Almost one-third of PCA churches have more than one pastor. That’s a good way to multiply a church’s ministry, but the relationship between the senior, associate, and assistant pastors can also create friction. A seminar at General Assembly this year will address this issue by means of a three-man panel: Dr. George Robertson, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Ga.; the Rev. Adam Tisdale, senior pastor at North Hills Church in Meridianville, Ala.; and the Rev. Erik McDaniel, assistant pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Anniston, Ala.
A common difficulty, these men agree, is making too many assumptions. It’s a lot like marriage, Tisdale believes. We get in trouble when we assume what our spouse is thinking or feeling. The same thing happens in staff settings.
Another difficulty: Some staff believe they get the work nobody else wants. Robertson recalls a friend who wore a baseball cap with an “S” on it. Eventually Robertson learned that the “S” stood for “somebody.” Every time the senior pastor said, “We need somebody to do this,” the cap-wearer knew what was coming.
Other ways senior pastors frustrate staff is by meddling, overriding decisions, or undercutting authority. On the flip side of the coin, assistants sometimes fail to carry their share of the load, and they occasionally sympathize with critics.
Poor communication compounds these problems. Tisdale says, “You have to be able to talk about the frustrations and the difficulties.”
There are several principles and practices, the panelists say, that foster healthy relationships. Not surprisingly, the most basic is love. Robertson goes back to the marriage metaphor. “The problems in my marriage come when I’m viewing my wife as somebody I need to get a job done instead of as a valued person I love. When we love each other well, these frustrations melt away.” McDaniel jumps in, “My senior pastor proposed to me! We were sitting at a barbecue joint, and he said, ‘This is going to sound weird, but Erik, will you marry me?’ — meaning, will you be of one mind with me and we will fight together?”
Tisdale identifies honor as a key. He points to Romans 12:10: “Outdo one another in showing honor.”
“If we are going to honor our colleague,” he says, “it will take us in different directions than we might go otherwise.”
Senior pastors can honor associates/assistants by giving them responsibility instead of assigning them tasks, by encouraging their education, by apologizing to them, by spending time with them, and by being unselfish with the pulpit. Associates/assistants can honor the senior pastor in their response to critics, and by volunteering to take on additional responsibilities.
There are other practices that promote relational health, including mutual submission and praying together. But it’s also important for the session to have a proper perspective. McDaniel, for example, explains that, “Our session knows me, they love me, they have poured their life into me. We’ve been through a lot together.”
Tisdale points out that assistants and associates flourish when the session has a kingdom mentality rather than a church mentality. A session with a church mentality focuses on the work the staff is doing for the church. A session with a kingdom mentality considers how it can prepare the staff member for broader service in the kingdom — something particularly important as the PCA looks for leaders for the next generation.