Who’s Who in the Church
Understanding the Differences Between Senior, Associate, and Assistant Pastors
What is the difference between different types of pastors? Why are there different titles for pastors in the Presbyterian Church in American (PCA)? It can be quite confusing, especially for those of us that do not hold our daily devotions in the Book of Church Order (BCO)! (That’s a joke – don’t send me emails!) I’d like to take just a few minutes of your time as you read this to try and explain the basic “types” of pastors in the PCA: senior (or solo) pastors, associate pastors, and assistant pastors. All of these are also different from various “directors” that are in churches. I hope by the end you will be a bit less confused, and that you will see the reasons for the different titles.
The Senior (or Solo, or Lead) Pastor
The most fundamental and common type of pastor is what the BCO calls “the pastor.” (I know, really inventive, right?) In the context where a church has only one pastor, this is easily understood. There is only one pastor, and therefore he is the pastor. If we were to get a bit more technical about it, he would be the solo pastor, because he is the only one. In a context where there is more than one pastor, the senior pastor (or as is often used today, the lead pastor) is the main leader of the staff of a church. He is usually the main preacher and teacher, although other pastors on the staff can and should preach and teach. He sets the vision for church staff (including non-ordained full- and part-time workers at the church). In Presbyterianism, he is not the only leader, nor is he like the president of an organization. That is because Presbyterian churches are led collectively by a group of elders, both pastors (Teaching Elders) and ordained non-pastors (Ruling Elders), called a Session. But even in the Session, the Senior Pastor is called to lead. He is the moderator of the Session, which means he drafts the agenda for meetings and keeps the meeting flowing and in order – kind of like a traffic cop. And among the leadership before the congregation, the Senior Pastor is front and center. People look to him as the visible representation of the leadership. To use an old turn of phrase, he is primus inter pares – “first among equals.” The Senior Pastor is called by the congregation. That means that the congregation forms a pulpit committee (per BCO 20-2, but this is perhaps better styled a “pastoral search committee”) to “recommend to the congregation a pastoral candidate who, in its judgment…is most suited to be profitable to the spiritual interests of the congregation.” This is followed by calling a congregational meeting, in which the members of the congregation will vote as to whether to extend a call to the man as the Senior (or Solo) Pastor.
The Associate Pastor
Because pastoral care is people and relationship intensive, many churches with attendance greater than a certain number have multiple pastors. In most cases, such pastors are not indistinguishable from each other or styled as “co-pastors.” Rather, there is an organizational hierarchy to the pastoral staff, within the broader leadership of the Session. That means that for PCA churches, pastors who are not the Senior Pastor are called as Associate Pastors. Associate Pastors may be generalists or have specialized areas of responsibility; for example, Pastor of Discipleship, Pastor of Pastoral Care, or Pastor of Missions. But there is one thing that all Associate Pastors have in common: just like the Senior Pastor, they are all called by the congregation. The congregation searches for an Associate Pastor just like they would a Senior Pastor – forming a pastoral search committee and culminating in a congregational meeting to issue a call. Being called and elected by the congregation, the Associate Pastor becomes a member of (and has a vote on) the Session of the church. Election by the congregation is the key factor here, as it upholds the critical Presbyterian principle of having church members elect the authorities (officers) over them. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been times when officers have been placed over congregations without their consent. Our Presbyterian forefathers rejected this practice and insisted that those who had the authority and could exercise church discipline had to be regularly elected by the congregation. Because that authority is vested in the Session, in order be a part of the Session, the Associate Pastor must be elected directly by the congregation. It also means that while in the day to day work of the staff of the church the Associate Pastor usually reports to the Senior Pastor as his “supervisor,” yet they occupy the same authority in the Session, that is, each has one vote and the same privileges.
The Assistant Pastor
There is a third type of pastoral relationship in the PCA, that of the Assistant Pastor. In many ways, the Assistant Pastor can be similar to the Associate Pastor. An Assistant Pastor could have a specialized title like Pastor of Worship or Pastor of Discipleship, just like an Associate. But there is a fundamental difference between the Assistant and the Associate: the Session calls an Assistant Pastor, not the congregation. That means that the calling process is usually less involved and quicker, with no congregational committee established and no congregational meeting needed to elect the Assistant. The Assistant Pastor, therefore, is not a member of the Session and has no vote on matters considered by the Session. In fact, it is not automatic that the Assistant Pastor can speak at Session meetings, but the Session can invite him to meetings and give him the privilege of speaking. There is another fundamental difference that follows from the type of call to the Assistant Pastor that often in unknown by congregants: the Assistant can be dismissed from a church by an action of Session that does not require a congregational vote. This can come as a surprise to congregants, and it is a well-known difference in job security of which Assistant Pastors are aware. Assistant Pastors are often called in situations where pastoral help is needed in short order, and there is not time to wait for the search committee process to work itself out; or in situations where a man is called on a trial basis to see if his gifts fit the ministry needs of the church, often with the idea that at some future point his call would be changed from Assistant to Associate by an action of the congregation in a congregational meeting.
A final word on perhaps the most confusing title in churches: the Director. The Director is usually the individual with responsibility for a certain area of ministry in the church, such as a Children’s Director or a Women’s Ministry Director. The Director is not a pastor with a pastoral call (unless a church gives an Associate or Assistant Pastor a second title as Director) but is typically a layperson who has authority over a certain ministry, including volunteers and expenditures, under the authority of the Session. This is a fundamental difference from all types of pastors, who are examined and ordained by a Presbytery. Directors are often even unpaid lay volunteers. A Director typically reports to the Senior Pastor on a day-to-day basis and a committee of Session (or the whole Session itself) on a broader basis. Unlike pastoral positions, in the PCA there is no requirement that a Director be a man. In fact, often Directors of Women’s Ministry or Children’s Ministry are women who are using their gifts to the benefit of the church.
I hope that this little “Who’s Who” has been of some help and has raised the interest of some in Presbyterian polity. I also hope it will encourage you to pray for your pastor(s), whether he be a Senior Pastor, an Associate Pastor, or an Assistant Pastor!