I never assume people know who I am, even though I’m more well-known than I deserve in the circles we travel in. That’s not entirely new to this role as executive director of Baptist News Global. In my previous life, it’s safe to argue I was the best-known associate pastor of any church in Dallas. If that means anything.
So it was surprising one day several years ago when I was sitting in a North Dallas coffee shop and saw the senior pastor of another large Baptist church walk in. I left my seat and walked over to greet him.
Again, never assuming too much — Jesus said it’s better to sit at the lower place at the banquet table and be invited to move up — I stuck out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Mark Wingfield from Wilshire.”
To which this senior pastor stared blankly — though smiling largely — and said, “Oh, what do you do at Wilshire?”
“I work with George Mason as the executive pastor of the church,” I replied.
Which drew another puzzled look. The name of our senior pastor he knew. That there were any other staff members there doing anything of note seemed quite a revelation. I made some more small talk and then scampered back to my seat.
I didn’t care that this tall-steeple pastor didn’t know who I was or even that I existed, but I was concerned about the narrowness of his worldview. By this point, I was a well-read monthly columnist for BNG, had written the most-read article in the history of Baptist News Global, had given a TEDx Talk, was quoted regularly in the Dallas Morning News, had recently appeared on the local NPR station three times. Truth be told, I had a higher visibility in the community than this pastor did.
“Because I was not a senior pastor, he didn’t know who I was. I was not his peer.”
But because I was not a senior pastor, he didn’t know who I was. I was not his peer.
Anyone who’s ever served as the second chair or in any associate role on a church staff is likely nodding vigorously in agreement with what I’ve just described. All of us too often are the invisible staff who run the church. Maybe not invisible inside our congregations but surely outside them.
Some people — even senior pastors — want to be invisible. I get that. Their entire focus is on their local congregation, and they have no interest in knowing about or being part of a larger community of faith. They are myopic. I’ll credit the pastor I met at the coffee shop as one of those. He was too busy tending his own fields to know who was working in the vineyard down the street.
But among too many senior pastors — not all, my dear friends! — there exists an arrogance that anyone who has not achieved their status is not worth knowing or listening to. So I could be the associate pastor of a 3,000-member church and not be credited with the same level of experience as the senior pastor of a 100-member church.
Those days are behind me now, which is why I feel free to speak a word on behalf of associate pastors everywhere.
With all the hullaballoo in the Southern Baptist Convention about women being given the title “pastor,” I’ve been thinking more about the attention or lack of attention paid to those ministers who serve in roles other than senior pastor. If these women and men are important enough to be a threat to the male hierarchy of the SBC, they ought to be important enough for the rest of us to welcome and bless and recognize too.
One of the subsets of the “old boys’ club” is the senior pastor club.
I understand that senior pastors often bear unique responsibility for the welfare of a church and that until you’ve walked in those shoes you may not appreciate the pressure of such a role. But effective church leadership must be a partnership.
That’s the reality I experienced more often than not working closely with George Mason for 17 years at Wilshire. The secret to our success was I didn’t want his job and he didn’t want mine. We made a great team.
Last week, when George received an award from the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists for his leadership in inclusion, he beautifully deflected the praise, acknowledging that he — and we — were late to the party. We are like the workers in that parable of Jesus who showed up and worked only a few hours at the end of the day but got paid for a full day’s work.
But he also took a moment to thank me publicly as his partner in this work — something too few associate pastors get to hear. These brief words were a balm to my troubled soul and will carry me for months.
“If I sometimes was unseen as an older white male associate pastor, imagine the compounding effect that has for women and anyone who doesn’t have the built-in privilege I enjoy.”
The stories I’ve told so far have been from my perspective as a male. I cannot speak to the experience of being a female pastor, but I can recount some of the stories they’ve told me. If I sometimes was unseen as an older white male associate pastor, imagine the compounding effect that has for women and anyone who doesn’t have the built-in privilege I enjoy.
Female associate pastors are not only unseen, they too often are misidentified as “the pastor’s wife” or the “assistant” or something less than the position they hold. Female associate pastors are less likely to be invited, included, quoted, recognized.
I am grateful that my own church chose an amazing female pastor, Heather Mustain, to give leadership after I left.
Dear senior pastors and church leaders, please recognize your associate ministers. Celebrate them. Call them out for praise. Make them partners in your work. Speak their names. Share the spotlight. Say thank you regularly. Write thank you notes occasionally.
Here’s one telling way Baptist churches in particular elevate senior pastors above all others. When the history of your church is told — whether orally or in writing or some other form — how many ministers other than the senior pastors get mentioned or shown?
Yes, those higher-profile pastors give long-lasting leadership to churches, but they seldom do it alone. Combined, there are more associate pastors serving churches than there are senior pastors. Let’s bring them out of the shadows and celebrate their gifts and graces.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director of Baptist News Global, a role he assumed three years ago after nearly 17 years as associate pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.