Team Preaching

Why Our Pastors Share the Pulpit

For almost seven years now, our team of (both paid and lay) pastors has not only led as a team (a “plurality” of elders), but also taught as a team, which includes preaching as a team. If you ask a member, “Who’s the preacher?” they wouldn’t give you just one name. Some of us preach more than others, but the pulpit at Cities Church is manifestly not the work of one pastor, but the team of pastors.

I’m writing to commend team preaching as a worthy biblical option and encourage pastors and congregations that it may be more desirable, and attainable, than first assumed.

What Is Team Preaching?

Since our planting, one of our church’s stated values has been “team teaching.” Now, teaching and preaching are not identical in the New Testament. We have no formal requirement that every elder preaches, but we do expect that the pastor-elders are able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9), which we take to mean not just able in theory but teachers in practice. For us, team teaching doesn’t mean that all our (nine) pastor-elders teach with the same frequency, but it does mean that we teach the congregation as a team, which includes the Sunday-morning preaching.

We do not relegate the pulpit work, or the rest of the church’s teaching, to the lead pastor to handle as much as he can alone and then fill slots when he’s on vacation. We value plurality in teaching, and preaching, just as we value the plurality of elders in decision-making, oversight, and pastoral ministry throughout the week. We begin not by asking how the lead pastor can preach as much as possible, but by asking how we can most effectively teach and preach as a team of pastors.

To be clear, we do have a “lead pastor,” and believe that’s wise in any plurality. A team needs someone to be the captain and buckstopper, the leader of the elder team — someone who takes initiative to organize the team and draw out opinions and convictions, gladly shouldering extra responsibility for the team, not just for the church. It is fitting for such a “lead pastor” to preach as much as, or more than, the other pastors; however, we do not think that it necessitates that he preach most of the time.

Also, by “team preaching,” we do not mean that the pastors work together on individual sermons or borrow ideas from each other without proper attribution. At times, we consult briefly on big-picture ideas related to an expository series, or we exchange text messages or preview manuscripts when working on difficult passages. But each preacher does his own work in the biblical texts, experiences the glories for himself, and finds his way, under Christ, of heralding the glories to the congregation in a sermon that is his own, even if the pulpit is not.

Team Leadership in the New Testament

We do find one shining example of a lone preacher in the New Testament: Jesus.

When his miracle-working drew crowds, he didn’t point to Peter and take a seat. He preached — every time, so far as we know. He did train his disciples, and send them out to preach (Mark 3:14), but Jesus himself was not a team preacher. Nor was he a team Messiah. As the unique God-man, he had an irreplaceable life to live, and death to die. He died alone, without his disciples at his side, and he preached alone, without their teamwork. So, there is a place in the church for acknowledging and appreciating “the Preacher” who doesn’t share his pulpit: Christ. Part of his unique glory as Son of God and Savior is that Jesus didn’t preach as part of a team.

“Part of his unique glory as Son of God and Savior is that Jesus didn’t preach as part of a team.”

But what is the church to do once Christ has risen and ascended? Jesus made that clear. He put apostles in place as his authoritative spokesmen and preachers. Not a singular apostle, or even a primary apostle, but a plurality. Then, likewise, throughout the world, the apostles instituted a plurality of elders to teach and govern local churches with the apostolic word.

We don’t get the impression that local churches in the New Testament would have been listening to just one teacher, and by extension, just one preacher, week in and week out. After all, without exception, local churches were led by a plurality (team) of elders (among others, see 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13; 1 Timothy 4:14; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; Hebrews 13:7, 17; 1 Peter 5:1, 5). Added to that, the New Testament requires all elders, not just a single preacher among them, to be “skillful in teaching” (Greek didaktikos, 1 Timothy 3:2), to have the kind of “pedagogical gifting,” as John Piper calls it, to be effective in their calling as pastor-elders.

Titus 1:9 makes clear how important it is for the health and protection of the church that the (plural) elders be capable teachers. False teaching, Paul says, must be countered by true teaching — through pastors who both teach sound doctrine and expose error. A pastor-elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” The nature of the church as a creation of Christ’s word requires leaders who are not mere governors and decision-makers but teachers — with various levels of gifting and calling for teaching, including preaching.

Even in 1 Timothy 5:17, which mentions that some elders, from among the larger team, labor especially at preaching and teaching, Paul doesn’t say that one does so, but that multiple (“those”) do so.

How Do Pastors Pastor?

In considering whether team preaching is desirable (and realistic) in a local church, we might ask, How will pastor-elders do the work to which we’ve been called apart from preaching and teaching?

Paul says to the plural elders of Ephesus in Acts 20:28, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God.” How will they care for the church? The verb here, literally, is to shepherd (poimainein). And shepherding in the church requires feeding the flock through teaching — as Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17). Shepherds are feeders (Jude 12); they guide sheep to springs of living water (Revelation 7:17) through their teaching. When Jesus noticed the crowds needed shepherding, what did Jesus do next? He taught them (Mark 6:34).

Again, this does not mean that all pastors share all the teaching (and preaching) work equally and get their equal number of assignments. We should beware of our modern egalitarian impulses here.

A plurality of elders, who all are apt or skillful at teaching, naturally extends to plurality in teaching — and teaching to preaching when possible. As Piper observes, teaching and preaching are distinct, not identical, yet they often are “interwoven,” and given “the nature of the reality of communication,” it would be “artificial to draw a hard line between preaching and teaching” (Expository Exultation, 56–58). And it is fitting for those who aspire to labor especially in preaching and teaching (often as a vocational calling) to pursue formal theological education and to seek to hone the craft of preaching as a life-work.

To be clear, I am not claiming that all pastor-elders must sense a call to the pulpit. All must be capable teachers of Christian doctrine (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9), but not all must be “preachers.” But note that the New Testament does not give us a paradigm for elders who do not labor at all at teaching.

‘First Among Equals’

Adopting a team-teaching model does not prevent a particular man from assuming a special burden of leadership among the pastors. “First among equals” (one pastor as leader among the others) is neither clearly commanded nor forbidden in Scriptures, but most of us have found it confirmed by wisdom and inevitable in practice. Eventually someone regularly carries a greater sense of responsibility among the plurality, in taking the needed initiatives to organize and rally the team. In time, someone emerges as the captain, even if unnamed. It can be clarifying and healthy to name that “first among equals” and call him the “senior” or “lead” pastor.

In most churches, so far as I’m aware, this “first among equals” is also “the preacher,” the pastor who preaches the vast majority of the time. But we need not jump from “first among equals” to a single or predominant preacher, inevitable as that may seem in many contexts. Team preaching, I believe, is a worthy biblical option that I suspect many pastors and congregations may have not seriously considered as another viable paradigm. To commend the practice to you as both desirable and attainable, I offer several lessons from our seven years (so far) — for the health of the church, health of the pastor, and health of his family — before considering five potential drawbacks.

Health of the Church

First, a good team provides richer teaching and leadership over time than one man alone (other than Christ). Different teachers, of various backgrounds and experiences and perspectives, united in fidelity to Christ, enrich the church.

In addition to this, sharing the pulpit gives space for sermons to be prepared over weeks, rather than days. There is also a holy pressure for the preacher to represent the elders as a whole and not take license as “the preacher” to herald personal convictions to which he cannot win the full council. The plurality serves as a valuable filter, through the wisdom of a team of godly men, to make us aware of our personal quirks and preferences that we should keep out of the pulpit as much as we’re able.

“Team preaching makes elder plurality visible and functional.”

Team preaching also demonstrates tangibly, in the most visible moment in the life of the church, that we really have a team of pastors, not just one man. Team preaching works against the human penchant, even in otherwise healthy churches, to make “the preacher” the local celebrity, at least in the congregation. Team preaching makes elder plurality visible and functional. When the church doesn’t have a single preacher, congregants don’t expect “the preacher” to show up in the hospital every time; they’re encouraged to see the face and hear the voice of one of their pastors, rather than fixating on a particular one.

Health of the Pastor

Now, we might attach three more lessons to the health of the pastor. First, it is good for the preacher to know the pulpit is not his own. Consider what might be a surprising testimony to the value of pulpit-sharing from John Calvin (1509–1564), who was very much the dominant and primary preacher in his own church in Geneva.

Historian Scott Manetsch notes an interesting practice of Calvin and his fellow pastors in town: they rotated preaching at Geneva’s three city churches, and this, says Manetsch, “was designed by Calvin to ensure that Geneva’s townspeople would be edified by a variety of preachers; it also affirmed the collegial nature of pastoral ministry in the city and discouraged ministers from viewing their preaching posts as personal fiefdoms” (Calvin’s Company of Pastors, 20–21). (Manetsch also notes, “It was not uncommon [in Geneva] for faithful churchgoers to hear three, four, or even five different preachers at their parish temple over the course of a single week,” 150.)

I admit that my advocacy of team preaching goes beyond what Calvin practiced, or advocated, or perhaps even thought desirable. However, the double-edged principle here is powerful: health to both the preacher and the congregation. The congregation benefits — even in Calvin’s case! — by hearing from a variety of capable, faithful voices in the pulpit, rather than from one single, fallen man. And benefit accrues to the preacher in that he is reminded that his pulpit, and church, is not his own. Christ is Lord of the church, and the churches, not the preacher.

To Manetsch’s observation about pulpit-sharing discouraging pastors “from viewing their preaching posts as personal fiefdoms,” I’d add another personal benefit: so far as I can tell, it has been good for my soul, as a preacher, to sit under more sermons than I give. My own growth as a Christian, and then also as a pastor, is enriched by attending to the preaching of my brothers. I need others preaching into my life.

Last, I suspect in the long haul, humanly speaking, this makes our sermons better, not worse. Even if we have less practice preparing and delivering new messages, our fellow pastors speaking into a series (say, on Exodus or 1 Peter) enriches not only the whole series but also the individual messages.

Health of His Family

Finally, preaching every few weeks, versus every Sunday, can make a significant difference over time in relieving burdens on the pastors’ families. Preaching done well is hard work, and for dads with school-age children, it’s hard work that culminates at a hard time — the very middle of the weekend.

No matter how far ahead you prepare, good preaching puts pressure on Saturday nights and makes demands on Sunday mornings. The night before matters. If the sermon’s already “done,” do you review it? All day Saturday, do you unavoidably think about the task ahead the next day? How early do you get to bed the night before? So also on Sunday, how do you ready your own soul, and pray, and rehearse the message early that morning? How early does the preacher need to arrive for pre-service prayer and final preparations? Does it mean Mom has to corral the kids alone, into the car and to church, when Daddy’s preaching?

To be the preacher can be a particular burden to bear with young children and teens. It’s often noted that preaching on the weekend doesn’t make for time off, and so preachers take their off-days during the week. But if you have school-age children, that means taking time off when they are not available (and working on the weekends when they are available). Weekends are important for being Dad and investing in our wife and kids, and even in-laws and friends.

Now, to be clear, I am not advocating mere hardship-avoidance — the kind of avoidance that will not fit Christians well for the remaining tasks of missions and ministry in hard times, that is, normal times. Rather, I mean to point out that there are real and significant strains on the family that might not be necessary ones. Sober-minded pastoral teams will need to determine that for themselves and their own families in their context.

Pondering Drawbacks

With those lessons in mind, what potential drawbacks might team preaching present?

If an elder team is divided, wouldn’t it be a disaster to pass the pulpit back and forth between men who disagree? That’s true. From what I can tell, this may be the chief danger and risk. But it is not unique to preaching. A similar argument could be made against the plurality of elders in general. In reply, we might observe that the need to preach together can apply a holy pressure to get divided teams to work on their disagreements and move toward unity. Preaching together can heighten the importance of unity among the elders and lead to the earnest pursuit of genuine, deep unity, which is not only attainable but expected.

“Team preaching can provide added impetus for elders to share, rather than bury, their disagreements.”

Wouldn’t team preaching handcuff pastors to preach only what the whole team rallies to — the group’s lowest common denominator? But on a healthy team, that dynamic can be good. In a “primary preacher” context, is it any mark of health for the other elders to disagree with the content of the one man’s preaching? Team preaching can provide added impetus for elders to share, rather than bury, their disagreements and work together toward harmony.

If there’s one especially gifted preacher, doesn’t team preaching deprive that church of the opportunity to draw and disciple more people over time? But is this really how we want to focus our desire for growth, on the wings, humanly speaking, of one man? Or might it be an invitation to us to pause and ask, Why would that kind of growth be such a significant driver? Attractional assumptions and desires may pressure elders to put their best preacher forward as often as possible, but in a healthier church, the elders will want to ask carefully, At what cost? What’s being lost in the seeming gain of having our best preacher in the pulpit so often?

What if one man is manifestly a better preacher than the rest? This may very well be the case in some (especially large) churches with the resources to find and attract the best of preachers. But this is not manifestly so in many churches. In most cases, the preacher is a good man, perhaps with a seminary education. He is indeed fit to preach. Even if “the preacher” is only incrementally better qualified and capable to preach than the next man up, you might ask, won’t that accrue over time? You might point to that as a gain in the primary preacher model. But we also should consider, what will be the attendant cost — to him, to his family, and to the church?

Doesn’t having a primary preacher avoid ups and downs in sermon quality from one preacher to another (and the inevitable comparing that would happen between them)? In situations where this is the case, loving, honest peer feedback on the sermon can go a long way, in time, to improve sermon quality in weaker preachers. Also, deep unity among the elders, who manifest their love of sitting under the preaching of their fellow elders, can go a long way when the church can sense that love and admiration.

More Possible Than We Think?

Perhaps the drawback you most expected to see is that having a team of capable preachers, not just one, seems simply impossible in many contexts. It’s hard enough to find one competent preacher, much less two or more. I do not conclude that churches with essentially one preacher are in error, nor do I overlook how God has been pleased to bless the primary-preacher ministries of men like John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and countless other recognizable names. Also, I concede that one legacy of faithful theological institutions (like Bethlehem College & Seminary) in a city is that often the nearby churches (like ours) find themselves with an “embarrassment of riches,” having multiple skilled preachers in a single congregation. I admit our situation at Cities Church is rare.

However, I suspect team preaching may be more possible than many assume, if we were to adjust our expectations and long-unchallenged paradigms, consider what might grow naturally out of shared governance, and pray and work patiently toward it. I believe it’s more possible, and near, than many assume at first blush. In fact, it may be as near as disciple-making, and serve as a helpful catalyst in disciple-making. After all, elders are to be the church’s lead disciple-makers, charged to raise up faithful men who will teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).

I won’t pretend to give counsel for every context, but I do suspect a few simple principles might help pastors and congregations who find this vision compelling to move toward team preaching. In the vast majority of situations, it will not happen overnight, but with prayer and patience over time.

First Steps Forward

Begin with prayer. If you’re a solo preacher, ask God to send you some brothers not only in the governance and teaching of the church but also in the preaching. I’m envisioning a season of first praying for it, without feeling any need to act prematurely. Pray over your current elders, if you have them, and over particular names in your congregation. Some preachers might find, with just a little review of specific names in their churches, that God has already sent them capable teachers who may have potential as preachers as well. They’ve long operated with an unchallenged “primary preacher” paradigm, and simply praying and dreaming in a new way provides insights as to how you might move, over time, to a more shared pulpit ministry.

In due course, accompany prayer with modest planning and humble initiatives to invest in your men. If God hasn’t already sent you elder-qualified men, he likely has sent you some men you could disciple. Paul’s memorable charge to Timothy still applies to elders. This doesn’t preclude investing in men who may not prove to be teachers (and some, preachers too), but it does enjoin us to be intentional to disciple some who will: invest in “faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2).

One final, and practical, thought is to audit your Sunday gatherings and consider how the elders (plural) might share in leading the whole service. Is “the preacher” doing the welcome, and prayer, and reading, and communion, and benediction? Is the Sunday service essentially led by one face and voice? Might the leading of corporate worship first become manifestly a team effort by the elders? And as elders become more comfortable and competent ministering to the congregation through the word, a few minutes at a time, might they be better equipped to preach when given some opportunities?