Podcast: Why Your Church Needs Plural Leadership (Dave Harvey)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

A Fundamental Component of a Healthy Church

In this episode, Dave Harvey discusses why plural leadership, a team of elders, is so crucial for the health of a local church. He explains why he thinks the term plurality is often affirmed, but then also often misunderstood and misapplied, highlights the need for transparency, accountability, and group decision-making among a church’s elder team, and he explains what he means when he says that the senior pastor should be considered the first among equals.

The Plurality Principle

Dave Harvey

This treatment of elder plurality focuses both on how churches can build a healthy elder plurality and thrive as congregations once plurality is established.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:33 - Helping Churches and Ministries Last

Matt Tully
Dave, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Dave Harvey
Matt, it’s great to be with you.

Matt Tully
Dave, you served as a pastor for over thirty years, and you now lead a church planting organization. You’ve also written a number of books, one of which is focused specifically on helping men discern whether or not they’re truly called to vocational pastoral ministry. Could you summarize for us how you view your ministry right now? What’s your focus these days, if you had to boil it down to a couple of sentences?

Dave Harvey
I’ve spent most of my life pastoring, and for the majority of that time I pastored up in Philadelphia and then down in Florida for an additional seven years, and only two years ago did I step out of pastoral ministry in order to more singularly focus on leading a church planting network. I was just getting older and, to be honest, it’s exhausting doing both the network and the local church pastoring ministry. So I thought it would be more effective and probably more timely for me to just do that, which is what I’m doing now. I really want to give the rest of my life to helping pastors and ministries last, and to do that by inspiring them with gospel truths that will help them to lead more effectively. I hope to do that in the realm of church planting and helping to care for pastors along the way.

Matt Tully
Obviously the goal of helping churches and pastors last has a certain timelessness to it. That’s always an important thing that we would want people to be concerned about and helping and supporting pastors in that. But do you feel like there’s a certain timeliness to that kind of ambition today in our moment in history? Do you feel like there’s a real need for people to be focused on that particular thing?

Dave Harvey
No question. I think it was a priority before the coronavirus, and now that the pandemic has hit and guys are tanking all over the place, I think it’s all the more urgent. I was sitting and talking with a guy just recently and he’s telling me about a pastor in the area who just one day walked in after serving ten years and left. He was just burnt out and capsized. He felt like he could no longer lead anymore. I wish I could say that was the only example I can offer, but that’s going on all over the place because it’s just exhausting and ministry is not what men expected and the complexities and decisions and the burdens that they’re carrying is happening in isolation for many of them. And so the choice for them is to survive, and survive often means stepping out of ministry. So, I would love the idea of being able to help men like that, and I like to think that I’m doing that in my role right now as president of Great Commission Collective.

Matt Tully
You said that for many of these men ministry was not what they expected, it’s just different in some important ways. Is there anything to that? Is there something about the seminary or Bible college preparation? That’s kind of the main place that we tend to look to as the place where men are going to be trained up and prepared for vocational ministry, so is there something about what they’re being told and taught there that is not aligned with the reality of day-to-day ministry?

Dave Harvey
I think seminary and Bible school certainly have their place, but it tends to be theological education where they often do the best they can to integrate it into the church, but they’re limited by the institution in doing so. For guys to step out of school and into ministry and discover that it’s dramatically different than they expected is almost a part of every man in ministry’s story. But over the last year, that has just detonated and taken it so far beyond the normal realm of experience and put it in the realm of having to have a knowledge base and a degree of expertise on things that they never even studied or never even imagined. And then to also foist upon guys in ministry a volume of decision making each and every week that ministry doesn’t often demand. So I think those things have made the last year more unique. There’s no way that a seminary or Bible school could prepare guys for that.

06:29 - What Is a Plurality of Leadership?

Matt Tully
You already hit on this a little bit, but that’s where, in an unprecedented pandemic and a crisis like the coronavirus, having a team of leaders who are helping to make those decisions, helping to lead in the unique and challenging ways that pastors have been called to lead in this crazy season that we’re in is obviously so important. But I think to a lesser extent, there’s all kinds of mini crises that churches might face, or difficult situations that churches and pastors will face over their lifetime of ministry where a team would be a big help to the pastor of making sure it doesn’t all fall on his shoulders. In your new book you write, “A plurality of leadership is like the alternator for the church. Most of the time it’s operating out of sight, and most people don’t even know how it works. When it functions as designed, the church remains charged and moving forward. But where the functional plurality of a leadership team is absent, churches stall.” There’s obviously a lot to unpack there, but I want to start at the beginning. When you say “a plurality of leadership,” what do you mean by that? I would imagine that different people might take that a different way.

Dave Harvey
Plurality, as I’m using it, describes the overwhelming New Testament evidence that local church leadership was not singular; the local church leadership was shared, and it was most often shared by elders. Although, I think you could make a case that deacons are included as well. We arrive there because the New Testament terms for pastor, overseer, and elders are almost never used to talk about a single leader who is ruling or governing the church along. Instead, they’re used to reference plural leadership. There’s a number of examples beginning in Acts and all the way throughout the New Testament: elders (plural), overseers (plural), etc. And so theologians and commentators have, throughout history, inferred from that that New Testament leadership among elders was a shared task and that that was intentional by God as the best way for church leadership to happen and the best way for churches to thrive.

Matt Tully
There’s a nuance to one of the phrases in that quote that I want to dig into a bit. You say, “. . . where the functional plurality of a leadership team is absent, churches stall.” Why was it important to you to include that world functional and not just say, . . . where the plurality of leadership is absent, churches stall?

Dave Harvey
Because the term plurality is often used, but not understood. Leaders gain currency by using the term plurality and don’t often fill that out and necessarily function in it. I use the word functional plurality because I think it’s a lot more than simply saying, Hey, there’s a group of guys here who are elders. Plurality means that the authority for the church inheres not in a single guy but in a group, and that the church is therefore led with a team and through a team and that, in a very real sense, Scripture assumes that team wisdom is better than one man’s genius. I think that it’s really something that becomes not simply a polity distinctive, but it becomes one of the primary ways to lead the church and one of the primary ways to lead the church into health. So, the fundamental theme of the book that I’ve written is the quality of your plurality determines the health of your church. Let me just illustrate it this way: I think plurality is often viewed as a job task alongside a wide array of other tasks that maybe a senior pastor has to tend to. Or, if the guys are elders they’re saying, Yeah guys, we need to do this together, and they kind of affirm that and then move on their way. But it’s better to see plurality as the doorway to effective ministry. Growing up in Pittsburgh, my grandfather was a carpenter in a steel mill and he had this saw that he took meticulous care of. My grandfather was known for doing great work, but he would say that his great work was because he had these few well-maintained tools. Plurality is one of those primary tools that you use to get healthy churches. It needs to prioritized; it needs to be tended and looked after and well maintained; and through it, we do our best work.

Matt Tully
Let’s get into the biblical support for that. You’ve already given us a little bit of a taste—that there’s this visible pattern of plurality that we seem to see in the New Testament—but you’re emphasizing this as being not just one way to do ministry or one way to lead a church, but that this is crucial for the health of a church. What would you say to somebody who hears that but says, But Scripture doesn’t come out and teach that very clearly. We have to kind of infer this pattern, so does that mean that it’s necessary or required for all churches? What would be your response to that?

Dave Harvey
I used the word earlier infer; perhaps a better word to use is explicit because I think when you go through the catalog of passages where elders are referenced and that they’re all plural, then that’s more explicit. Acts 14: elders (plural) are appointed to every church. Acts 20: overseers (plural) shepherd the flock in Ephesus. Paul writes to the Philippians: elders (plural); the overseers (plural). We could walk through New Testament Epistles and letters and see that it’s always plural, and so in the mind of the Holy Spirit and in the mind of the writers of the letters they were writing to a group of people assuming that the authority and the message needed to go to the whole group because the authority resided in the whole group, and the leadership for the church rested in the hands of the full group. I think it is more explicit and not simply inferred. I think it’s vital—regardless of whether you’re Presbyterian, Congregational, Episcopalian—regardless of where you hail from and what your tradition is, it all kind of moves back into the local church and how the local church is going to be led. While I think we can make a case from Scripture for the existence of a senior pastor, there’s a stronger case to be made for plurality. So, the plurality is the starting point. Then, if there’s a senior guy, he derives his existence and his authorization to lead from that plurality.

Matt Tully
That’s so interesting. So you would say that if we were going to emphasize one thing from Scripture, it’s plurality of elders, not a senior pastor? The role of a senior pastor is less supported in Scripture, if you had to compare the two to each other?

Dave Harvey
I think there’s certainly a pattern of leadership and a pattern of wisdom where God uses one to influence many, that if we were going to do a biblical theology beginning in Genesis and ending in Revelation, we could see that. But there also is, in Israel and then in the New Testament church, there is this first among equals that seems to exist, and that principle continues to remain in the New Testament church. And so I think we have a place to be able to appoint a senior pastor; I think there’s good reason to, but we never want to elevate the senior pastor above the plurality. The senior pastor, in some ways, exists to ensure the plurality is functioning well and doing what the plurality must do in order for the church to experience health.

15:40 - Benefits of a Plurality of Leadership

Matt Tully
I want to return to that idea of the first among equals and even the practical reality of how a plurality actually functions together; but before we do that, what would you say are some of the key benefits to a local church—that could be to the congregation, to the staff pastors, to the elders—what are the key benefits of true plurality?

Dave Harvey
Great question. This is not necessarily in the order of importance, but I think there are more obvious benefits like the fact that it spreads the workload among other elders and workers; it spreads the burden for the overall governance of the church to other workers. It allows us to fill roles according to our gifts as well. A senior pastor can be appointed, gifts can be identified and strategically deployed according to the way God has graced a person. I think another benefit is that it creates a model to apply truth that will then be exported to the church out of the reality of what that group is experiencing. It’s good to think about the eldership as a microcosm of the church so that we are experiencing together what we want the church to experience, and we are leading together in the things that we want to lead the church in. We’re modeling that for the church, and if it doesn’t work here, then it might be hard to take it to the church with any degree of credibility.

Matt Tully
I’m sure many of us have experienced in a small group context where when the “leader” of the group is willing to be transparent and share something that they’re struggling with and ask for prayer and help, that has a disproportionately powerful impact on the rest of the group in encouraging people to do likewise.

Dave Harvey
It does. For the plurality, it has a deep impact when they see either the senior pastor do that or a statured elder do that. And then in the church, it has the same effect when people in the church see the elders do that. That’s why building it among the plurality becomes so important. One of the things about plurality is that it requires real humility for plurality to work. If the plurality of leaders is the engine that drives the church, then humility is like the oil that lubricates the engine. I think that’s intentional. I’ve told people before when I’ve taught on this: my theory is that God loves humility; that’s why he came up with plurality because plurality doesn’t work without humility. For you to have a healthy plurality, you have to have passed through humility and imbibed humility and applied humility. Plurality imposes process; it imposes communication; it requires patience on the task of governing. And that’s intentional because God is not just sitting up there measuring the leadership of the church by the ends. He’s up there measuring us by both ends and means. So, for church leaders, it’s never just about what we achieve; it’s also about how we achieve it.

19:44 - Objections to a Plurality of Leadership

Matt Tully
My guess is that for some people, that might be one of the initial kinds of negative responses to this idea that a pastor might have; namely, to do this it feels so inefficient. It feels like it’s so cumbersome to make these team decisions. I’m so much more effective if I can just make the call and then start acting on that. But you’re saying, maybe even some of that is intentional by God. He has a purpose for that inefficiency.

Dave Harvey
Yes, I believe that. It’s not an inefficiency in the mind of God; it’s an inefficiency from a human standard because we measure things differently than God does. God is as jealous for what he’s doing in us as for what is happening through us. We tend to be excessively focused on what is happening through us. I just think God values patience more than we do. I was just looking at my bookshelf to see the name of this book that I read last year. I think it was called The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. Basically, it was a book that was advocating how in the first three centuries, patience was the primary virtue that the church sought to measure success by. In the way that we would elevate humility today, patience was the primary virtue because they saw that as a primary theme in Scripture, and so that’s what they tried (among other things) to reproduce in leaders and in the church. We don’t even use that as a category today, or it’s not nearly talked about as much. And yet, I think it’s a pretty profound message in Scripture.

Matt Tully
That’s so fascinating. In your extensive experience talking with pastors and church leaders over the years—advising them, counseling them, writing books for them—how common, would you say, is a truly functional plurality of leadership in American evangelicalism?

Dave Harvey
I wrote the book because I felt like this was a weakness. I know that just in my own life, in the times when we’ve had an effective plurality, it’s required an enormous amount of work and attention. I have a burden to see that because I think it’s even more important in these pandemic and post-pandemic days that we’re living in, as we’re trying to make sense of the tumbles of different celebrity pastors, and we’re just trying to find our way forward in a way where we don’t feel so isolated. I think plurality is one of the main ways that God can provide a delightful experience in ministry where we’re not bearing these burdens alone, and we’re actually sharing the joy of being in ministry and applying the gospel together in a way that thrills us, grows us, and then models something for the church. I think there’s a great opportunity for the message of plurality right now, and I’m eager to see people have a chance to read the book and process the information.

Matt Tully
In your experience talking with pastors and leaders, for those who aren’t convinced—or at least, weren’t convinced—that this is as important as you’re making it out to be, what are some of the most common objections to the plural leadership that you’re promoting here that you hear from skeptical pastors and leaders?

Dave Harvey
You touched on one already: it’s inefficient. There’s a way of looking at it where there’s all of a sudden more conversation, the belief that there’s going to be more meetings, and an understanding that leadership should be able to move quickly. I do believe there are times where responsibility needs to be centralized, particularly in crisis where leaders have to be able to move quickly. But in general, there’s a belief that it’s just inefficient, and we talked about how God imposes that because it calls forth humility, it calls forth patience. I think that another common objection is that it diminishes the importance of gifted leaders by just leveling the playing field, that it kind of eliminates the importance of the leadership gift. That’s where, in the book, I was trying to be very diligent to protect the role of a senior leader, of a first among equals, who is authorized by the plurality to help the plurality, and to position the elders in keeping with their best roles. A wise elder board understands that creativity, innovation, and leadership gifts have to be supported and protected in order for the church to flourish. I think that you have to pair those things together, but I do think that’s one of the common objections. Another thing, Matt, is it costs a lot, and I don’t mean financially. I just think that there’s a commitment that you make; and yet, the commitment that you make is also part of my selling point. It’s part of the incredible experience and the opportunity because we all cherish these memories that we have of accomplishing something, not just by ourselves, but with a group of people that made us better. Whether it’s the big game or fixing some problem that we never expected to be able to get through. I remember us building a building in a church I was in up in Philadelphia and the experience of feeling alive because you accomplished something; not just as an individual, but you did it together. You realized those were moments of flourishing. Those were moments where you were the best that you were on earth and that God was good and his graciousness and goodness was tangible and palpable, and you want that for people. But that only comes by committing to this idea and seeing the importance of it in the local church.

26:40 - What about Disagreements?

Matt Tully
Let’s dig into the idea of the senior pastor—a concept that you’re not throwing out and saying is unimportant and has no place. You’ve used this phrase a few times: first among equals. Unpack that a little bit. What does that look like? Maybe let’s just jump right to the key moment that probably everyone is thinking of: How does that play out when there’s a disagreement on the elder team? Let’s say the senior pastor feels like they should do one thing, and some (or all) of the lay elders are saying, No, we don’t know if that’s a good idea. What happens then?

Dave Harvey
I think there has to be conversation; there has to be communication; there has to be a culture where disagreement and dissent is a part of the culture; and then there has to be a willingness to subordinate oneself—whether it’s the senior pastor or whether it’s one of the elders—to subordinate themselves to what may be, over time, the wisdom of the group. One of the examples I use in the book is about how when Bethlehem Baptist Church arrived at their position on divorce and remarriage, that John Piper—the man leading the church—did not agree with the position that the church was adopting, but that the elders felt like it was, in the wisdom of God, the best thing for their church. And so John Piper had to walk the church through a position that he didn’t agree with because the elders felt like it was the best thing. The elders wisely afforded John the opportunity to share why he dissented from it. So John Piper still saw it as his responsibility to provide the leadership, his responsibility to dissent wisely, his responsibility to unify around elders—with whom he disagreed, but trusted God. He didn’t just resign and walk away, but resigned himself that God is speaking, but was allowed also to exercise his conscience and even give voice to it among the people. That’s healthy plurality there at work, and there’s a lot of different values that are on display just in that one illustration.

Matt Tully
Speak maybe to your own experience. You were a pastor, as we said, for over thirty years, and I’m sure there were situations where you, as a staff pastor, were not in full agreement with some (or all) of your elders. Speak from that side of the table: What was that like? Did you ever struggle with feeling threatened, perhaps, by that dynamic and struggle to model some of the humility that you’ve been describing today? What was that like for you?

Dave Harvey
I definitely had difficulty modeling humility. I think that every senior pastor has a burden and a responsibility to work hard to create a culture where the elders are heard, because there is almost an inherent deference to the senior pastor, particularly if there are lay elders there. They’re even a step removed sometimes and will be more apt to just defer to the person who they hired and who seems to display gifts and competence and just let him run with it. So, the senior pastor has to be determined to coax out of the elders their opinions and perspective, and elders have to feel duty-bound to share that so that they can then either agree or move forward at least having heard all perspectives. So I think that early on my vision for leadership was over leadership, and I felt like I had more of a mandate from God to be able to lead and guide, and the plurality did not mean as much. I even talk about in the book some of the mistakes and failures that I made in that period. It was through those mistakes and failures that I began to realize that leading with a group of men and having other elders around me was going to be far more significant than I ever imagined. I never imagined that this was going to be a primary locus for my sanctification. I knew marriage was going to be; I knew parenting was going to be; but I didn’t realize that eldership and plurality were going to be so essential. I began to realize that I need to give my time and attention to developing this plurality so that it operates not only on behalf of the church and not only for each of the members of the plurality, but for my own godliness and endurability in ministry.

Matt Tully
It makes me think of something that Mark Dever, the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C., he has observed that same kind of dynamic and has written a few articles about the intentionality with which he’s had to approach things like elder meetings—trying to withhold his own opinion at times to make sure that everyone else feels a freedom to share what they’re thinking.

Dave Harvey
I think when there’s a weak plurality, I think one of the dangers that’s good to talk about in this day and age is that there’s often an unmapped power at work in the church. There's always power that’s being exercised somewhere in a church environment. It’s really wise for us to know exactly where it is and to know how it’s working and how the influence is taking place. I think good plurality allows us to map power and to be able to identify where it’s supposed to come from and to legitimize those sources and delegitimize other sources where necessary because I think that some of the abuse that takes place in the church today is because of that unmapped power. It’s not understood.

Matt Tully
By “unmapped,” are you getting at the fact that it might not be formally listed on the church website so to speak, but it is operational in a functional way?

Dave Harvey
Exactly. Yes.

33:26 - Practical Advice for Pastors and Lay Elders

Matt Tully
Speak to three types of people that I imagine could be listening right now. First, speak to the pastor listening—the vocational pastor—who would have to say he’s just not convinced that plural leadership, like you’ve described, is something that his church really needs. Maybe he’s thinking, We’ve been operating without the kind of leadership team that you’re describing for years—maybe even decades. Things are going fine. I’m preaching from the Bible, people are being discipled, people are coming to Christ, the church is even growing. In short, I think my church is actually pretty healthy and we’re doing okay. What would you say to that?

Dave Harvey
I would thank God for the fruit that I’m hearing from the church, and I think that there is a grace that exists where people who don’t have the full information or aren’t walking in all of the light, and I don’t despise that or feel like something wrong is going on there. So, I just thank God that there is fruit. I do think that we need to arrive at our convictions on plurality not simply because they’re pragmatic, but because they’re biblical. There is a beauty and a testimony that rings forth from team ministry that does not ring forth from the singular gifted guy. It ultimately has a better impact and a deeper impact on the church—for the good of the church and for the thriving of the church. I wrote the book to be a part of that process, to give guys like that something to discuss. We’re working on a study guide and some additional tools right now as well. I would just say, start with studying Scripture and see how that cross-examines your convictions and where that leaves you. But also, study some models where it is happening and ask questions about why people chose to go in that direction and what might be missing from your experience in ministry. Honestly, Matt, I don’t think there are many men out there in ministry that are saying, I’m going it alone, and it is such a blessing! I think the majority of them that are going it alone long for this plurality that we’re talking about.

Matt Tully
What would you say to the pastor who is in that group—he’s convinced by what you’ve said. He has studied the issue to some extent and knows, or senses, that maybe things need to change—whether that’s formally or even just functionally—but he doesn’t really know where to start. What should he do as a next step?

Dave Harvey
I think it helps to have a conversation with the other elders and talk about what he feels he sees, what he feels is lacking in his own life, and just to honestly share his heart and what his vision is for a team of people that are caring for one another, loving one another, and that mission is happening in the church more effectively as a result of that. There’s a chapter in the book called “The Plurality Tune-Up.” It’s dedicated as an assessment tool that will invite elderships to evaluate themselves and their plurality under four different categories. A guy like that could take that chapter and say, Let’s go through this. There are questions that are provided here; let’s just talk about these questions. Maybe do that on a retreat or an all-day meeting together.

Matt Tully
For the final category, speak to the lay elder who is part of a church leadership team that, again, formally exists to lead the church, but functionally, he would say, that isn’t really happening. The senior pastor, or any of the staff pastors, exert such dominant control, and maybe have such a strong personality even, that it really doesn’t function as a team. What should he do?

Dave Harvey
The first thing I want a lay elder to hear is how grateful I am for their vision to serve the church and the sacrifices that they make to do so, which I think is a different set of sacrifices than somebody that is called into pastoral ministry and is an elder. Yes, let’s just acknowledge that the experience of a lay elder is different, and that a good plurality and a good senior pastor is going to try to narrow the gap as much as possible. But there are things that happen in the office and in the way that things move forward that they’re just not a part of. So I think it’s good for them to recognize that, and we have to ensure that they recognize that and that they’re always working to try to narrow that gap. I would put that under the category of “understanding.” Understanding that there is a distinction. You can work to minimize it, but it’s always going to be there, and it seems like something that sovereignty and providence has fixed. Secondly, it’s amazing how often things come back to communication, but to be honestly sitting and talking about how you’re experiencing this eldership and to be able to sit and say, These are the ways that I feel that God is at work in us and through us. These are the things that I feel like are missing that I personally long for, and I don’t feel like it is an unreasonable expectation in light of the fact that I’m a lay elder. I recognize there’s going to be a difference, but this still seems like a reasonable expectation. Have those conversations and invite interaction over that. I think it just closes the gap by being able to talk about them and being able to define what is a reasonable expectation and what might not be possible.


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