10 Ways to be a Great Lead Pastor for an Assistant Pastor

In a recent post, I proposed 4 ways to be a great Assistant Pastor. 

It is only appropriate to follow that up (and I probably should have led) with a post about being a great lead pastor for an AP.

Here are some thoughts on ten ways to be a great lead pastor for an AP, derived largely not from the success I've had in these areas as much as from what I wish I'd been for the APs I've had. I'll probably add more as I keep reflecting on this topic. So check back if you are able. ๐Ÿ™‚ 

1. A great lead pastor will view his assistant pastor as a gift. If the lead pastor should value anyone (other than his wife), it is the man willing to serve in an assistant capacity. After all, it is largely the AP who, along with a gifted and committed administrative assistant, allows the Lead to focus on the primary task of sermon prep and delivery. Simply stated, having an assistant pastor is not an entitlement. It is a gift.

2. A great lead pastor will acknowledge the need for improvement in the ministry and enlist an AP's insight for suggestions. Most pastors want to think that their ship is in great shape. I'd rather have an AP come on board, standing in amazement at how wonderfully I have developed and led the ministry. Truth is, new eyes will expose all kinds of problem areas and needs for improvement. That is one reason why we bring on an assistant - to help develop and improve various areas of ministry. A great Lead invites input into not only making improvements to the AP's specific ministry, but across the board. This doesn't mean that we implement every idea, but it gives the AP confidence to know that the Lead Pastor values his input and considers him a partner in ministry.

3. A great lead pastor will provide very clear job description expectations and regular evaluations according to those expectations. There are few things more frustrating than to discover a supervisor is evaluating your job performance according to unstated criteria. An AP should have a very clear target outlined with objective ministry goals. This will help evaluations stay as objective as possible vs subjective.  And those evaluations should take place at least annually, if not more often, with the purpose not to harp on deficiencies, but to highlight and celebrate areas of improvement. 

I like to say to our leaders and volunteers that we are not aiming for perfection but for progress. During leadership meetings, I usually ask two questions: where have you (or the ministry) seen progress and what is an area that needs improvement? The idea is that we want to celebrate progress and make a plan for continued progress, taking practical next steps that will help get us down the field to the end zone.

In the challenging cases when an AP is not making progress or is not fulfilling the baseline expectations of his job description, evaluations provide the necessary accountability for both AP and the Lead Pastor, especially if the time comes to consider termination. While ministry reviews may provide the writing on the wall, more often than not they will help an AP navigate out of a ditch and back onto the road. This should be the lead's intent with evaluations. Not to beat up, but to build up, setting the AP up for as much growth and success as possible.

4. A great lead pastor will require an AP to practice Sabbath rest. While I have posted more extensively on this topic here, the main point is that it is a Lead's responsibility to make sure that an AP is taking time off with at least one 24-hour day where he puts his plow down and enjoys time away from the demands of vocational pastoral ministry. Of course, the Lead Pastor should lead by example.

Again, please don't miss this post on pastoral vacation and rest.

Most Assistant Pastors really want to do a good job and may be prone to overwork. Part of our job is not only to model taking Sabbath but making sure our AP has chosen a day and is sticking to it. Yeah, for some of us, it takes work to plan our time of rest. ๐Ÿ™‚ The underlying motive is that a Lead Pastor longs for his Assistant and family to be healthy, spiritually, physically, emotionally, etc. We need to be careful that we don't use up and burn out an AP, but help him set patterns in life that will serve him well for a lifetime of faithful and fruitful gospel ministry.

5. A great lead pastor will help an AP learn how to use his time wisely. While not always the case, many APs are younger and more inexperienced than their Lead Pastors. Leads should not assume that APs intuitively know how to use their time wisely. We have so much to do and the commodity of time is limited. We can't do it all. So, what should we do and when?

This is where (to point 3 above) having a clear job description is crucial to pair with the calendar.

APs need to learn the difference between time spent managing and time spent developing. Managing requires admin work like leading meetings, sending and returning emails, phone calls, etc. This kind of work can be done in hour blocks of time, or even as a to do list.

Developing ministry is different. This king of work involves message preparation, strategic thinking, planning, and praying.  Typically, you shouldn't schedule development ministry in hour blocks but in larger "chunks" of time. For example, morning may be reserved for ministry development while afternoons are devoted to ministry management. Or Monday and Wednesday may be management days while Tuesday and Thursday are devoted to development. I take Fridays as my "day off" (Sabbath rest day). For more on how that enables me to have my Sunday sermon ready by Wednesday each week, see this post.  

6. A great lead pastor will take a personal interest in the well being of the AP's heart, marriage and family. This should go without saying, but it can be easy as a lead pastor to see an AP as an employee who gives you hours for dollars. I do not mean that the lead's job is to be a marriage and family counselor for his AP, but he is a friend and mentor who takes an interest by asking helpful questions now and then. 

  • โ€‹"What would it look like for your heart and soul to be fully alive?"
  • "Where are you struggling with discouragement?"
  • "What is preventing you from consciously abiding in Jesus these days?  What idols are causing you most grief? Where is the source of unbelief in your life?"
  • "Is Martha still enthusiastic about you serving on staff at First Church? What would make her more supportive?"
  • What would Martha say she'd like to see change or improve in your marriage?
  • "How is physical intimacy in your marriage?" (Not a voyeuristic probing but realizing that the lack of physical intimacy may be a red flag for deeper marital concerns).
  • What challenges are your kids facing these days?

Of course, an AP will be as willing to share about his marriage and family as the lead pastor shares about his. When the lead pastor is transparent and vulnerable about his own issues, he creates a safe place for an AP to be real, too. 

7. A great lead pastor leads with prayerful dependency upon God. In other words, a Lead Pastor is a praying pastor, not just a doing pastor. It has been said that when we work, we work. But when we pray, God works. Yeah, I know that God always works, upholding the universe and unfolding his providential plan for history. But he also invites us to ask, like a child to a Father, living in dependence upon the one who is "able to do more than we can ask or imagine according to his power that is at work within us." (Ephesians 3:20) Furthermore, the Father has ordained that part of his design is to fulfill his purposes through Spirit prompted and empowered prayer.

One of my early pastoral mentors demonstrated this to such a degree that it stands out as the most defining feature of his ministry. He prayed about everything. Big stuff. Small stuff. Sometimes long prayers. But usually short prayers. Very short. Like he was used to being in God's presence all day. No big deal to just stop and ask. 

That left a huge impression on me. It is a legacy I'd like to leave as well. 

8. A great lead pastor gives his AP the credit he deserves.  Even the greenest, most fresh out of seminary AP will bring some really great ideas to the table. Make sure you don't plagiarize his genius. Whenever possible, praise him, thank him, and recognizing him in public, demonstrating his value to you and the congregation. Did I mention to do this not just to him in person but in public? Yeah, I thought so. ๐Ÿ™‚ Really can't overstate the importance and impact of giving public credit and praise to an AP or anyone (staff, elder, volunteer leader, etc.) whom God has used to contribute to advancing the mission of the church.

9. A great lead pastor does not pretend to be Jesus. Seriously. In his earthly ministry, Jesus was perfect. Sinless. Nobody else can make that claim. Not. Even. Close. The best thing you can do for your AP is to be real about your own need to live by grace. Not in the past. But now. Right now. The only way to prove that is be the chief repenter for your family, staff, elders, and congregation. And the only way to be the chief repenter is by abiding in Jesus as your perfect righteousness.

As the apostle Paul famously said to his Assistant Pastor of sorts, Timothy, "โ€‹Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinnersโ€”of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen." (1 Timothy 1:15-17)

If there is one great lesson that a lead pastor needs to teach an AP, it is to believe the gospel when you blow it. Don't make excuses. Don't shift blame. Don't minimize the train wreck. Confess it and own it as you tie and tether yourself to the cross of Jesus, resting in his finished work that now applies to you.

That is what repentance is by the way. Not making promises, but being honest. Taking the blame, and owning the rotten fruit of the flesh. 

The Lead Pastor is not just a sinner in theory but in actual practice. Don't play the hypocrite by trying to whitewash this reality. Rather, make it your aim to boast over and over again in the implications of Jesus's cross... for you.

10. A great lead pastor prepares an AP to become a lead pastor.  While some assistant pastors will serve in that role for years and years, and possibly for their entire ministry, I suspect that most eventually will become Lead Pastors themselves. This means we Leads have a tremendous privilege and opportunity to shape future pastors in the laboratory of real life ministry.

From theological discussion to ministry strategy, leading meetings to making hospital visits, preparing Sunday sermons to officiating weddings and funerals, every aspect of pastoral ministry is an opportunity to share and prepare -- to share your knowledge and experience as you prepare an AP to step into a lead role one day. 

Not all assistants are equally teachable and eager to learn, but my bet is that most are. When you find one hungry to learn, pour and pour and pour. I assure you the blessing will be mutual. 

If you have additional thoughts on how a Lead Pastor can be a blessing for an Assistant, let me know in the comments or on the Facebook link. 

If you are a young(er) pastor, you may be interested in the Timothy Fellowship, a mentoring ministry helping younger guys abide in Jesus as they learn to tie and tether all of life and ministry to the cross.

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