I took my first ministry position as associate pastor of a church in Walling, Tennessee, as a stubble-faced 21-year-old. I met my wife in that church, and left from there to obtain a couple of seminary degrees.
My ultimate desire was to be a lead pastor.
That was 16 years ago, and I’m still an associate pastor. Most of my seminary friends long ago put this “number two man” role in their rearview for a lead-pastor position, and after nearly 10 years of schooling and more years of experience, I don’t greet every day with unbridled glee]\[
But I should.
After years of elusively seeking the rare jewel of Christian contentment in my vocation, the Lord graciously exposed some of the sinful roots behind my absence of joy. Three things in particular have often robbed me of joy.
1. Being in the Background
At our church, quite a few logistics go into a new member joining our congregation. The associate pastor schedules teachers for the membership class, emails member candidates a detailed invitation, communicates with those bringing breakfast, and informs the ushers about the class’s locale.
When something’s awry, he’s noticed. Otherwise? Not usually.
After setting up chairs and a white board, the associate pastor painstakingly arranges the schedules of two elders and the membership candidate for an interview. Then he communicates when the congregation will affirm their membership, when new members will sign the church covenant, and a host of other vital details. What, though, does the congregation see on the Sunday that new members join? Although the associate pastor did nearly everything to facilitate this moment, someone else meets them at the front to welcome them to membership.
That’s merely one process (among scores of others) dominating the associate pastor’s life. If he serves primarily with youth or mission responsibilities, details might differ. Characteristics don’t. It’s behind-the-scenes work, akin to being the sound guy. When something’s awry, he’s noticed. Otherwise? Not usually.
2. Serving the Senior Pastor
How might this potentially steal joy? If you’re not careful, while bogged down managing details no one sees, you might become jealous of the one asking you to do them. He gets to do what you want to do. Philippi’s rival preachers don’t own a monopoly on envy.
Envy’s first cousin, anger, has been known to show up at this pity party, too. And the work you carry out daily might be ideas that weren’t yours; they may even be ideas you don’t think are particularly good. Regardless of your persistently brilliant ministry insight, your job dictates spending your days pulling off that supposedly subpar idea.
If you’re not careful, while bogged down managing details no one sees, you might become jealous of the one asking you to do them.
3. Serving the Church
Though you excelled in seminary, can parse Greek pluperfects, and know how to pronounce “pericope,” on Tuesday afternoon you’re often posing as a ministry Swiss Army knife—researching flight itineraries, making copies, running to Kroger because someone failed to restock the coffee, or replacing batteries in the sanctuary clock.
List the things you spent time in seminary preparing to do. And then grab a match.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter if the committee that brought you here listed this or that random task on your job description. Irrelevant. It has to get done.
Those are three joy thieves. But there are also three things that have potential to bring you joy.
1. Serving the Senior Pastor
Maybe you’ve heard the quip, “Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children and no theories.” Many of us became more generous toward parents when we become parents. Actual experience helps us construct proper categories.
A couple years ago, our senior pastor, Phil Newton, was diagnosed with cancer. During four months of serious chemotherapy, the physicians ordered stringent isolation. In that season our elders chose not to add to Phil’s many burdens. Consequently, I functioned as the senior pastor for four months.
In this role, I experienced God’s grace through co-laborers handling endless logistical minutiae so I could focus on the issues Phil generally handled day-to-day. Sitting in his seat briefly affected enduringly the way I think about those mundane tasks. While previously the role of the associate pastor sometimes felt like an evening babysitter, putting out seemingly insignificant fires, I slowly realized the role functioned more like a fullback––the football player who selflessly blocks so another can run.
If “fullback” sounds unappealing, is it because you’re convinced you should have the ball?
2. Serving the Church
Eventually, I learned that it should thrill me when the body asks a bunch of random questions on a Sunday about the copier. Why? It’s entirely possible, at least in the thoughtful church I serve, that someone asked me the question intentionally—they want the preaching pastor focusing on that morning’s exposition.
If you’re an associate pastor, you’re serving the whole church as you serve the lead pastor; and you’re serving the lead pastor as you serve the whole church.
How might this enable joy? Deep joy may be found in playing fullback, enabling the success of another and the good of the team. In those occasionally annoying details, find joy in knowing God cares even about clock batteries. If you’re convinced that joy will elude you until this or that happens––in your vocation or otherwise––be willing to label that what it is: idolatry.
3. Being in the Background
Few aim for second fiddle. Few prefer throwing the lob over the dunk. Almost no one chooses bridesmaid over bride. So, ask yourself what happens in your heart when you consistently put yourself in second place, doing things no one notices for a sustained period. Maybe you’d answer, “I know what that produces: frustration!” Jesus would answer another way: “humility.” Considering others above yourself is exactly what God made you to do.
Considering others above yourself is exactly what God made you to do.
Work in Progress
These mundane tasks and seemingly “second fiddle” roles carry the potential to either steal joy or enable it, depending on whether you’ve been given eyes to see them as God does.
Is it possible you don’t have joy in your role because you don’t actually desire to serve? And is it possible you don’t want to serve because you’ve not stared at the One who came to serve you? That was my problem, and by God’s grace, he’s at work to change me.