During my third year in my first parish—a sole pastorate in a dual parish in North Dakota—I received a Call to serve as an associate pastor in a large congregation. This was totally new ground for me. I’d received a wonderful education to prepare me to be a parish pastor. However, this training was focused on serving as a sole pastor in a single-congregation parish, and neither my first parish nor my second fit this description. This is not the seminary’s fault, of course. With only so much time and with so many required courses, there are only so many possibilities for which the seminary can prepare prospective pastors. It’s much better to prepare these men for what they are most likely to face.
This was not only new ground for me. The congregation which extended this Call to me had been a sole-pastorate for most of its history with a few very brief jaunts into team ministry. About 5 years before I arrived, the congregation Called a second pastor for the first time in 30 years, and that team ministry was marked by conflict. I arrived over a year after the initial senior pastor retired. A year after I arrived, the congregation decided to extend a Call to a third pastor. In the space of two years—or 6 years, depending on how you look at it—the congregation moved from a sole-pastor arrangement to a team of three, and nobody set out to define their roles beforehand. This team ministry was marred by conflict, and all three pastors have since departed.
While it is a new idea in many congregations, team ministry itself is not a novelty or a recent innovation. It has been a reality in the Christian Church from the very beginning. The Lord Himself chose twelve men (Mk 3:14-19), and these twelve men became a team to continue His work. When He sent out the seventy (Lk 10), He sent them out in pairs. To aid them in the task of ministering to the widows (Acts 6), the Apostles chose a team of seven deacons.
We also see in Scripture how the team dynamic can be strained and can ultimately fail. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss (Mk 14:45). When Paul and Barnabas disagreed about John Mark, another member of their team (Acts 15:35-40), they split up, and Paul continued on with Silas.
When I received the Call to serve in a team ministry, I had no idea where to begin or what questions to ask. As students we are all taught general guidelines for considering the Divine Call. However, considering the Call to multi-staff parish ministry is a more complex matter. It’s not merely a question of assessing one’s fit in a particular congregation. One must also consider the other personalities on the staff and discern whether or not one fits in with those personalities. Here is a list of areas one should contemplate when deliberating the Call to a multi-staff parish:
1. Staff Personalities: Talk extensively with the other members of the staff, especially the pastoral staff. Get to know them as well as you can as you consider the Call. Are they the kind of people you can work with? Are they the kind of people with whom you and your wife can get along? Are you theologically and doctrinally similar? (In other words, does everyone on the staff believe in Jesus?)
2. Your Specific Areas of Responsibility: Check your "job description". If the congregation doesn't have any descriptions, ask that they try to provide one for you beyond the Call documents, which can be rather nebulous. You need to know exactly what they expect of you, and sometimes that goes deeper than Call documents. For example, your Call documents may say that the congregation wants you to focus your attention on the youth. How committed are they to the youth? Do they really want a youth group? The same goes for whatever else may be in your Call documents. Make sure the congregation really wants what they say they want. It’s very disconcerting to arrive at a congregation and realize that you’re there under false pretenses.
3. Staff Responsibilities and Overlap: Check "job descriptions" again, this time for all the members of the multi-staff parish. Look at what the other members of the staff are expected to do. Where do their areas of responsibility cross your areas of responsibility? Who takes charge when these areas cross? Are you merely the low man on the totem pole, or will they respect your experience and expertise? The proper division of labor can make or break staff interaction and effectiveness. The congregation that desires to move toward multi-staff ministry but does not break down the responsibilities of each member of the staff is asking for trouble.
4. Conflict: Will your fellow pastors discuss disagreements in private, or will they voice those differences in the presence of parishioners? When there is conflict, does the rest of the staff promise to abide by Matthew 18? How does the congregation handle conflict? Does the congregation have a history of calling the District President or Circuit Counselor without speaking to the pastors when complaints arise? Do the other pastors have that history?
5. Lay Leadership Interaction and Selection: What kind of support will you have from the laity? Are the elders appointed by the Senior Pastor? What kind of voice do you have in the process of selecting officers? Are you part of the nominating committee, or is that solely the domain of the Senior Pastor? How active is the laity? How important are the lay leaders in the life of this particular congregation?
6. General Areas of Responsibility: Are you an “associate” pastor or an “assistant” pastor? It makes a difference in the eyes of Synod and District and Circuit, and it may make a difference in the eyes of the Senior Pastor and congregation. What kind of participation will you have in Word and Sacrament? How often will you lead the liturgy? How often will you preach? How often will you celebrate the Eucharist? How are the shut-ins divided? In other words, are you a pastor, or are you a glorified Director of Christian Education or vicar?
7. Office Matters: Talk to the church secretary or secretaries. Are they friends with the pastors? Do they gossip about confidential matters? Can you work with them? Do the other pastors gossip to the secretaries? Will the other pastors use the secretaries to play the pastors off against each other? Are you going to be the de facto secretary when the church secretary goes on vacation?
8. Three Pastors: Another important factor to consider is the triangle of conflict. When a congregation has (or seeks to have) three pastors on staff, a natural two-on-one division occurs when it comes to conflict. It may not always be the same two uniting against one, but remaining neutral is seldom possible when tensions are running high. Rare is the congregation that operates smoothly with three pastors. Having more or less pastors doesn’t eliminate conflict, but having three pastors almost always promotes conflict.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of matters to consider when contemplating a Call to multi-staff parish ministry. However, a pastor does his prospective congregation, his fellow pastors, his family, and himself no favors if he doesn’t ask some questions before he wades into the fray. Multi-staff parish ministry can be a complicated matter, and, like any relationship, team ministry can fail and fall apart. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a pastor can avoid all sorts of pitfalls if he contemplates thoughtfully and prayerfully before accepting a Call to serve in a congregation with more than one pastor.