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Along the Journey  |  

New Role, Old System

A friend once shifted from an associate pastor position (“second chair”) to senior pastor (“first chair”) in his congregation.

This is not a standard transition, but also not infrequent.

He had participated in Leadership in Ministry workshops for several years.

He was equipped to enter this transition with insight and reflective intent to the emotional process (anxiety, resistance, reactivity, homeostasis, etc.) in the church and within himself once the honeymoon ends.

In due time, he ran into some (anticipated) stuckness.

The issue surrounded a new ministry staff associate recently hired to take his old job.

The anxiety floating around in the congregation seemed to center on her job performance.

My friend, the new senior pastor and supervisor, was puzzled.

As far as he was concerned, his new associate was doing a fine job, albeit naturally doing it differently than he had.

As the complaints continued, he reached out for a coaching session.

He called with two issues: (1) he wanted to gain insight into what may be going on with the anxiety around the new associate, and (2) he wanted insight into his functioning in a context where he previously occupied a different position.

His questions were about the concepts of role vs. function.

Was the anxiety surrounding the new associate about her functioning or the role?

He understood he was in a new role in the church but was unclear about the difference between his new role and what it meant to give attention to a different function.


Every pastor has the same role.

Every leader in a comparable system has the same role: a dean at a university, a college president, and a pastoral associate have the same role as any other in a comparable position in another system.

Compare job descriptions among clergy (or any other staff members), and you’ll discover they’re pretty much the same.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for churches to borrow and crib job descriptions from other churches when creating a new position. 

The Pastor plays the “pastoral role,” or the “role of the pastor.”

Everyone knows (or assumes they know) what that looks like.

This is such a truism that your congregational members likely have more of a relationship with the role you play as a pastor than they do with you as a person.


A function is a product of the system (the emotional field of a particular system–including its culture, tradition, polity, etc.).

Consider the factors of context and field.

Consider the different functions needed of a pastoral leader in a church at its adolescent stage vs. its mature stage. 

Likewise, contrast a congregation in its prime vs. a congregation that is dying.

You’ll play the same role (you’re the pastor), but the function you need to provide and HOW you function will differ.

From this perspective, leadership is a system function–not primarily of an individual in that system.

Similarly, the pastor’s function in a family-size chapel church is different from that in a corporate-sized church.

In one, the function is chaplain; in the other, it is closer to that of a CEO.

My friend concluded that perhaps the new associate was functioning well but was not playing the role the congregation expected of someone in that position.

She was competent and following through with her vision of the ministry–she was fulfilling the function of her position in the system.

What seemed to be happening is that some in the congregation had certain role expectations related to the position based on their experience of how it was personalized by the person previously occupying the position (who was now the senior pastor).

My friend got clear about his new role, but is still working on what his function will be in the congregation.

That’s natural; it takes longer to gain that insight.

To Ponder:

Register for a Leadership in Ministry workshop here to learn more about lessening anxiety during ministry transitions.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Programs of the Center for Lifelong Learning.

Along the Journey Dr. G. & Friends