Should churches be led by one primary pastor, or multiple pastors (often known as a “plurality”)?
Over the past three posts, I’ve been making the case that 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. The particular model I have in mind is “elder-led congregationalism,” where the terms “pastor” and “elder” are synonymous.
In the words of Mark Dever, “I can honestly say that moving to a plurality of elders in our church has been the single most helpful event to me in my pastoral ministry here in Washington, D.C.” Why does this model have the potential to be so helpful? While we have considered the biblical and historical arguments for each church having a plurality of pastors, we will now begin to consider seven practical benefits of the plural model. Today’s post will cover the first three.
No single pastor is gifted in every area related to pastoral ministry. Every pastor has strengths and weaknesses. Strauch wisely observes,
Most pastors are not multitalented leaders, nor are they well suited to singularly lead a congregation effectively. They have personality flaws and talent deficiencies that cause them and the congregation considerable vexation. When placed in a council of qualified pastors, however, a pastor’s strengths make important contributions to the church and his weaknesses are covered by the strengths of others.
In spite of this conventional wisdom, many churches that choose the single pastor model, whether they admit it or not, are operating under the assumption that their pastor can effectively serve as a jack-of-all-trades. This line of thinking might be called the “shotgun” approach; that is, the pastor finds himself spread very thin in a wide variety of ministry-related activities – many of which could more effectively be performed by someone else. The problem with a single pastor having to bear so many ministries in the church is not only that he may find himself working on tasks where he is not overtly gifted – but even more than this – he has less time to devote to those ministries where he is most likely to thrive and be successful.
However, when a pastor shares the burdens of the ministry with other qualified men, this frees him up to focus on those areas in which he is most gifted. As opposed to the “shotgun” approach, this can be referred to as the “rifle” approach. In other words, in the plural model, each pastor has the unique opportunity to focus primarily on a particular area of ministry, allowing the gifts of the other pastors to complement his own, thus producing greater success in ministry.
For example, many primary preaching pastors are not able to spend sufficient time in sermon preparation simply because they are so consumed with a number of other responsibilities that could easily be handled by other pastors. In defending the balanced approach to pastoral ministry where the preaching pastor is afforded more time to focus on his unique area of giftedness, Reeder argues,
But whatever the governmental structure may be in your church, the important point to understand is that the ministry of the Word cannot flourish and bring new life to the body unless those who preach and teach have the time to prepare. So a leadership structure must be in place that can free up the pastor, especially, to do the hard work necessary for this ministry. So many pastors are forced to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.
Adds Pastoral Wisdom and Humility
Two heads, or more, are better than one. Dever asserts “Sharing leadership with a group of godly, able non-staff elders will almost invariably keep pastors (especially young ones) from saying or doing dumb things, or from saying or doing the right things in unhelpful ways.” No single man is all-knowing. Pastors are only wise to seek the counsel of other men, in particular, those to whom God has also given a shepherd’s heart. Certainly, a single pastor can seek the counsel of pastors outside of his own church, and this is advised, yet this outside wisdom is not to be compared to the contextual wisdom possessed by those fellow-elders who are love and care for the same people in the same church.
Similarly, when a pastor serves alongside other qualified men, the fact that decisions are often being made collectively seems to innately promote an environment of humility among the leadership. No single man is making every decision. As a result, no single man can take all the credit for the successes of his church. This can be uniquely helpful for the Lead Pastor, who is generally more recognized as the “face of the church” simply because he is typically the primary preaching pastor and is seen the most by the congregation. However, by serving with a plurality of pastors, when referring to the leadership of the church, the Lead Pastor is able to effectively use “we” language as opposed to “I” language. Not only is this beneficial for the pastor’s ego, but it helps in effort to prevent the body from becoming overly dependent on one single man.
Less Likely to Burnout
As stated in our first post in this series, 40 percent of pastors claim to suffer from burnout. Additionally, pastors struggle with obesity, hypertension, and depression at higher rates than most Americans. Three out of every four pastors report severe stress causing anguish, worry, anger, fear, and alienation. Tragically, 80 percent of pastors believe that pastoral ministry affects their family negatively.
The problem is undeniable. Rainer reports that in 70 percent of the churches in America, the pastor serves as the only full-time staff person. He then adds, “In this environment he is often expected to be omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. It is little wonder that many pastors have such little emotional reserves to lead a church in the discovery and implementation of its vision.” Multiple surveys of churches continue to indicate weary leaders who are simply emotionally and physically exhausted.
Does following a plural pastor model guarantee the elimination of this problem? Certainly not – however, it takes a significant load off one single man, thus decreasing his likelihood of burnout. In Stetzer’s study of “comeback churches” it was discovered that bodies of believers came to the realization that a single pastor simply cannot do everything that needs to be done in the ministry. However, when a pastor is serving alone, if he wants to keep his job, he simply has no choice but to make every hospital visit, funeral, wedding, ministry-related meeting, and church function. After all, he is the “pastor” and he is expected to watch over his congregation.
However, when he is serving with other men who are not simply considered by the church to be “staff guys,” but men who are actually recognized as pastors, he enjoys the freedom of a work-life balance. In this context, none of the pastors are as likely to feel pressure to attend every single event or meet each ministry need.
Not only does this freedom to not feel the pressure to “do everything and be everywhere” decrease the pastor’s chance of burnout, but it also serves as an incredible blessing to his wife and children. In my time as Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Pleasant Valley Community Church, no single element has better served the health and vitality of my family than serving alongside a plurality of pastors who can help share the load. Gene Getz is exactly right when he argues, “No dynamic provides a greater sense of confidence for a primary leader and his family than to know that a group of Godly men and their wives stand with him with one heart and mind.”
 Mark Dever, The Deliberate Church, 135.
 Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership, 41-42.
 Harry Reeder, From Embers to A Flame, 159.
 Ibid, 124.
 Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church, 133-134.
 Daniel Sherman, PastorBurnout.com, “Pastor Burnout Statistics,” http://www.pastorburnout.com/pastor-burnout-statistics.html.
 Thom S. Rainer and Chuck Lawless, Eating the Elephant, 21.
 Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson, Comeback Churches, 139.
 Gene A. Getz, Elders and Leaders: God’s Plan for Leading the Church, A Biblical, Historical, and Cultural Perspective, 242.