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Thriving under a difficult leadership style

“The only person you have the power to change is you.” You have probably heard this more times than you care to count. I tell my children it is “Dad’s Secret to Life” (please don’t tell them I didn’t come up with it). Our recognition of this truth helps guide our relationships with our spouses, our children, and even the members of the congregations we serve. But I have met many associate pastors who have a great deal of trouble applying it in their relationship with their lead pastor.

  • Can you believe he asked me to…?
  • Do you know that she expects me to…?
  • Doesn’t she understand that is not in my job description, and doesn’t fall in the “at the discretion of the lead pastor” clause (oh, I will have to write a blog about that gem soon)?
  • Doesn’t he understand I’m not here to serve him?

Many lead pastors have spent the majority of their careers as lone rangers, doing it all themselves. They did not have staffs in the smaller churches they served previously, and may have never served on a staff themselves. They have not had the opportunity to develop that skill set. Nor have many sought it out by attending a large church seminar. Some are overwhelmed with the scale on which they are now doing ministry. Some even fight it – they got into ministry to be with people, not to administrate.

I have worked well under the leadership of some lead pastors. The one, early in my career, who saw himself as a mentor to me (were that to happen now, I don’t know if I would have this style in the “worked well” category). I also work well with those who see me as a partner in ministry.

Others have been far more difficult. One I labeled the Critic. He gave me little direction at the outset of a task, but was liberal with the criticism after. Another I call the Commanding Officer. It took me a while to understand that his “advice” was actually an order in his eyes. Missing that caused some friction. I recently spoke with a lead pastor whom I would label a Manager. In his words, he “assigns” tasks to his staff at his weekly staff meeting. A former associate told me about his once-weekly meetings with his lead pastor where he was expected to come in with a pad and pen so that he might receive his to-do list for the week. He experienced that lead pastor as a Dictator.

Remembering that the only person you have the power to change is you, the trick becomes learning to work with your lead pastor and his or her style of leadership when possible. Rather than wishing they were different, or worse yet, attempting to change their leadership style, you need to work on the only person you can – you.

Warning: This does not mean you should compromise yourself, your theology, your ministry, or anything else to keep your job. Nor should you allow yourself to be a victim of an abuser. If you are compromising your integrity or being bullied, you need to consider leaving that ministry position and/or reporting the conduct of the lead pastor to the proper board or agency.

In the non-essentials of a difficult leadership style, there are some things you can do to improve your working relationship. Here are some tricks I learned along the way. If your lead pastor is a:

Critic: Try asking a lot of questions up front to clarify expectations. Get them in writing if at all possible.

Commanding Officer: Hear the orders veiled as suggestions. You need not follow all of them, but if you address them as they are intended, you will improve communication and sync expectations.

Manager: When the manager gives you an assignment that does not fit your call, your skill set, your area of ministry, or something else, you might gently suggest that you are not be the right person for that task and volunteer for another.

Dictator: Sounds like you need to suck it up and do things you would rather not, while polishing up your resume in your down time.

Mentor you didn’t ask for: Try to remember that there is always something to learn in ministry – even if it is from the mentor’s mistakes. Also, take the initiative to ask the mentor to give you a shot at taking tasks completely on your own. A good mentor will want to give you room to spread your wings.

No matter the leadership style of the lead pastor – except abusive, asking you to compromise, or dictatorial – the associate can learn to function under it. The trick is to work with the only person you have the power to change – you. Trying to change your lead pastor or supervisor will quickly lead to frustration and burnout. Rather than fighting it, look for ways to make it work. When one member of a relationship changes, the relationship itself changes.

What styles of leadership have you experienced?

What tricks to thriving or surviving can you share?


  1. […] to that line that has appeared in every job description I have ever had in some form: “…and other duties as determined by the pastor.” At that point I turned to the lead pastor and said with a smile, “Can I trust you with […]

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