First Year as Co-Pastors: How’s It Going?

Benediction at our Installation Service

Benediction at our Installation Service

A year has passed since this picture was taken. I look at myself in this picture who is still an associate pastor and see a person who has no clue what lies ahead of her as a co-pastor. I had no reason to not assume that my role as a co-pastor would be any different than my role as an associate pastor. Naive? Maybe. But besides a few things being added to my job description, I was still serving the same church, the same people, and working with the same person.

On January 1, 2014, my first day as co-pastor, I woke up feeling very different. I was in fact in a new call – at the same church, with the same people, and working with the same staff. Three weeks into our new roles, John and I met with our counselor for the first time who asked us how it was going so far. John was elated, rested, and full of energy. In complete contrast, I was already exhausted, feeling the weight, and overwhelmed.

My first five months felt like I was swimming upstream. For one, John went on a well-deserved sabbatical. Within those five months, my staff had completely imploded – the new organist left after only four Sundays; the new secretary stopped showing up after two weeks; the second new secretary left after four months; and our organ tuner broke up with “me” after 140+ years, which seems silly to bring up, but after all the recent staff changes, it was hard to not take the organ tuner ending our working relationship personally. By the way, I am somewhat joking about this. While this was an incredible amount of unfortunate happenings back-to-back, it was a blessing in disguise. It gave me an opportunity to step into my role as a co-pastor – taking ownership of how I would do things differently, change the way we did things that no longer seemed necessary, and put my fingerprints on the way the church functioned. Much to John’s surprise, he came back from his sabbatical to a new staff.

Now with a year under my belt, I can honestly say I am at the place John was a year ago – elated, rested, and full of energy.

More and more churches are moving towards this model of co-pastors. While this is not a new model, most co-pastor relationships I knew were with clergy couples that were serving a church together. However, a co-pastor model with two clergy who have no other relationship than a working one can have tremendous strengths and challenges.

So here are some of the strengths and challenges I have experienced thus far:

Strengths

  • Today, a collaborative working structure parallels the way many of us work. It allows us to focus on our skills, passions, talents, and abilities rather solely on responsibility and role. Between John and myself, we looked at the job of a pastor and had an honest conversation about what responsibilities both of us should carry; what were some we both felt called to do; and what were some that we felt were better suited for the other. This way, I feel I have a job description that not only am I well suited for, but passionate about as well.
  • Working with a partner collaboratively accesses more ideas, support, energy, and passion to move the church into the next phase. I find it much more productive to have someone who I can bounce ideas with, receive input or perspectives I didn’t think of, and feel support in trying something different. This collaborative work also trickles down to the way our session and our congregation work as well. Having working teams instead of committees has dispersed the burden that a few would bear and restored energy to the collective whole.
  • Having a co-pastor reduces burn-out by sharing the load of preaching, pastoral care, and administrative duties so that there is space to focus on other needed responsibilities such as dreaming, planning, and visioning. John and I rotate preaching every season, which means every 5-6 weeks he is preaching, I am able to focus on other things. We also take turns moderating session. By sharing the load, it also creates space for me to actually have time to focus on self-care, such as running, seeing a spiritual director, and spend time with friends and family. I also volunteer at the hospital as a baby cuddler, while John has time for biking and getting involved in Israel/Palestine issues.
  • “You complete me” is a cheesy line from Jerry Maguire, but there is a little bit of that sentiment. I feel that my weaknesses are John’s strengths and vice versa. I am a big picture thinker and suck at the details, while John is good at connecting the dots. John isn’t the best communicator and I am an over-communicator. John is not afraid to jump in with both feet, while I like to tread a little longer than may be necessary.

Challenges

  • The biggest challenge is financial. Can we afford this model? I know this was the biggest question my congregation asked when exploring this model. For 150-member church to even afford a Head of Staff and an Associate Pastor was asking a lot, but two co-pastors seemed crazy.
  • This model is heavily dependent upon compatibility of personalities and working styles. It is a relationship model, so steps must be taken to deal with conflict management. Communication is the key – making sure both are informing the other, not so much for approval, but to ensure that both keep an eye on the big picture and that they are in sync with the mission and vision of the church.
  • Although more and more churches are moving and inquiring about this model, not many have co-pastors. This is not a tried and true model like the traditional Head of Staff and Associate Pastor model. Therefore, there usually is not a system in place to support this model. More work will have to be done to not only educate the congregation, but higher governing bodies as well (such as presbyteries).
  • During the exploration process, John and I were asked what we were hoping would come out of this model. What is our vision for the church if we were to move to this model? The challenge was we didn’t have a great answer, just a hunch and a feeling. It’s ambiguous meaning much of what comes out of this model is dependent upon the actual collaborative work of the pastors. With a year in, I have a better idea of how to answer that question, but it is still unfolding.

Things to consider

  • Moving to a new model where there is more uncertainty than certainty can be daunting. Try considering it as a disciplined experiment. While my church was discerning whether this was the right move, John and I were also doing our own personal discernment. I had already been at my first call for 10 years. Was it time to move on? Do I feel called to stay? I had my own questions. Plus, there was the financial piece. As great as we think this co-pastor thing is going to be, can we really afford it? I certainly don’t want to be known in the history of St. John’s as the pastor who financially drained the church. Because we didn’t have any definitive answers to these questions, just hypotheses, we agreed to a three year experiment. Within the three years, they would incrementally increase my salary to be on par with John (taking into consideration experience and years in ministry). Every year, we would assess the finances and the overall process. At the third year mark, we would reengage the congregation and the pastors to see if this is something we will continue.
  • Both pastors should require a regular meeting with a third party, whether it is with a counselor or a spiritual director, in order to discuss how the relationship is going, nurture the working relationship, and address any potential conflicts before they become unmanageable.
  • If considering this model, you may want to think about hiring one pastor first with an open conversation that this is a model that the church would like to live into. This way, the pastor is included in the process, which is important since it is very important the two co-pastors can get along with each other and work well together. I also believe this will open up a whole other pool of pastors that a traditional model may not tap into.

Theresa and John (15 of 32)We live in a time where we have to be open and creative in different pastoral and leadership models to serve our congregations. While it may be more challenging in many ways, I believe the benefits and the strengths make it worth trying if it is the right fit for a congregation.

I’m excited about this year and look forward to seeing how this continues to enfold for not only myself but my church as well.

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