One Pastor or Many? The Case for a Plurality of Pastors

The Big Idea (XXL)We hear the stories all too often. Another pastor experiences moral failure; abuse of pastoral authority; the congregation growing disgruntled that it’s the “pastor’s way or the highway.” Furthermore, we hear countless stories of not simply pastoral sin, but pastoral burnout and depression. Unfortunately, many church leadership structures are established in such a way that pastors are much more likely to experience burnout, higher level of criticism, moral failure, stress, lack of fruit, and ultimately – ministry failure. For example, 40 percent of pastors claim to be suffering from exhaustion, and as a result some fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry every month because of conflict, moral failure, or burnout.[1]

What is the solution to this crucial problem in the church? To help find solutions, I want to address the following question: Should churches be led by one primary pastor, or multiple pastors (often known as a “plurality”)?

Over a series of seven posts, I will make the following argument: The Bible, church history, and conventional wisdom communicate that the healthiest model of church leadership is one in which leadership responsibilities are shared among a plurality of pastors. In the same way that God said, “ . . . it is not good that man should be alone . . . ” (Genesis 2:18), it is not good that pastors should attempt to shepherd their churches alone (apart from sharing the burden of pastoral ministry alongside other called, gifted, and qualified men).

In this initial post, I will offer a brief summary of what I will call the “plural pastor” model. In subsequent posts, we will discuss arguments from the Bible, church history, and basic wisdom that support the plural pastor model. Finally, we will address common objections to the plural pastor model. It is important to note that others may refer to the model I will propose as “elder-led congregationalism,” where the terms “pastor” and “elder” are synonymous.[2]

Who then, makes the decisions in this model – the congregation or the pastors/elders? Mark Dever offers a helpful summary of this model by pointing out the three spheres of authority in these type churches. He includes the absolute headship of Jesus Christ, and then the authority of the pastors in leading, teaching, praying, and shepherding. Finally, he includes the authority of the congregation when it comes to matters of church discipline, voting on its officers, a final approval of the church budget, and other related items.[3]

The Freedom to Lead

While affirming the elder-led congregational form of church government, it is important that the pastors are not unnecessarily limited in their leadership by the weight of the congregation, but are given the freedom to lead – so long as they are humbly operating under the authority of Christ and His Word. However, this model does not call for an absolute authority, and it certainly does not call for any form of a dictatorship. In the words of Strauch, the pastors “ . . . are not a ruling oligarchy. They cannot do or say whatever they want. The church does not belong to the elders; it is Christ’s church and God’s flock.”[4] Instead, Peter tells pastors that they should exercise leadership over their flock in a way that is, “ . . . not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Furthermore, what is being advocated is a pastor-led model, not a pastor-ruled model. In this more extreme view of the plural model, elders make most, if not all of the decisions in the church. While congregational insight may or may not be sought, the elders’ decision is final and they undeniably rule the church.[5] I am not advocating for this view.

While the plural pastor model does not call for a leadership that is above congregational insight and affirmation, it does rightly recognize the biblical distinction between pastors and the congregation. It also suggests that the congregation is to graciously follow the leadership of its pastors. Tragically, this is a rarity in a number of churches that claim congregationalism. In the words of Stetzer and Dodson, “There are many ‘religious’ voices proclaiming that pastors should not lead.”[6] Furthermore, in many of these same churches the pastors are simply viewed as a “chaplain,” not a leader, and the church remains committed to an employer/employee model.[7]

Alternatively, we see the writer of Hebrews telling the church to, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). Both humble imitation and gracious submission are the biblically intended responses of church members to its pastors. The most fruitful churches will be those in which the pastors are humble men who are given the freedom to lead and make decisions for the vision and ministries of the church, so long as they operate in accordance with the Scriptures. In other words, the plural pastor model will not be effective unless pastors are afforded this opportunity to actually lead, apart from being bound by a board of deacons or an overtly democratic-driven system of congregationalism.

In the next post, I will discuss the biblical arguments for a plurality of pastors. In the mean time, please begin to interact below in the “comment” section with initial observations, questions, and concerns.

 

[1] Daniel Sherman, PastorBurnout.com, “Pastor Burnout Statistics,” http://www.pastorburnout.com/pastor-burnout-statistics.html.

[2] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 294.

[3] Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, 226.

[4]Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 291.

[5] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers, 294.

[6] Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson, Comeback Churches, 51.

[7] Ibid, 23.

One comment

  1. My church in Franklin, Tn., Church of the City, formerly The Peoples Church (a/k/a FBC, Franklin) is a result of the merge of a young congregation with an older congregation, and taking Church of the City name. We have several pastors, all sharing the pulpit but with a lead pastor. We also have Elders as well as Deacons. The Elder Board served us well when we merged and we are a wonderful mix of young and old. The Elder Boards from their congregation and our congregation also merged and took the lead in bringing about a smooth transition. I love it! Appreciated your article.

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