Things to consider when the associate pastor is interested in the open senior pastor position 

When the senior pastor of a multi-minister congregation departs, it is natural for the associate pastor to consider applying for the open position and for the congregation to ask if the associate can shift into the senior ministry role. Here are some reflection points to mull when these questions arise.

What do denominational guidelines and congregational by-laws have to say? Sometimes churches are expressly forbidden by external or internal policies from considering the associate pastor for the senior pastor position. If that’s the case, let the associate pastor know that the search team is aware of this rule and re-affirm the associate’s gifts for ministry and importance to the congregation. Reiterate these messages as needed with people in the church. If it is permissible for the associate pastor to apply, however, read on.

What is the associate pastor’s sense of call in this situation? Does the associate pastor feel tugged to change ministry roles, or is the associate living into the fullness of God’s call in the current role? Ask before assuming.

About what would we need to be forthright with the associate pastor and with other candidates? When the associate pastor becomes a candidate for the senior pastor position, the applicant pool becomes unbalanced. The search team members know the associate pastor’s work to a degree they could never know that of other candidates. The associate pastor has presumably ministered to them or their loved ones in a way that inspires strong feelings. These connections put the associate pastor at a distinct advantage (or sometimes disadvantage) as compared to other candidates. 

How does the associate pastor’s skill set align with the one needed for the senior pastor position? Sometimes associate ministry is practically an apprenticeship, preparing the associate well for a senior pastor role. In other settings associate ministry is very specialized, meaning a good-fit pastor for that role would not be a great match for a head of staff position.

What are the potential complications for all the parties involved?

  • For the associate pastor. If the associate pastor is called as senior pastor, there will need to be intentional conversations around how expectations clergy and congregation have of one another should shift. Otherwise, confusion could lead to a breakdown of trust. If the associate pastor is not called as senior pastor, hurt feelings could result.
  • For other candidates. As mentioned above, other candidates will likely be at a disadvantage in the search process. If they know the associate pastor is being considered, they might not invest as much of themselves in your search. If they don’t know the associate pastor is being considered and find out late in the process, they might feel like the search team has not been honest with them.
  • For the search team’s clarity and fairness. It is difficult to consider fully other candidates when the search team believes there is a perfectly acceptable one – whether or not that person is the best fit – already in their midst.
  • For the congregation. If the associate pastor is called as senior pastor, that person will already have detractors in the congregation. (No minister is universally loved.) If the associate pastor is not called, there might be hurt feelings among the associate’s advocates in the church.

How best can we tune into the Holy Spirit’s guidance in this situation? As much as discernment on all sides is necessary under normal search conditions, it is even more imperative when the associate pastor applies. Go slowly, listen deeply, and stay curious.