When Scott and I planted a church as co-equal pastors in 2005, we sat down with pastors from various denominations, of various ages, and with various ministry experiences. Amidst all this diversity, there was one question that every pastor asked us: “You’re two guys planting a church… but who’s really in charge?”
Five years later, after merging with another local church (a story in itself), we met for lunch with a denominational leader. Being used to meeting one senior pastor, this poor fellow squeezed into a booth with six of us—co-equal pastors ranging from 25 to 68 years old, all with diverse backgrounds—to figure out exactly what was going on. In his search for who was really in charge, he found some synonyms for senior pastor we hadn’t heard before. “Chief of staff?” Don’t have one of those. “First among equals?” Don’t have that either. “Okay… so who’s the catalyst?”
We were told over and over again (and still are, from time to time) that our kind of truly co-equal leadership is a nice idea, but it won’t work. Ships need one captain, they say. These warnings aren’t without warrant: early on, we saw another church plant dissolve because one of the ‘co-equal’ pastors fired the other (although if first among equals means that you can fire your equals, it feels as though a lot of the equality has been left behind).
The truth is that ships do need one captain, but the captain of God’s Church is Jesus Christ: Peter names Jesus as the “chief shepherd” (1 Pet 5:4). This doesn’t mean that churches should never call someone a senior pastor, or someone else an associate pastor. Nevertheless, we have found that the leadership model we’ve adopted is one of the greatest blessings we’ve experienced in ministry thus far. And not because it’s been easy. It’s been a blessing precisely because it’s been such hard work.
What I want to do here is outline the principles that have guided our leadership of the flock entrusted to us, the challenges we’ve faced in putting those principles into action, and the values we have amongst our team. This is because of the marvellous blessing this co-leadership has been to us, our families, and our church.
Principles for plurality
Names are important, but they aren’t everything. Terms that describe what you intend to do and how you organize yourself are useful for clarity and continuity’s sake. Yet the principles guiding our function are more important than the words we use. Below are several principles that have guided our leadership structure and function (and our choice of terminology).
Pastors are elders are overseers
The Bible uses several terms that, as far as I can see, concern the same church office. Qualified and appointed elders are overseers (cf. Titus 1:5, 7), and pastor the local church (e.g. 1 Tim 3:5, 5:17). Distinctions such as a ‘pastor’ being paid by the church while an ‘elder’ isn’t are our distinctions, not the Bible’s. For the rest of this article, the terms pastor and elder are used interchangeably.
God makes pastors/elders
As the old saying goes, “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck”. In the same way, if a man walks like an elder and talks like an elder, then he is an elder. It is imperative that we not add qualifications to those the Bible has laid down in passages like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. God makes elders, and we simply recognize what God is doing. In this way, God is in control of the leadership of his church as he places qualified and willing men in our midst.
Pastors are plural
If God makes pastors, then however many he has raised up in a given congregation is how many pastors that congregation has (cf. the multiple elders in Acts 20:17ff, or Titus 1:5). While the specific roles of individuals can be brought to bear wisely in the life of the church, they must not become extra qualifications that we add to Scripture.
Pastors are pastors
While it sounds obvious, in our experience it is far too easy for men with the office of pastor or elder to slowly stop pastoring in favour of what seem like more pressing logistical/administrative activities. Nevertheless, the term pastor necessarily involves the shepherding of God’s people through the public and private ministries of the Word and prayer. God has given pastors to the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Eph 4:12); this is not a job that can be done from a distance. In other words, the job description of pastor isn’t so malleable that some of us can stop shepherding altogether, no matter how much ‘leadership potential’ or administrative load we may have. God has called and qualified us to be pastors; if we do not pastor, then we aren’t pastors.
Pastors are complementary
While elders are called to oversee the body of Christ, they are not called to do so from the outside. The body metaphor enlisted by Paul to describe the complementary gifting and function of the various members of the church (1 Cor 12) equally applies to elders. Elders are not interchangeable. Like every other member of the church, they are uniquely shaped by God to bless and be blessed in the body.
It seems to me, then, that instituting a unilateral hierarchy in the midst of equally qualified men can quietly communicate that some elders are ‘more elder’ than others. While wisdom will dictate deference in various areas (which we will explore below), a constant or general deference in all areas based on position seems difficult to reconcile.
When Scott and I planted a church as co-equal partners, many pastors were sympathetic to the principles above. Their difficulty, however, was in how those principles could be practically applied without watering down visionary leadership and dragging out decision-making.
Watering down vision
In the process of planting a church, Scott and I received many books from evangelical pastors and friends. Interestingly, none of these books were on theology, prayer, counselling, or even preaching. Every single book we received was on the topic of ‘leadership’. The books had significant differences, but all shared a central theme: good leadership rises and falls on the vision of the leader. For a church to thrive, there must be a visionary pastor who crafts the vision for the church and who communicates it with passion.
Plurality can seem to weigh down the visionary leadership of the church. The beauty of vision, as the leadership books paint it, is that vision is singular, unadjusted, and from the mind and heart of a leader that people want to follow. When the vision is mediated through a group of co-equal leaders with no clear ‘visionary’, we are worried that vision will suffer ‘death by committee’. The agility and power of one man’s vision will be weighed down with the freight of other voices and opinions, and the church will lack the clarity and passion to move forward in a unified direction.
In our experience, the vision that comes from a team of co-equal leaders is more compelling, not less compelling, than the vision that comes from one man. We believe this is true for several reasons. First, it is simplistic to think that, in any group of elders, there is one clear ‘visionary’. For example, Scott and I both express a drive to innovate, create vision, and implement it. Instead of choosing which one of us would express that drive, and which one of us would temper it, we have shaped our relationship so that we can both express it, sometimes in different areas, and other times in collaboration. As our group of elders has grown, we have added more visionaries, and we have all been the better for it.
Second, it is strange to think that one elder’s vision should be adopted wholesale, with other elders offering little more than minor feedback along the way. If God has called a plurality of elders to lead the church, then the plurality must lead together, especially when it comes to the direction that their church will take! Giving other elders a token response but no actual participation walls them off from an aspect of leadership to which God has called them.
Finally, we have found that a vision crafted by multiple voices in harmony is more potent and well rounded than a vision coming from one voice alone. A diverse group of men, each offering their unique and complementary contributions, do not create a weighed down vision. If anything, they create a more agile, more appropriate, and more biblically faithful vision than any individual. One man is easily affected by his own preferences, his own strengths, and his own weaknesses. By bringing all the elders into the process, our individual strengths, weaknesses, and preferences are balanced out to produce a robust vision for the entire church body. As we listen to God’s word and follow his Spirit, we find God himself at work amongst us, chastening and encouraging each of us.
Dragging out decision-making
As we talk about our plurality model of leadership, people are often curious as to how we make decisions. In most leadership models, inside and outside the church, decision-making is done with a ‘chain of command’ mentality. The most important decisions are made by the person who holds the most important position. Moderately important decisions are relegated to those in moderately important positions, and so on. In this way, the senior pastor makes the most important decisions, while associate pastors make less important decisions (that usually have to do with implementing the senior pastor’s decisions). While the elders might discuss important issues, the ultimate decision belongs to the lead elder or pastor. This maximizes efficiency by marginalizing conflict. Any given decision can be traced back to one man; those who disagree can voice their disagreement but not stall the decision itself.
Plurality can seem to drag out decision-making. When decision-making involves a team, we are worried that even regular decisions will be bogged down with a variety of opinions. On a co-equal team, any conflict must be dealt with before the decision-making process can proceed, and this might compromise the momentum of the church. We are worried that leadership will look like ‘bunch ball’, so often seen in a child’s football game: every player is in the action at all times, following the ball around the field in a close but inefficient—and frustrating—pack.
In our experience, decision-making is enhanced, not impeded, when it is done as a team of co-equal leaders. This is not to say that it is maximally efficient, or that conflict is avoided. In fact, it is the inefficiency of making collaborative decisions that imbue those decisions with more wisdom and power. While we do not embrace inefficiency, we do find a significant value in the voice of each elder. By prioritizing the best possible decision over maximum efficiency, we create room for all elders to speak into any decision. By requiring unanimity in our church-wide decisions, we ensure that each elder will be fully engaged in the decision-making process. This inevitably exposes areas of confusion and disagreement, which must be dealt with humbly as we work towards a decision. This kind of inefficiency is an easy price to pay for decisions that reflect all the wisdom of a diverse team of elders. Our unity only increases as we grow closer through conflict and a shared purpose that is larger than our individual ideas. In other words, the inefficiency of making decisions together is what creates the very best decisions. So long as humility is maintained, disagreement only leads to reconciliation and a greater wisdom.
It is important to add that this is not necessarily true for every decision made in the church. We do not come together to decide which songs to sing this Sunday, for example. However, an elder would not be out of place in asking to participate in that decision. And every elder must contribute to our philosophy of corporate worship. Plurality co-exists peacefully with delegated oversight of various areas of the church, so long as oversight never becomes autonomy. Co-equal leadership looks less like bunch ball and more like a seasoned team. Trust and appropriate positioning allow for each member to participate in all facets of the game while still applying their particular gifting where it is most appropriate. Configurations change as the ball moves across the field, but not because some players are less valuable overall. In every configuration, all players participate, but in different ways based on skills that are necessary for each specific situation.
What this requires: Operating values for plurality
Plurality deals in unanimous decisions, and this is not always easy. Elders who rely on traditional theological formulations rather than their exegetical foundations, or elders who rely on superficial pragmatism and cultural leadership methodology, will have no ability to work through conflict because they will not be united under a single authority. Plurality is not sustainable unless the pastors understand the Bible to be sufficient for all of church life and determinative in every situation.
Diversity, whether in the form of age, musical preference, or social standing is always a challenge in the church. Our natural inclination is to prefer relationships with others like us. Like your biological family, you don’t get to choose who is in your church family! In fact, God uses our unity across diversity to show a divided world the power of Jesus.
This is no less true when it comes to the leaders in God’s church. Far from an impediment to effective leadership, the elders God makes are part of a tapestry he is weaving together. It is our joy to discover how God is building his church as we embrace the diverse elders he raises up.
Earlier, I mentioned the ‘co-equal’ pastors who planted a church, only for one to fire the other later on. In our experience, plurality is easy until serious disagreements emerge. In frustrating moments, it is tempting to throw up your hands and think that this relationship isn’t going to work. Like in marriage, however, it is the most frustrating moments that lead to the most growth—so long as both parties are committed to seeing the relationship through.
For plurality to work, there must be a mutual commitment to the principles above. This commitment provides a secure foundation, so that we can have the tough conversations without worrying that things will dissolve. What’s more, this commitment allows you to grow into a true family of leaders as you rely on mutual commitment, not authority structures, to work through differences.
Perhaps more than anything, true plurality stands and falls on the humble love of the elders for one another and for God’s church. We are all uniquely shaped by God for the good of the church; it is a strong temptation to view ourselves as above the contributions of others in our areas of gifting. Plurality demands that all elders can speak into one another’s areas of gifting in more than token ways. When this is greeted with defensiveness, plurality can’t do its work. The contributions of other elders are stymied by pride. Soon, each pastor is functioning with well-defended autonomy over ‘his’ area or department. In other words, without humility, we will pastor near each other but not with each other.
With humility, however, plurality flourishes. When each elder demonstrates a willingness to be challenged, corrected, and instructed in life and ministry, we are truly pastoring with each other. In other words, we must be humble enough to listen and loving enough to speak. Love is not simply getting along, but sacrificing for the good of others. Humble love emerges when we sacrifice our time and egos to listen to fellow elders, even when we don’t yet agree, or they are speaking into our area of expertise, or they aren’t being concise enough for our taste. Humble love emerges when we sacrifice our time and egos to risk speaking our disagreement, risk speaking into an area where we are not experts, or risk expressing thoughts that are not as polished as we’d like. When this love is operating by the power of the Holy Spirit, we find a team of leaders outdoing each other in showing honour as we seek to hear all that God has to say through one another.
Despite our excitement, we submit this article with an eye to our own limitations. It is important to reiterate that we do not consider men who are called ‘Senior Pastor’ unbiblical or arrogant. We hold firmly to the principles enumerated above, but we realize that they will be worked out differently in practice depending on factors like church size, culture, and more. Living in light of God’s word and exercising values like love and humility will always be more important than terminology and office titles. In any situation, may Jesus be the chief shepherd of the church he bought with his own blood, not just in name but in practice.
We have found plurality to be well worth any challenges it brings. Not only is it a blessing to the church, but it has been a blessing to me personally. I find my relationships with my co-elders to be one of the greatest blessings in my life. As we live and lead together, I am rarely lonely. My deficiencies do not become church deficiencies; I have other leaders that not only correct weaknesses in the church but also in my own heart. My decisions give way to our decisions, as we humbly apply wisdom to one another. I don’t just have a church family that I lead; I am part of a family of leaders inside our church body. I have been sharpened, loved, corrected, encouraged, and shown grace when I didn’t deserve it by the elders around me. We are more than co-workers and more than co-labourers. We are a family within a family. Serving alongside men like these is more than I ever expected, and more than I will ever deserve.
The truth is that I began ministry desiring to be the ‘leader’. I was encouraged in that direction numerous times from numerous people. Had I held on to that desire, I would have sacrificed so much growth, love, and, oddly enough, leadership. To this day, people ask me if I am the senior pastor. (The other elders get asked that as well.) Seeing what God has done in my family of leaders, I am happy to reply, “Not at all”.