Alex Shea Will: Leading from the middle

Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio / Matsabe

How associate and senior pastors navigate their relationship can benefit both them and their congregations, an associate pastor writes.

“Thanks, Alex. I know you understand this in a way that [the senior pastor] doesn’t.”

As an associate pastor, I admit that it can feel good to hear such comments. They provide moments of pastoral visibility in a role that is often seen as the “backup minister” -- or worse, the “minister-in-training.”

However, to take the personal compliment without acknowledging the unfair critique of my colleague would be to undermine the critical relationship between senior and associate on which our congregation depends.

To help us maintain a strong relationship in moments like these, my senior colleague and I have built our partnership on a simple philosophy: she treats me as a co-pastor, and I treat her as the senior pastor.

When I was leaving the last congregation I served, I wasn’t looking to continue in associate ministry. I had heard horror stories from my associate pastor colleagues. Their portfolios consisted of items their senior pastors no longer wanted to handle, and they were rarely consulted on matters relating to congregational leadership.

They stayed only long enough to develop bodies of work that would allow them to search for other calls, as solo pastors.

My future colleague, the Rev. Dana Allen Walsh, made it clear while I was in my search that our relationship would be different. She said that my gifts were not threating to her authority but rather complements to her gifts. And most importantly, she promised that she would treat me as a partner.

Five years later, I can tell you that she has kept her promise in obvious and subtle ways. From advocating for me behind the scenes during my contract negotiation to copying me on emails sent only to her by church leadership, she has exceeded her promise to empower my leadership and treat me as a partner.

But if she were simply sharing the leadership role, with no reciprocal work from me, that would be a one-way relationship. There must be a balancing effort from the opposite direction, from associate to senior, to achieve true flourishing.

A few months ago, I asked a member of the congregation to meet with me, because I could tell that something was wrong. When we finally came together to talk, my suspicion was confirmed: the person was upset with a decision my senior colleague had made. In truth, I wasn’t a big fan of the decision either.

It would’ve been easy for me to tell the congregant that I agreed (because I did), or even to take a neutral approach. But the success of the associate-senior relationship depends not only on how Dana shares leadership with me but also on how I support her leadership as senior pastor.

“I’m sorry you’re feeling frustrated,” I told the member. “Can I share a bit more about why we came to this decision?”

Instead of framing the decision as Dana’s, I framed it as ours and shared a few of the points that she had made to me when we’d discussed and debated the issue a few months prior.

The reason our relationship flourishes is not only because Dana shares leadership; it is equally because I know that even if she treats me as a co-pastor, she remains the senior pastor and I must treat her as such.

In interactions with each other or congregants, it is crucial that I support, and even defer to, her leadership. This dynamic balance provides opportunities for both of us to shine without diminishing one another.

Because she empowers me, I am never tempted to make underhanded moves to support my own sense of identity and leadership. And because I defer to and empower her leadership as senior pastor, we both have more freedom to respect the balance of pastoral leadership the congregation has discerned is best.

This is even more important in our staff configuration. While our congregation has a settled female senior pastor -- our first in more than 300 years -- and a male associate pastor, almost 70% of United Church of Christ associate pastors are female, according to the UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Data.

I have a responsibility to lead by example in empowering her in the role of senior pastor within a broader cultural system that diminishes female leadership.

This understanding not only strengthens our partnership; it also has a material effect on our congregation and the ways we serve them.

After a few years of attending monthly board meetings together, Dana and I transitioned to switching off each month with no congregational concerns. While I started out preaching only once a month, we now arrange the preaching schedule freely as needed, because there is a shared trust in our worship leadership.

The foundation we have built allows us to model a Christian working relationship that delights in one another’s gifts and works through disagreements and mistakes with generosity and love. I see the congregation taking authentic pride in having two pastors who genuinely enjoy working with one another.

Before heading to my car to drive home after the meeting in which I was thanked at Dana’s expense, I stopped to respond to the person who had spoken up.

“Thanks for noticing that I care,” I started, “but I want you to know that Dana and I both care about this a lot. If you have any concerns, I know she’d love to talk to you.”