10 Things You Should Know about Shared Church Leadership
This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. Elders are called to plurality, to lead as a part of a team.
The Bible rarely talks about stand-alone leaders. Instead, it speaks of plurality—the scriptural evidence that New Testament churches were led by leadership teams. In the New Testament, the term “elder” designates an office to which a man is appointed—whether by the other elders or by the congregation—on the basis of particular gifts and character qualities he possesses (Titus 1:5–9; 1 Tim. 3:1–7). There are various terms used to describe the role of pastor or elder in the Bible, and there are a variety of ways that pastoral teams organize in churches. But the New Testament terms for pastor, overseer, and elder are never used to talk about a single leader ruling or governing the church alone. Instead, they indicate and celebrate plural leadership (Acts 14:23, 15:6, 20:28; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 4:14, 5:17; Titus 1:5, 1 Peter 5:1–2, 5).
2. Elder pluralities must agree with one another.
Elders are called to define and protect the doctrinal borders of the church and to corporately lead the church in a defined direction. The team doesn’t need to agree on everything, but they do need to be united around essential doctrines, beginning with the gospel, and their local church’s particular mission. The church is a theological entity. So, theological men united by theological agreement must lead it. This begins with a doctrinal unity grounded upon a statement of faith or common creeds and confessions to which each elder subscribes (Eph. 4:1–16).
3. Elder pluralities must care for one another.
You can be an accountant with a disordered soul. You can be a mechanic with an estranged marriage or with kids who think you are a hypocrite. But, for pastors, the quality of our ministry is vitally connected to our spiritual health. Lasting in ministry means we must know our heart and know how God’s Word speaks to what we see and what we can’t see. We need church cultures where people learn to care for each other (Gal. 5: 13-14), and the elder plurality is the catalyst of that culture. It starts with how they relate to each other. Elders must take ownership and build care for one another into regular leadership rhythms.
The Plurality Principle
This treatment of elder plurality focuses both on how churches can build a healthy elder plurality and thrive as congregations once plurality is established.
4. Elder pluralities flourish under good leadership.
There is no single, slam-dunk verse that decisively proves that pluralities should appoint a senior leader. But there is a broad pattern of order—a beautiful tapestry of leadership—that appears from the opening pages of Scripture to the final words in Revelation. The necessity of a “first among co-equals” in human economies is resonant in the way the Son submits to his Father in the incarnation (Phil. 2:5–11), as well as in the order God ordains in the home (Eph. 5:21–33).
Now, I want to be clear. A team leader—or, to use the more common titles, lead/senior pastor—is not a call to headship over the team. Though the authority for the church inheres in the entire eldership, a wise elder team will still authorize one among them with humble character, leadership gifts, and public ministry skills to fulfill this role. To this man they delegate the necessary authority to cultivate the unity and growth of the plurality, to lead the team into wise decision-making, and to help the elders assume proper responsibility and accountability for the varying ministries of the church.
5. Elder pluralities need to meet together regularly.
This point typically elicits a collective groan. Many men I know dread meetings, feeling that they interrupt important work. But the locus for elder governance-—meaning the place from where governance is exercised—is the elder's meeting. How does governance happen here? The two levers of elder governance, meaning the specific means by which governing takes place, are: (1) the decisions made, and (2) the policies enacted in the elders meeting.
When elders meet, the agendas for our meetings should reflect an understanding that elders are called to govern the church, not micromanage the details of church life. A wise plurality recognizes that their meetings will be most effective when the agenda is limited to critical matters, ones that clarify the doctrine and advance the mission of the church. We must also remember that when leaders gather, God is present with his own agenda. We should launch into our scheduled agenda with faith and flexibility, recognizing that it’s incumbent upon us to be both organized in our deliberations but also responsive to God.
6. Elder pluralities must hold one another accountable.
Plurality creates a community of care, support, and accountability that guards the calling, life, and doctrine of leaders (1 Tim. 4:14, 16; Titus 1:6; James 5:16). Where plurality truly exists, pastors and elders remain appropriately engaged, loved, guided, and harnessed together. Plurality also acknowledges human limitations by recognizing that no one elder or pastor can possess the full complement of gifts God intends to use to bless and build the church (1 Cor. 12:21). This practice, in fact, discourages narcissistic personalities who look to exercise unique and exclusive authority or control within a team.
Plurality creates a community of care, support, and accountability that guards the calling, life, and doctrine of leaders.
7. Elder pluralities should not be replaced by outside experts or advisors.
I’m grateful to God for the array of specialized ministries that God has given to the body of Christ. Every local church needs access to lawyers, counselors, consultants, seminary professors, and leadership or ministry coaches. These people, their ministries, and their spiritual gifts can sharpen pastoral leaders, supply essential perspectives, and help elder teams to wisely steward their responsibilities. But these ministries exist to supplement, not replace, local elder teams. Thankfully, most experts know they don’t hold the same responsibility before God for the local church that local elders do. But it’s not always clear that elders grasp this detail. Practically, this means that the advisors’ expertise and care should never displace or expert out the wisdom, prayer, and deliberation of God’s appointed shepherds. You see, “the Holy Spirit has made [them] overseers, to care for the church of God” (Acts 20:28).
8. Plurality requires humility and mutual trust.
In fact, humility is the oil that lubricates the engine of plurality. The prophet Isaiah says, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2). When you consider all of the ways God could have chosen to set up church governance, I’d suggest our loving Father must have had this in mind. God loves unity, so he calls us to a team—a place where we must humbly persevere with and trust one another to function effectively. God loves making us holy, so he unites us to men who will make us grow. God loves patience, so he imposes a way of governing that requires humble listening and a trust that he is working in the lives of others. God loves humility, so he gave us plurality.
9. Plurality is a great responsibility and a greater joy!
Each member of an elder team needs to understand his role and its significance. Each elder in a plurality possesses authority from God to serve as a shepherd, guide, and protector of their church. Each man is responsible to rightly apply the word of truth (Titus 1:9–11; 2 Tim. 2:15). They may delegate authority to lead pastors or directional/managing elders, and they may empower a task force on occasion. But as a member of the plurality, each elder possesses an equal share of God-given authority for the church (1 Thess. 5:12–13; 1 Tim. 3:5; Heb. 13:7; Acts 20:28). So, if an elder is slow to evaluate ministries, meetings, or opportunities to work for the good of the members, or, if when he does, his words are so qualified or mitigated that the points for constructive criticism get lost, he should re-examine either his courage or his call. A reluctant elder rarely experiences genuine fellowship or relationship with others.
However, when the responsibilities are owned, serving together becomes a great joy. Together, we can take the risk and live devoted to the biblical vision of plurality, not because we have perfect communion—we’re still fallen and flawed—but because we know deep in the recesses of our soul that the only leadership story worth living is a life where we lead together. As we commit to one another, we cultivate the courage to love boldly, suffer graciously, build with longevity, and trust God unshakably. And, in our humble, others-centered commitment to one another, churches are built and people are served.
10. The quality of a leadership plurality determines the health of a church.
Shared leadership helps us to have strength, unity, and integrity. It can help our churches have durability for mission and care. The church can’t afford to sidestep this vital issue. Plurality is God’s means of leading the church to fulfill its purpose.
Healthy pluralities must embody common beliefs, mutual respect, collaborative relationships, and a sense of both their shared history and responsibilities. Embodying this sort of culture takes time and effort; a plurality does not magically become a band of brothers. But the effort is worth it. In fact, the importance of keeping the plurality cannot be overstated. Like it or not, the culture of an eldership determines the health of a church.
Dave Harvey is the author of The Plurality Principle: How to Build and Maintain a Thriving Church Leadership Team.
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