Of all the relationships in the local church, none is more important yet challenging to get right/keep right than the relationship between “the principle” (the lead pastor) and their immediate subordinates (assistant pastors and ministry directors). Recently in my reading of Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by Jon Meacham, I came across a fascinating, intentional arrangement between then President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush that provides incredible insight for each of us navigating this vital, senior-level relationship in every gospel-centered church.
Commitments of the “Subordinate”
Bush developed a set of informal rules of conduct for himself in his new role. He spelled them out only later, toward the end of his service as vice president, but for him they were real and controlling from the beginning.
“First, don’t play the political opportunist’s game by putting distance between yourself and the President when some White House decision or policy becomes unpopular.” While we don’t have to agree with every decision made by our senior leader, we should know the WHY of every decision and be: 1) able to articulate it 2) willing to fully associate with and own it.
“Second, don’t play the Washington news-leaking game.” The deacon, in 1 Timothy 3, is instructed to not be “double tongued”…this consistent messaging towards our senior leader AND THOSE WE LEAD must be embodied by assistant pastors as well. Determine to never say anything about your leader that would be disingenuous or not of “good report.” (Those persistent, negative vibes need to be first bathed in prayer to the Lord and then whatever is left shared directly with the senior leader.). Build trust. Don’t betray it.
“Conduct all interviews on the record-even interviews with friends…that way you are less likely to be surprised when you later read or hear yourself quoted in the press.” One of the most frequents ways that division creeps in between members of a pastoral team is a careless, inconsistent comment to a friend or “caring confidant” that spreads like wildfire through the local assembly, online banter, and even the local community. This reckless, naive behavior has confused more lost souls, discouraged more church members, and divided more churches than we would all care to admit. Everything, including this arena of communicative integrity, rises and falls on leadership!
Commitments of the “Principle”
Before November 1980 was over, the administrative details of the Reagan-Bush relationship were set. Ed Meese, who was a to be counselor to the president, and Dean Burch, who had been working for Bush, worked out four ground rules that were memorialized in a memorandum from Burch to Bush dated November 21, 1980.
“You and the President will have a scheduled weekly luncheon-no staff, no agenda.” Like Reagan and Bush, is your pastoral staff famous for spending time together just for the food and fun? This is something a lot of us task-oriented senior leaders need to intentionally work on with our staffs.
“You will automatically be invited to all presidential meetings.” There may be a few exceptions to this in the church setting, but every effective “principle” works to include their “subordinates” as much as possible. One of the best ways to communicate this philosophy is having assessable calendar for your staff to view as well as an open door policy with very few exceptions.
“You will receive a copy of all memoranda going to the President.” (A memoranda is simply a written message in business or diplomacy.). In church administration, let your staff in on the PROCESS of reaching a decision/direction, not just the final conclusion or mandate to which they must comply or adjust. This allows them to understand the context of the decision in a way that helps them practice the first subordinate commitment listed above.
“You will have the Vice President’s [West Wing] office.” (This allowed Bush to be closer than some vice presidents who would often spend the majority of their time in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, located next to the West Wing on the White House premises.) Unlike many presidents and pastors, allow your staff to have PROXIMITY TO POWER. Let them be close to you when you make decisions. Let them make as many decisions themselves as possible.
Wow! As I reflect upon my almost-decade of being an assistant pastor, there are several areas that I could have done much much better. There are also so many takeaways that I, as a lead pastor, need to expand in my relationship with our assistant pastors, ministry directors, and deacons. And before you think, “How I wish my senior leader or assistants would take this post to heart,” may I gently remind you, just like we would say to each member of a marriage in counseling, the first move is yours! If you own your side of the administrative ledger, God will bless you and use you to likely transform the entire dynamic of those who serve in leadership at your church.
Since the devil’s standard modus operandi is to “divide and conquer” there is nowhere that we need to practice more vigilance than in the relationship between senior leadership and their immediate, subordinate teammates. Would you join me in strengthening this relationship in a cause truly bigger than the White House, your local church house by the grace of God and for the glory of God?
Acts 20:28-32 “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears. And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.”
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, Jon Meacham (Penguin Random House LLC, 2015)