salem, Virginia, area relates, “When these young men come as my associates I can see myself 10, 15 years ago. As the process of training begins I realize God has greatly blessed my ministry as I give to them those ‘secrets’ and methods God gave to me as we built this ministry. I have a revival within myself and the drive to push on is rekindled.” This particular pastor has helped three of his associates plant new churches in the past five years, and they are now successful senior pastors with thriving ministries.

Another avenue of training the associate is to give him visibility within the church and its leadership. This may be a real test for the pastor’s own feelings of security. A successful pastor, however, realizes that God gives people differing abilities. A pastor who knows his congregation will have no problem with insecurity. A pastor can give the associate visibility by referring to him and his work in his sermons. He can also have the associate occasionally attend the various board meetings and give a report on the projects or ministries for which he is responsible. Paul is probably our best example of this area of training. In his epistles he always commends one of his associates, whether it was Timothy, Barnabas, Sosthenes, Titus, and even in Romans he commended Phoebe.

This serves two purposes. One, it gives encouragement to the associate. A word of praise given in public by the pastor will be an
incentive to do an even better job. Secondly, it will solidify the pastor/ associate pastor as a team, working together, in the eyes of
the congregation. The pastor will appear as a stronger, in-control leader when this is done.

Patience is another ingredient which the pastor must add to the training program. He has the experience and the foresight a young associate may not have. When given a promotional project or some other task, the associate should be expected to be creative and resourceful. The pastor should not be intolerant of new ideas. In fact, creativeness should be encouraged in the associate. He may produce a very beneficial method which could positively affect the entire church. Remember, patience is a virtue, and in “growing” an associate, it is a must. “He that delicately bringeth up his servant from a child shall have him become his son at length” (Prov. 29:21).

Today’s successful pastors need many “sons” in the ministry. Each of them should reproduce themselves in young men who are preparing for a life of service to God.

The pastor also has the responsibility of the spiritual growth of the associate. This is probably the most important aspect of the
relationship. Spiritual maturity is an ongoing character quality and a must for any type of pastoral leadership. It can be neither caught nor bought; it must be taught and sought. An associate pastor is a seeker; the pastor must be a teacher. Paul and Timothy are the examples in this relationship. The apostle was the willing teacher and young Timothy the hungry seeker. Paul writes, “This charge I commit unto thee, son Timothy, according to the prophecies which went before on thee, that thou by them mightest war a good warfare; holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith had made shipwreck” (I Tim. 1: 18, 19).

What a tragedy when one in whom we have invested so much falls by the wayside. The tragedy is not just in the loss of a potential giant for God but the countless souls who will be negatively affected by the situation. Therefore, the senior pastor should make every effort to bring the associate to a spiritual maturity.

There will be situations in which a pastor must teach and exemplify “faith” to the associate. When crises strike in the church, finances, divisions, attacks from without and within, the pastor must show forth unwavering faith in the power of God to resolve the circumstances.

In 2 Kings 6:13-17 there is a prime example of faith in God by the senior pastor (Elisha). In the midst of a seemingly impossible
circumstance, Elisha was undaunted. Most likely he was going about his personal duties with a song in his heart and a smile on his lips. Death loomed eminent. Escape was out of the question. The associate had never been faced with such insurmountable odds. “Alas, my master! how shall we do” (v. 15)? Elisha seizes the opportunity to encourage and cultivate faith in his servant’s life. “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them” (v. 16).

The relationship is a two-way street, however. An associate pastor has obligations and responsibilities which Scripture demands. Primary among the obligations is commitment. An associate will never be successful unless he is totally committed to the ministry; not just his calling but to the local church in which he serves. This commitment should be 100 percent to the pastor whom he serves. The associate should understand his position to be grounded in the text of Romans 13.

Again, we can find an example of this commitment in the Old Testament. Elijah, in 2 Kings 2, told Elisha, his associate, on three separate occasions to remain behind while he went on to face uncertain circumstances. On each occasion Elisha’s commitment was unmoving. He replied, “As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee.” His commitment to his pastor was strong because of his commitment to God and the recognition of Elijah as God’s appointed leader. The commitment was honored both by God and Elijah. Elisha was given his request that he receive a double portion of the Spirit and power which Elijah had possessed.

An associate who practices a total commitment to his pastor and the ministry of the gospel will find that great blessings will be bestowed upon him. God blesses those who serve and serve willingly. The associate should make every effort to see that his pastor is never slandered in his presence and should use his office to promote the work of the pastor. An associate who aspires to be a senior pastor should consider the type of staff members he would like to have and then strive to be that himself.

Although opportunities may arise in which the associate will be able to assert himself, he should be careful of the effect it will have on the pastor. Regardless of the personal satisfaction to be gained he should make an extra effort to give the credit for the opportunity to the pastor. A study of the relationship of David and Saul is helpful. No matter how many times Saul misused David and even tried to kill him, David always responded with humility and servantship to Saul.

An associate may never be faced with the adverse situations David was, but a good lesson is to be learned from this Old Testament story. Proverbs 11:25 says, “The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself.” Cultivating a relationship is similar to planting a garden. The product must be continually nourished and watered. When the associate is careful to honor the pastor, God in return will bring honor to the associate.

Jesus Christ in His delivery of the beatitudes addresses the pastor/associate pastor relationship in the text of Luke 6:38, 40.
Verse 38 states, “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give unto thy bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again. ” As associate pastor it is included in the biblical job description that a man seek to uphold the senior pastor. Any base desires to “upstage” the pastor should be laid aside. God will bring the honor to whom it is due. Psalm 75:5-7, “Lift not up your horn on high: speak not with a stiff neck. For promotion cometh neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he putteth down one, and setteth up another. ”

Christ emphasized the spirit of servanthood in Luke 6:40, “The disciple is not above his master. ” In the relationship between pastor and associate pastor, the associate is a disciple. God has placed him in a learning situation. This is not unusual. The Apostle Paul spent time learning from the other disciples and from God. He writes, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as unto Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers; but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (Eph. 6:5, 6). This is the ultimate command for the ministry. That which is done should be done to bring honor and glory to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Although the thrust in this chapter is the training of an associate in a manner that he will someday become a senior pastor, it is recognized that God has given a definite calling to certain men to spend their ministry life as an associate pastor. God has especially gifted these men with the proper attitude and personality to serve as a right hand to a senior pastor. However, when an associate pastor is considered it would be wise to discuss the future plans of the associate.

A pastor would do well to allow for the fact that God may, at some future date, see fit to elevate a dedicated and faithful associate pastor to a pastorship in some church. Whether one is the senior pastor or the associate, our mind should never be closed to the working of the Holy Spirit in individual lives. Our ministry and service to God should not be limited to the immediate. “Now the God of peace … make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

Dennis F. Fields Sr. is an associate pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia, and Christian service church assistance director for Liberty Baptist College and Seminary. He also is the board of directors’ secretary of the Liberty Baptist Fellowship for Church Planting and of the International Asian Mission. A graduate of Liberty Baptist Seminary, he is fulfilling requirements for the Doctor of Ministry program of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.