They say the hardest instrument to play in the orchestra is the second fiddle. Speaking with a number of friends, it is fair to say that the assistant–boss relationship can be one of the most testing – and one of the most fruitful – in church life.
So here are some tongue-in-cheek top tips for Curates aspiring to Greatness (skip down to the end for the big idea).
1. Prioritise gifts over love
The church in Corinth is a great example of what happens when we make the exercise of gifts come ahead of sacrificial and humble service flowing from love. Love puts relationships ahead of ‘efficiency’, and in the long run that is far more effective. The greater our gifting the greater our opportunities for pride and the ensuing damage.
2. Treat your boss as a ministry machine, not a fellow human being
Love flourishes in relationship, when the other is known in depth as a person with a history, character, family, preferences, hopes, and fears. Nothing beats time and laughter for forging a relationship of trust in which hard things can be said and heard when needed. Always mention the encouragements and positives you see in
the boss, because these are so easily taken for granted.
3. Assume your boss is the same as you
One area where we can assume the boss is the same as us is that they are a sinner, struggling with their own temptations, bad habits, and insecurities. They carry all sorts of burdens that are far beyond their capacity to handle. But whether it is diary management, ways of handling conflict, personality, ‘love languages’, technological competence, or methods of communication, we are all wired up differently. We will need to learn how those differences can spark either into disagreements or into complementary synergy.
4. Ignore everything that happened before you arrived
Churches are never static and we will walk into an arena of expectations, wounds, achievements, and movement. People will miss the previous curate. We will often be tempted to compare our
new church family with previous experiences of church, probably using rose-tinted spectacles.
5. Grasp responsibility for the church’s strategy, future, and wellbeing
The privilege of being an assistant is that someone else ultimately carries the responsibility, especially for the hard decisions, and does so beyond the extent of any curacy. Change happens much more slowly in church life than we often would like, and we are better off strengthening the boss to be the best pastor they can be rather than constantly questioning and undermining their lead. This can be especially hard straight out of college full of good ideas.
6. Give up when conflict arises in the working/team relationship(s)
Conflict is a normal part of the team relationship cycle of forming, storming, norming, and performing, so it should not surprise us when it comes along. Far more important is moving through conflict by repentance and vulnerability rather than letting things fester in grumbling (especially to spouses), frustration, or worse.
7. Gather a group of like-minded people to take the church in a different direction to the boss
‘Everyone loves the curate’ – because he doesn’t have to make hard decisions or say hard things (on the whole). Being ‘number two’ in church leadership means being the ‘number one’ follower, modelling to others how to do Hebrews 13:17 and 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13. What is needed is absolute loyalty in public, and absolute transparency in private, rather than fomenting division and factions.
8. Avoid asking questions or seeking input
We are lifelong learners and so have much to learn from the experience and wisdom of the boss, and will be much more effective in fitting into their vision for the church if we have involved them in the planning process (as well as the evaluation process later). They may even push us beyond our comfort zone and stretch us! And when it comes to understanding their decisions, far better to ask questions than bluntly to disagree.
9. Lament the fact your boss doesn’t do more
The senior minister will carry a lot of hidden burdens relating to their leadership role (particularly pastorally), and necessarily be involved in quite a number of committees. Because of this, the assistant will often be able to spend more hours on direct word ministry and preparation. Seize this opportunity to spend time with people whom we can disciple and equip for ministry after we’ve gone.
10. Leave with a bang
Planning to finish well begins as soon as we start and permeates all we do. We want to leave behind ministry teams who can continue the work and individuals who are better equipped to serve the Lord. Programmes may come and go, but people doing ministry is a fantastic legacy to leave.
Epilogue: a still more excellent way
It is easy to be a Great Curate (and a rubbish fellow-worker). What is the alternative? My basic mindset is that I want to be a blessing to my boss for the duration of my role, and I want to tell him that regularly. As far as it depends on me, my goal is to leave behind me someone who knows he is valued, respected, and cherished as a pastor, leader, colleague, brother, and fellow human being. Ultimately Jesus is the Saviour of the church, not me. Wonderfully he uses frail and fallen humans to build his kingdom.
I find I must often remind myself that in every situation it is possible to be content and joyful, and it is my ungodliness that prevents that happening. Ultimately, all of the above can be summarised as a call to love, the still more excellent way.
Appendix: Some questions to ask when evaluating a new role
Throughout the article, I have assumed that the senior minister is theologically faithful to the gospel, even if there are some differences. Here are some questions for the senior minister that may help when considering a new role:
• How would you explain the gospel to a non-Christian?
• What place does the Bible have in church life?
• What are your hopes for the church in the next few years?
• How have people become Christians recently?
• How have you seen people grow in maturity and service?
• What’s the hardest sermon you’ve had to preach recently?
• What has God been speaking to you about recently?
• What’s changed since you arrived?
• Where are the current encouragements and discouragements in church life?
• What is the local area like?
• What will my role involve?
• How do you see the training aspect of my role working?
• What did my predecessor do?
• What conferences and networks do you find beneficial?
• How do you relate to the denomination?
• How do you try to arrange time with family?
• What church activity is your spouse/family involved with?
• What about when you were at our life stage?
Brain, Peter. Going the Distance. Sydney:Matthias Media, 2004.
Bonem, Mike, and Roger Patterson. Leading from the Second Chair: Serving Your Church, Fulfilling Your Role, and Realizing Your Dreams. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.
Moule, H. C. G. To My Younger Brethren: Chapters on Pastoral Life and Work. 4th ed. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902. (Available for free online. Chapter 6 addresses
Ross-McNairn, Jonathon, and Sonia Barron, eds. Being a Curate: Stories of What It’s Really Like. London: SPCK Publishing, 2014.
Simpson, Rick. Supervising a Curate: A Short Guide to a Complex Task. Grove Pastoral 128. Cambridge: Grove Books, Ltd, 2011.