What I Wish I Knew About Moving From An Associate Pastor to a Lead Pastor

One of the challenges for me as a church planter is not knowing what I don’t know.

One of the challenges for me as a church planter is not knowing what I don’t know.  In other words, there are lessons I will only learn by experiencing the process of planting a church.

This is not to say that resources are not helpful – they are actually critical toward the process of planting a church (especially at NewChurches.com).  But often times the truth found in blog posts and podcasts often becomes the most revelatory as I go through the fire of planting a church.

One of the things I did not know or expect when planting a church was how difficult the transition would be from an Associate to a Lead position. Having served as an Associate for ten years at a thriving urban church, I learned a great deal by watching and learning from one of the best senior leaders around. Just months into planting a church I emailed this senior leader to thank him for so many invaluable lessons I learned from him… and to apologize for all the ways I underestimated all that he was carrying.

Here are some of my learnings when I moved from an Associate Pastor to a Lead Pastor (Church Planter):

1. As a Lead Pastor, My Weaknesses and Sinful Tendencies are More Pronounced and More Apparent to Everyone Else.

It’s funny because I don’t think my leadership has changed much from when I was an Associate Pastor.  I think my strengths and weaknesses are the same, and although I may have been able to learn from mistakes in the past, there are still sinful/immature tendencies that emerge in different situations.

The difference now is that everyone seems to notice these sinful/immature tendencies a lot more. And everyone (or so it seems) usually has an opinion about my sinful/immature tendencies too.

Moreover, my sinful/immature tendencies which I did not think were a big deal (e.g. my withdrawal when I’m feeling disappointed, my moodiness that can affect a team when things don’t go my way, my indecisiveness when I’m feeling anxious), actually affect our church leadership and congregation a lot more than I thought it would.

When I was an Associate, I didn’t realize how much of my dark side was “covered” by the love and protection of others in the leadership (our Senior Pastor, Executive Team, and the elder board come to mind).

As a person in the second chair, it was almost as if I could do no wrong (or at least that’s how it felt).

Before planting a church, I remember reading some church planting materials and thinking, “I will be the exception – I will not go through the same heartache when planting an urban church.  After all, people love me now. They’ll love me when I’m a Lead Pastor too.”

Little did I know the rude awakening I was in for.

Being a Lead Pastor (as well as a church planter) has opened me up to more criticism and more awareness of my weaknesses and sinful tendencies than I ever experienced as an Associate Pastor.

2. As a Lead Pastor, I am Forced to be More Responsible Than I Ever Have Before

I’d like to think that I’m a responsible person – that I work hard and that I’m reliable when working on a team. Then I became a Church Planter/Lead Pastor, and I experienced a sense of responsibility that I never quite had before, even though I came from the staff of a large church.

As a Lead Pastor, if something is done/said/unsaid/written/unwritten/etc, I ultimately carry the responsibility.  Meetings cannot start if I’m not there to lead them, and I never realized how different it feels to be late for a meeting when I’m the Lead person, as opposed to an Associate.

As an Associate, I could have an “off” day without disrupting things too much. As a Lead Pastor, when I have an “off” day, everyone feels it a bit more. As an Associate, it was so much easier to point out the faults of the Lead person. When I became the Lead person, it became hard to receive comments about my faults when I kept thinking, “but I’m working so hard!”  And I’m working so hard because I feel so responsible.

Ultimately, as a Lead Pastor, I have the greatest influence on our church’s culture by what I say and do (or don’t say and don’t do) – for good or bad – than any other person in the church.

Helpful Next Steps If You’re Moving from an Associate to a Church Planter/Lead Pastor Position

As you can see from the above, personal integrity and emotional health becomes much more paramount as a Lead Pastor.

One of the best books I’ve read on the topic is Emotionally Healthy Leader by Pete Scazzero.  Scazzero writes earnestly of the need for Pastors to develop an inner life that can sustain the pressures of ministry, and these pressures only intensify in church planting and senior leadership.

My prayer is that new church planters will examine their inner lives and emotional health before the intense pressures of church planting/senior leadership come upon them.

Published January 26, 2016

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