4 Ways to Be a Great Assistant Pastor

While I have been a lead pastor for almost fifteen years (a church planter for the past ten), my first ten years out of seminary were spent serving as an assistant pastor in churches ranging from under 200 to over 2,000 members. 

While I loved my seminary experience and learned a great deal about the Bible, theology, preaching, and other aspects of practical, pastoral ministry, I do not remember a focus on how to thrive as an assistant pastor. 

Most of the guys I knew were on a track to be pastors, as in lead pastors. Or campus pastors.  

However, most of us graduated with jobs as assistant pastors. Yeah, we'd have the opportunity to preach, and some of us regularly. But we were not given the keys to the car just yet. 

Those AP days can feel like having a driver's permit, where there are still siginificant restrictions imposed and boundaries established on just how far you can go in exercizing and developing your driving skills.

Or preaching skills. Or leadership skills.

Those assistant pastor limitations can prove to be a bit frustrating for those of us who think we are ready to drive the bus. More on this later.

Now, some of us are content to serve as assistant pastors, fulfilling a niche ministry in the local church, whether in youth discipleship, outreach and assimilation, leadership development, administration, etc. I want to commend you and fully validate your calling! As a preacher/leader, I am so grateful for men who come alongside to serve in these niche roles, which make it possible for me to focus on my own role on the team.

And that is what pastoral leadership is. It is not a solo enterprise but involves leading a team, whether the other leaders are in ordained ministry or not.  

If you are an assistant pastor, you are on that team. Your job is not to lead the team but to contribute to the team by using your gifts in such a way that moves the ball down the field to the goal. When we forget our role on the team, it is easy to get frustrated, disillusioned, angry, bitter, and even lose heart completely. 

But I want you to thrive as an assistant pastor, whether you are in that position for one year or ten or more.

If you find yourself sending your MDF ("Ministerial Data Form") to all the churches in the denomination looking for senior pastors, tap the brakes. It is totally cool to take that step. I did. But there are some vital lessons you need to consider that I wish I'd known before I made my move into the rank of lead pastor. 

Essentially, I wish I'd given more attention to being a great assistant pastor. If I had, my transition to lead pastor may have been much smoother and more effective. 

My conviction is that being a great assistant is not only a blessing for the church served, it is necessary for the development of the future lead pastor. 

What does assistant pastor greatness look like? Here are 4 key characteristics. 

1) A great assistant pastor embraces, supports, and promotes the already established mission, vision, values, and philosophy of ministry of the church, including the style of worship and method of preaching.

The greatest source of assistant pastor frustration may be serving in a church where the AP finds himself wanting to change everything from the music on Sundays to how the staff meeting is run.

Now, there are always areas of ministry that are in need of improvement and development. That is one reason the assistant has been hired - to develop and improve various areas of ministry. 

However, a problem arises when an internal conflict begins to fester between the assistant's vision and the DNA of the church. Rather than improve the ministry, the AP wants to reinvent the ministry.

What happens next is not pretty. As the assistant's frustrations grow, he begins to share his concerns with his wife. He then confides in a couple close associates in the ministry who have come to trust him. This may include folks in leadership. Before long, the poison of complaint spreads, creating disunity and eventual division, undermining the mission and vision of the church.

In order to avoid such a disastrous scenario, my suggestion is that a pastoral candidate do a great deal of due diligence before accepting a call to a particular church. Can you go there without changing anything? If you can't, don't go. Remember, you are not being called to Captain the ship. That is the lead pastor's job description.

You are there to assist. Not to lead. 

Hard words? Maybe. But necessary.

If you can't embrace the already established mission, vision, values, and philosophy of ministry of the church, you should not accept the call, or else you will find yourself frustrated and an agent of strife rather than an agent of blessing in the life of the church.

Of course, the source of strife caused by an over zealous assistant is rooted in pride, thinking that he knows more than he actually does. This is a common besetting sin for younger pastors. I know because I have been that "know it all" AP. Ugh. 

But for you, there is time to pursue assistant pastor greatness by embracing, supporting, and promoting the the already established mission, vision, values, and philosophy of ministry of the church where you serve.

2) A great assistant pastor works really, really hard.

I do not mean that he overworks. You may read a post about my desire for pastors to pursue plenty of rest and renewal here.  

Here is what I mean.

An assistant pastor may have aspirations of being a senior pastor one day, and maybe sooner than later. Rather than giving himself 100% to his present ministry, he will do just enough to get by while day dreaming about when he really gets to make a difference. He is just biding his time, getting paid to plan ahead.

Of course, there are some of us who are just lazy and find the role of assistant pastor an easy way to hide from having to do the "buck stops here" job of the senior pastor. 

Whatever would cause you to not work really hard as an assistant, I want to encourage you with this. Your job is important and is making a difference. You are not only developing patterns for future ministry in how you schedule your time and the level of excellence you pursue in your work, but you have been given a ministry by the Lord as a gift. 

I fear that too many of us think of ourselves as gifts to the churches we serve rather than the church being a gift to us as a place to learn and grow as we "cut our teeth" in ordained ministry. 

The challenge with working hard as an assistant is that, for many in vocational ministry, we get to set our own hours (unless you work at a larger church that has visible office hour requirements). It can be easy to sleep in, arriving to the office in the later morning, just in time to head out for lunch. Then you may get a couple of hours in before heading out at 3:30 for a workout at the gym so that you can beat the after work crowds. 

I am all about pastoral lunches to connect with folks, and having a flexible schdule where we can exercize and be present for our kids' sporting and school events. 

Yet the critique I hear from a number of lead pastors is that rather than working hard, their assistant pastors are hardly working. The result is that an AP's under work creates extra work for the lead pastor and other leaders.

If your lead pastor has to wonder what you are doing with your time and what ministry is being developed and improved, you may be under-working. Just like a farmer, there should be some produce to show for your labor.

A great assistant pastor is one who works so hard and is so productive that, rather than making sure he is working enough, the lead pastor will have to make sure the AP is resting enough. 

3) A great assistant pastor is a lead pastor's biggest supporter and advocate.

When an assistant takes a position on a church staff, one thing he is saying is, "I will follow the leadership of the senior pastor, being his biggest supporter and advocate." 

This is not the same thing as being a "yes man" who blindly follows and robotically salutes. An AP should have the freedom to question decisions and raise concerns to the lead pastor. But to the lead pastor. Not in front of the congregation, and especially not behind his back.

Having a supportive advocate in ministry such as an assistant pastor is a tremendous blessing for a senior leader. Pastoral leadership can be a lonely job at times, only really understood by those in the trenches of front line pastoral work.  

In order to be this kind of great assistant pastor, an AP needs to be convinced that there are light years between the role of lead and assistant pastor. If the assistant doesn't know this, rather than being a supporter and advocate, he may become the lead pastor's biggest critic, thinking that he could do a better job if only he were senior pastor.

I can assure you from personal experience that, while the two pastors may work closely, there is very little similarity in the degree of responsibility, stress, and emotional weight carried in the respective roles. 

This is not to undervalue the role of the assistant. Not at all! It really is an issue of degree, not significance, value, or worth. 

The distinction is simply to acknowledge how different the positions are so that the assistant will protect his heart from the lies of the flesh. To put it in an analogy, to be an assistant you need a driver's license. But to lead, you need a CDL.

If I had known how different the "emotional feel" is between assistant and lead pastor, I would have had much more empathy and give much more support to the men under whom I have served as an assistant.

Oh, to know then what I know now. 

Those experienced in pastoral ministry know that when someone has a complaint against the lead pastor, they don't go to the lead pastor. They approach the assistant, hoping to channel their frustrations through the younger leader who just may be looking for someone to stroke his ego.

They may say something like, "If only you were the senior pastor. Then things would change. We'd have better preaching, more effective outreach, better team management, and a brighter future." 

When an assistant starts to believe that press, thinking that he could do a better job than the present lead pastor, not having been in that position, a dangerous line has been crossed.  He has been infected with a deadly hubris and, unless he is prepared to confess and repent, as well as advocate for the lead pastor to any co-insurgents, it is time for the assistant to leave for the good of everyone involved.

But you are reading this because you want to be a great assistant pastor. As we learn from Jesus words and example, true greatness is true humility. It is the humility of an assistant, in crucifying the lies of the flesh and being the lead's biggest supporter that makes him great.

4) When it comes time to leave, a great assistant pastor's area of ministry focus is stronger and healthier than when he started the position.

An assistant pastor should want to be missed when he leaves for a new ministry. Not just because of the personal friendships that were established but because of how much value he added to the ministry.

A great AP's shoes should not be easy to fill.

Don't hear what I am not saying. It is possible that a desire to leave a big hole could be driven by a self-inflated ego that works with the motive of self-glory, using ministry as a stepping stone toward greater things.

"Look what I did."

That is not the point. At all.

The point is to work at whatever you do as unto the Lord, for you ultimately are not just serving a lead pastor or a congregation. You are serving Jesus. 

Is the church perfect? No. Is it what you would design if planting a church yourself? Probably not. 

However, it is Christ's church, the body for which he gave his life. He now has given you a role in helping to shepherd that congregation in view of the cross and helping to develop your ministry area as a means to fulfilling the overarching mission of the church. 

What a privilege! What an opportunity to learn and grow! What a gift to you as a sinner saved by grace!

In 2 Corinthians 4:1, Paul writes, "Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart."

The context of that statement is his ministry of revealing the glory of God's grace in Jesus. Paul was a sinner who deserved the misery of judgement, not a ministry of mercy. For him, contrasting what he deserved with he had been given was nothing less than a staggering gift.

I think that viewing my ministry as a gift will foster a church culture where we realize that there really are not any great assistant or lead pastors. There is only a great Savior, our true senior pastor, Jesus.

By the way, in a follow up post, I'll be describing ideas for how a lead pastor can shepherd his assistant with wisdom, grace, patience, and encouragement. UPDATE: Read that post here

What characteristics do you consider important for faithful assistant pastors.  What do you look for when hiring an AP? How can lead pastors best mentor assistants into men who learn and grow and are empowered to take the next step of pastoral leadership in the church? 

I'd love your input and feedback.

By the way, if you are a younger/assistant pastor who would like to be mentored in gospel-centered life and ministry, you may be interested in the Timothy Fellowship