Holding down the fort


One of the tasks of the associate is to “hold down the fort” while the lead pastor takes a leave for sabbatical, continuing education, vacation, illness, and the like. This can be a trying time for the associate, and a tricky time to manage. The demands on your time will be many. You will work very hard and will be very glad when the lead pastor returns, and your schedule goes back to normal.

To help mitigate the stress, good preparation done before the lead pastor’s time away (if you know it is coming) and good communication during the lead pastor’s leave, are key. Here are several things to consider:

Clarify expectations upon you. Have a conversation with your lead pastor and/or employment supervisory committee to get some help in evaluating how they think you ought to manage all the lead pastor’s responsibilities in addition to your own. Seek their advice on what you need to do as the associate, and what can wait or can be trusted to lay leadership or other staff members. As I have written elsewhere, unspoken expectations are very difficult to meet, so get as many of them as possible on the table.

This conversation should include general questions like: What responsibilities of the lead pastor do you want me to pick up, and which will be given to other staff and volunteers? It would also be beneficial to ask some specific questions like: Who is going to do hospital visits? What regular committee meetings you need to go to and which can manage on their own?

Share what you will not be able to do. Despite your desire to do everything, you won’t be able to. Be sure to include in this conversation with your lead pastor and/or employment supervisory committee the compromises you will have to make to your own ministry responsibilities. Ask what responsibilities can be passed off to other staff/volunteers, and what you are expected to continue to do.

Prepare your leaders. The leaders in your areas of ministry need to be prepared for this season where your attention will be divided. Train them, as needed, to take on a stronger leadership role. The byproduct of this training is greatly beneficial. For example, one lead pastor’s time away caused me to miss a youth mission trip, which I had negotiated with my employment supervisor committee. My absence on the trip gave volunteers the opportunity to lead without relying on me to make the tough decisions. This caused major growth in their leadership roles, from which I still benefit.

Let those leaders know how appreciative you are of their stepping up to help, and that you will you have their back. Like we like to know we have the support of our lead pastors, your lead pastors want to know if they make a mistake you won’t throw them under the bus, but will work with them and help them improve.

In some cases you should have a conversation with your lead pastor about under what circumstances you ought to interrupt their sabbatical/vacation. I have never interrupted a lead pastor sabbatical, and I think it should be extremely rare, but some pastors will want to know about illnesses, funerals, or decisions that committees make. This is tricky, you don’t want it to sound like you can’t handle whatever comes up, but your lead pastor might also want to make phone calls if an emergency comes up.

Get your vacation on the calendar. I would suggest you schedule it for either right before or after the sabbatical. This will give you either time to prepare or recover, depending upon your rhythm. Get it on the calendar as soon as you can, you will need it.

Support the lead pastor in their time away. Finally, and maybe most importantly, wish the pastor well on his or her time away. Show an interest in her vacation. Ask what he is going to do with his sabbatical. Tell her you want to know more about her continuing education when she returns.

Many lead pastors hear the anxiety of the congregation when they announce an extended time away. They are asked how the congregation will survive while they are gone, how far down the attendance will go, and how giving might decrease. Advocate for this time for the lead pastor publicly and in official meetings. Be on his/her side.

Let your lead pastor also know you are excited about this opportunity for you. Express your gratitude for the trust the lead pastor and employment supervisory committee are putting in you. Exude confidence that all will be well while the lead pastor is away.

It is difficult, but these steps of preparation will help greatly.

If you have other tips, please leave them in the comments below.

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