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The Importance of the First Senior Pastor

By Ben Kaufman

When executives were asked to name individuals who left a vivid and lasting mark on them, 90 percent of the people named were organizational superiors or bosses.1 I asked a number of Christian leaders to name the most significant event or person that shaped their ministry. Many leaders stated that the most significant person was the first senior pastor under whom they had worked as an associate pastor. Other senior pastors with whom the leaders worked were also mentioned, but not as often as the first pastor they served as an associate. One’s senior pastor, especially the first one, plays a key role in an associate’s development.

Why do leaders point to the first senior pastor as having a profound influence upon them? What are the lessons that associates learn from their senior pastor? I reviewed my experiences with senior leaders and integrated them with the lessons cited by the leaders I interviewed. Following are just some ofthe lessons learned from senior leaders.

Leadership Values

It is one thing to hear about trust, integrity, and ethics, but another thing to actually see how they play out in everyday church life. From their superiors leaders learn how they can develop (and destroy) trust. One leader spoke of his boss, saying, “I’ve learned from him what it means to be a servant leader. His top two priorities are (1) to return all calls, and (2) to have an open door to his office so you can talk to him. He is not event or program oriented, he is people oriented.”

Leaders also learn the value and fine points ofprofessional conduct and ministerial ethics. One leader commented that he learned not to get angry with his people. His senior pastor warned him that the congregation will forgive many faults of the pastor, but they find it hard to forgive him when he displays his anger toward them.

Ministry Tone

Bytone I am referring to the attitude of the senior leader toward other people, including staff and church members. On a continuum the ministry tones of respect, compassion, and forgiveness would be at one end, while the tones of mistrust and cynicism would be at the other end. Some leaders express their deep concern for their people when they are with them, but default to cynical and sarcastic statements about their people when talking with fellow ministers. It is disturbing to listen to a minister who has sold out to cynicism. There are leaders who have never been able to shake the cynical tone they acquired from their first senior pastor.

Other associates learned about respect from their first senior pastor. I recall an experience I had about 10 years ago. I was sitting on the church platform when I saw a short exchange between the senior pastor and music minister. The music minister had just finished leading the people in worship. He stepped back from the pulpit to return to his seat on the platform. As the senior pastor moved toward the pulpit, he passed the music minister, caught his attention, and whispered to him, “Great job, John.” That exchange spoke volumes. I personally knew this pastor. I knew that through his long tenure at the church he had set a tone of mutual respect among the staff pastors.

What Leaders Are Like

Every leader is unique. Leaders learn from their superiors that there is variety among successful leaders. One leader’s strength is outstanding preaching, another’s is exceptional administration, and yet another’s strength is being a loving shepherd of the flock. God uses the leader’s abilities and gifts to build His church.

There is an advantage to working with more than one senior pastor. Those who have worked as an associate in several churches and served several senior pastors have witnessed the amazing variety in gifts and leadership style of God’s servants. They have avoided the myopic view that effective ministry is limited to one leadership style or one kind of personality. God uses a variety of people. This perspective offers hope to the associate as he looks toward his own future in the ministry.

Priorities

One former associate described a senior pastor who knew how to avoid majoring in minors. He said that even when the congregation would push the pastor to major in minors, the pastor would prioritize the issues and concentrate on what really mattered. Another leader reflected on his intense desire through the years to see the supernatural at work in his ministry. This desire, he notes, was caught from a senior pastor under whom he worked. Other senior leaders passed along a passion for preaching, mothering other churches, or altar ministry. Such passions became priorities in the associates’ ministries.

The Use of Politics and Power

Leaders learn from senior leaders how to get things accomplished. They learn about influence and power struggles in the church. Hopefully they learn how a leader can deal with the political side of ministry in a Christ-glorifying manner. This learning is especially significant because this subject receives little attention in Bible college curriculum and Christian literature. Someone has said that discussing the subject of church politics and power in Christian circles is more taboo than the subject of sex. With little other information available, what the associate learns about church power and politics from the senior leader takes on greater importance.

The Value of Accountability

Leaders learn from their senior leaders the value of being accountable to others. The accountability may be in the context of a denomination or ministerial accountability group, but the greatest lessons learned are how to be accountable to the official board and congregation. One of the greatest gifts a senior pastor can give to an associate is to model a positive relationship with members of the church board. Those positive lessons will help the associate rise above one of the most common reasons for leader derailment — continual and corrosive conflict with the board. In contrast to the benefits of a healthy accountability, some leaders learned from their senior leader that evading accountability often leads to isolation, discipline, and derailment.

Specialized Knowledge

Senior leaders have pockets of specialized knowledge that often are displayed only in the context of a relationship with a younger leader. One leader shared the following: “The first pastor I worked under as an associate was also a denominational presbyter, head of the district finance committee, and head of several other committees. He would include me in discussions of these matters without divulging confidential information. I learned about district leadership from him.”

What Not to Do

Many of the leaders related not only what they learned to do, but also what they learned not to do. Many of these lessons became pivotal experiences where the associate determined that he would be different from the senior leader. For example, one former associate described a pastor with whom he worked. The associate’s tenure lasted 5 years, but not once did the senior pastor call or conduct a staff meeting. The former associate stated, “What the senior pastor would call a staff meeting was a 5-minute discussion that occurred when he, the youth pastor, and I would accidentally meet at the drinking fountain.” As a result of this pivotal experience the young leader determined that people, and specifically staff, would always occupy an important place in his ministry.

Not all associates learned the lessons that were offered by the senior leader. The lessons that are learned depend just as much on the learning appetite of the associate as on the wisdom reservoir of the senior leader. The proverb says, “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out” (Proverbs 20:5).

Senior leaders vary in their ability to teach associates. The best leaders-as-teachers are those who do three things: First, they make themselves available to associates. They spend time with them and mentor them. Mentoring has been described as the third most powerful relationship for influencing human behavior, after marriage and the extended family.”2 Mentoring can occur through pre-arranged teaching sessions or discussions over a white chocolate mocha.

Second, good senior leaders challenge associates with high standards. Character development is taken seriously. Integrity is required. The ministry is not taken lightly. The bar is set high. Senior leaders challenge the associates toward excellence in their preaching, administration, and family life. One senior pastor requires that associates spend time away from the church and with their families at least four nights per week.

Finally, the best leaders-as-teachers make the whole relationship a developmental experience. They regard themselves as stewards of the associates that God has entrusted to them. They realize that they are passing on a whole set of values and passions to the associate. They understand that the associate will catch just as many lessons from the leader as he will deliberately learn. Therefore, the senior leader takes seriously the role of teacher. One missionary remarked that the first senior pastor under whom he served was instrumental in directing a large percentage of his associates toward the mission field. Many had, in fact, become missionaries.

A key part in making the relationship a developmental experience is allowing the associate to attempt new tasks and make important decisions. Such experiences push the associate to grow and stretch. The Indians have a saying, “Nothing grows under a banyan tree.” Often the shadow of strong leaders is so large that the associates under them are not allowed to grow.

One mistake of leaders is neglecting to delegate. Hanz Finzel wrote the modern beatitude, “Blessed are the control freaks, for they shall inhibit the earth.”3 Leaders who see their relationship with an associate as a developmental experience are willing to delegate important tasks to a trustworthy associate. Several former associates appreciated that their first senior pastor allowed them to do their jobs without micromanaging them. The pastors held the associates accountable but nevertheless allowed them to do the work without telling them how to do it.

At the beginning of this article I mentioned that I had interviewed many leaders and asked them to respond to the following: “Think of the events, processes, people, and resources that have influenced you as a leader. Name the three that have influenced you the most.”

The leaders’ responses included books they had read and difficult experiences that God had taken them through. What struck me was that relationships, not events and resources, dominated the top three influences on those leaders. It is no surprise. Though we can learn much from books and events, relationships are unique. In relationships we look eye to eye, we risk being hurt or hurting, and we are confronted with another’s pain and pleasure.

Jesus Christ could have sent a message to us in written form describing how much God loved us. Instead, He chose to visit earth miraculously as flesh and blood. His life lived through us speaks of the enduring effect of relationship. One of the most consequential relationships is that of the senior pastor and the associate. Through the associate the values and passions of the senior leader endure and bear fruit.

Ben Kaufman, Leadership Development Ministries, Foothill Ranch, California

Endnotes

1. McCall, W., Lombardo, M., & Morrison, A. (1988). The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job, New York, NY: The Free Press, p. 68.

2 Johnson, E. “How to be an effective mentor,” in Leadership Journal Spring 2000, p. 36.

3. Finzel, H. (1997). “Creating the right leadership cultur,.” In Barna, G. (Ed.), Leaders on Leadership: Wisdom, Advice, and Encouragement on the Art of Leading God’s People Ventura, CA: Regal Books, p. 272.

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