Associate Pastors: The Challenges of Being in the Middle

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The Challenges of Being in the Middle

from Associate Pastors: Ministry from the Middle
by Michael Matthew Mauriello

Summary of the Study

Now remember, the associate pastors who participated in the study came from churches that were of more than one hundred regular participants and less than 1,750; they can see the top, the middle, and the bottom of the organization. The findings can be summarized by one essential word: “pinched.” What does that “pinchedness” look like? The following diagram was composed from the themes and findings from my interviews with the twenty-five associate pastors. While other authors have already written about the roles associate pastors have with other organizational stakeholders,[1] this study describes how associate pastors see the interconnections in their congregational relationships. These interconnections are visualized in Figure I-1 below.

Notice some important features of this figure. First, associate pastors saw themselves as clearly at the center of all of the relationships in their churches. Second, while associate pastors have one-on-one relationships with the other participants described in the chart, these relationships are not purely linear; the constituents are networked in a web of relationships. The relationship with key volunteers, as we will see, turned out to be just as challenging and formative to the associate pastor’s role as that of the senior pastor. Third, the associate pastors are triangled, or “pinched,” between different groups. This set of relationships presents both challenges and opportunities for associate pastors in their unique roles.

Figure I-1: The Pinched Associate Pastor

It is important to keep in mind that these diagrams are not organizational charts, but rather a description of how associate pastors perceive that they relate to other constituents in their churches. They demonstrate that describing associate pastor relationships as purely linear command-and-control relationships does not account for the complexity of how an associate pastor experiences the day-to-day relationships of his or her congregation.

The diagram presented above is not the only way associate pastors described their congregations. Depending on the church’s governing structure, associate pastors could find themselves in a differing set of pinched relationships, depending on the polity of the church (cf. Figure 5-5 or 7-2).

What were the implications of the study? If associate pastors are inherently in the middle of their congregations, what is it imperative that they know and understand about their congregations? Here are the five major takeaways that I will discuss in subsequent chapters:

  1. Navigating Anxious Relational Triangles: Psychologist Michael Bowen described anxiety as the crucial emotion that human beings experience and must take into account when interacting with others in their families, communities, and organizations. Much has already been written about the Bowen triangle; I will take that research and apply it to this study in chapters 2 and 8.
  2. Negotiating Political Interests: Many new pastors are shocked to discover that congregations are political communities, with different constituents attempting to act on their concerns and Yet associate pastors need not be afraid of political organizations; humans are political beings and church members can engage in sanctified politics to the glory of God. Associate pastors play a crucial role in the political activities of their congregations; they must learn to negotiate their interests and the interests of others in a godly way.
  3. Stewarding Agency: The task of ministry does not fall to pastors alone, but to the entire Associate pastors realize the power and gifting that those above and below them have to accomplish the work of their congregations. Associate pastors must therefore be prepared to help others succeed by stewarding the agency of all the congregational participants in their churches.
  4. Directing Learning: Associate pastors are often the educational workhorses of their churches who organize their own learning and the learning of the entire congregation, often attempting to align it with the goals or mission of the Associate pastors direct knowledge throughout the organization and train others to do the work of ministry, while keeping leaders aligned to followers.
  5. Practicing Followership: As noted previously, the associate pastor’s relationship with the senior pastor is very Followership is the study and practice of following leaders well. Associate pastors sometimes face particularly challenging problems in followership that they must mitigate from the middle.


Management is clearly as pastoral a practice as preaching, administering the Lord’s Supper or baptism, providing pastoral counsel, or visiting the sick, among others. Yet in many pastors’ minds, it’s the ugly stepsister of those other pastoral practices. Associate pastors must rescue this practice in their own minds and step into the role of managing. Shepherding, a biblical metaphor for pastoring, provides a superb image for managing and the pastoral task.

In suggesting these implications, I want to be clear then that managing in a congregation is not primarily about preparing budgets, tracking calendars, publishing newsletters or bulletins or reports, posting social media items, or ordering curriculum and other supplies. I am suggesting that managing in a congregation is primarily about shepherding relationships in a Christ-honoring manner so that ministry moves through the entire congregational structure. My central claim is that the most important skill associate pastors require is the ability to navigate complicated relationships and to understand the navigation of these relationships as a pastoral practice. By mastering the ability to navigate complicated relationships, associate pastors can become stewards of ambiguity in their congregations.

Some Thoughts for Other Readers

While I am primarily writing for associate pastors, it is my hope that senior pastors might read this book—especially if they are thinking of hiring their church’s first associate pastor, if they have never had an associate pastor of any kind report to them before, or if they are finding themselves struggling to understand the tensions faced by their associate pastoral staff. If you are a senior pastor, let me please say a few words to you.

I understand that ministry and staff relationships for senior pastors are complicated as well. While my research didn’t examine how senior pastors experience middleness, I am sure that you experience a kind of pinching all your own, though I think it is a safe assumption to think that the form of middleness you experience may take on different dimensions and have different implications than it does for the associates you currently or will oversee on your pastoral staff.

Nonetheless, I hope that this book casts light on some of the pressures and tensions that associate pastors face. Please pay attention to the various relational dynamics that associate pastors have with their senior pastors, and the complicated relationships they have with other constituents that make their ministries troubling or energizing. By knowing these things, I hope it will become more possible for you to facilitate the agency of your own staff.

It is also my hope that theological educators in seminaries and other Christian higher education organizations will read this book. If you are a ministry professor or trainer, I hope you will see that the pivotal skill of navigating complex relationships is underdeveloped in many future associate pastors by the time they graduate from theological education. I know that seminary cannot possibly train and equip a future pastor for every necessary skill, but I think back to what my professor said on the first day of class in seminary: “You need to be prepared for your first job.” Surely there is a better way of helping associate pastors master this skill than leaving it to “on-the- job-training.” It is my hope that this book provides a critical glimpse into the heart of associate ministry and that it gives you some grist for thinking through the curriculum of the seminary. I will offer some suggestions in the Afterword.

If you are an unpaid or paid ministry director—whether part-time, full-time, or part-time bivocational associate pastor, I hope you will read this book too. I think you will find many of the descriptions and implications are transferable to your situation, even if you’ve never been to seminary or haven’t gone through the process of being ordained.

Lastly, if you are in seminary, earning a theological degree, or preparing for ministry, I hope you will read this book as well. It is my hope that this book will expose you to the blessings and challenges of being an associate pastor, and that it will help you channel your passion for biblical and theological knowledge in the direction such knowledge is always meant to travel: toward loving God by loving his people well.

[1] Radcliffe, The Effective Ministry of an Associate Pastor.

This post is adapted from Associate Pastors: Ministry from the Middle by Michael Matthew Mauriello, scheduled to release July 12, 2022. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Rather than simply leading or following, why not consider stewarding?

Associate pastors of all kinds–whether assigned to children, youth, worship, adult, or outreach–are often caught in the middle of complicated relationships in their congregations. It’s an emotionally taxing and organizationally confusing position. In Associate Pastors, Michael Matthew Mauriello demonstrates how associate pastors can harness the ambiguity that accompanies their role in ways that can mutually benefit church members and other pastoral staff.

The heart of Associate Pastors comes from personal interviews with twenty-five associate pastors in small-to-medium-sized churches who have served in pastoral ministry positions for more than ten years. Their shared experiences demonstrate the unique social and spiritual dynamics of the associate pastor role and suggest great promise for those willing to approach their calling with creativity and care. Specifically, when associate pastors facilitate of learning within their congregations, they confer benefits on church leadership and laypeople alike.

Given that most pastoral students have limited preparation for the responsibilities associate pastors shoulder, Associate Pastors is an ideal textbook for Bible colleges and seminaries. Those studying for the pastorate and those already serving in associate pastor roles will find encouragement and a new vision for blessing the church.


About Author

Michael Matthew Mauriello (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry at LeTourneau University and the Director of Church Relations, Training, and Assessment at the Passage Institute for Youth and Theology, a one-year discipleship program for high school students. He has over ten years of experience as an associate pastor in EFCA churches.

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