When the Head of Staff is 30-something & the Associate Pastor is 60-something

In the past week three 60-something friends have commented to me that they2 shepherds crooks would love to serve under a Rock Star millennial Head of Staff/Senior Pastor before they retire.

Maybe these comments were of the toss-off variety.  Or maybe not.  But then this article popped up in the Washington Post yesterday:  I’m 60.  My Boss is a 20-Something.  It’s Awkward.

It doesn’t have to be awkward.  In fact it could be transformative for The Church.

What would make it awkward:

  • A young, unteachable head of staff who is completely unaware of what she/he doesn’t know and a seasoned, incurious associate who thinks he knows everything.
  • A young head of staff with less than 10 years experience earning 2-3 times as much as the seasoned pastor with 30+ years of experience.  (Note:  often the opposite is true in that the “senior” Senior Pastor earns 2-3 times more than any associate pastor on a church staff.  This is not necessarily just either.)
  • Rivals on the same staff.
  • Pastors with no sense of humor.
  • Resentful colleagues (i.e. an older associate pastor who felt pushed out of his/her last position or a younger head of staff who felt threatened by parishioners who felt more comfortable with the older pastor.)
  • Clergy of any age with limited eye-roll control.

What would make it awesome:

  • A seasoned pastor – who has done the whole preaching-every-Sunday thing for decades is totally ready to relinquish the pulpit – even for Easter and Christmas Eve – to a younger voice.  And he/she relishes hearing that millennial’s take on scripture.
  • A younger head of staff who seeks mentoring from the seasoned pastor as she/he navigates a new way of being “the senior.”
  • Parity in setting salary and benefits based on the fact that 1) the head of staff is both the face of the congregation and has more responsibilities but is less experienced and 2) the associate pastor has more experience but less responsibility
  • A team of pastors whose shared goals are 1) to make disciples, 2) to bolster community, 3) to equip the saints for ministry — not to strive to be “the cool one” or “the most popular one.”  Emphasis on team.

This could alter so many things that need to be changed, like . . .

  • Boomer pastors who won’t step down from churches – often at the congregation’s expense.  (By the time some retire, their congregations will have had such sluggish leadership for so long that they may never recover.)
  • Wage disparity between clergy on the same staff.

One of the issues in all this concerns the fact that – as our congregations continue to reduce in size –  more and more churches are staffed by a single (exhausted) pastor.  More about that tomorrow.

I’d love your feedback, folks.

Image of matching shepherd’s crooks.

3 responses to “When the Head of Staff is 30-something & the Associate Pastor is 60-something

  1. I’m convinced that structure dictates behavior. The way our churches are organized create both the problems and opportunities that you describe. Even with our structure of shared leadership between lay and clergy, most of our churches function as vertically integrated hierarchical business structures where the head of staff is the supreme leader. These structures, broadly understood on a global scale, are struggling to respond effectively to a rapidly changing world where relationship networks, sustained by technology, are growing in prominence.

    As for what should we do about this? I think this is a conversation that every presbytery needs to have as a whole, as well as through the Committees on Ministry and Preparation for Ministry. Starting with conversation provides a way to inform, and begin a social change process where pastors and lay leaders from differing generation can talk openly and constructively about how they function both within the mission of their congregation and the congregation’s structure.

    Thanks for your insights on this important question.


  2. I tend to wrankle a bit at the “rockstar millennial pastor” trope. Yes, some younger pastors are given wonderful opportunities to use their gifts in meaningful ways as a Head of Staff for a congregation. However, I also notice the continuing trend that many, many of those “rockstar” pastors happen to be white, male, and often married (sometimes with a stay at home spouse). The clergywomen I work with (predominantly under the age of 40, but some older, as well) generally feel pretty locked out of those HOS roles, like their gifts for administrative, executive leadership aren’t being seen or acknowledged. This goes double for the clergywomen of color I work with. I’m so pleased when I see pastors being given responsibilities that fit their gifts, regardless of age or stereotype, but I think we still live in a very, painfully, biased system, and I worry we’re losing some of our best, young, female, minority pastors because we keep slotting them off into associate for youth or the exhausted, tiny, solo rural pastor role.


  3. I find myself wondering: why the hierarchical structure? Why not a co-pastor arrangement where the needs are too great for a solo pastor (as they always are) and the gifts of each could be expressed to the fullest? Why do we assume that “administration” or “public face” or “primary preacher” are “senior pastor” gifts or requirements?


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