“God gave us plurality because he’s a big fan of humility.” I was struck by how often Dave Harvey mentions humility in his new book The Plurality Principle on building and maintaining church leadership teams.
It’s not a new thought that a plurality — a team of pastor-elders, as opposed to just one — both requires and encourages humility. But what I did not expect is how often Harvey would sound the refrain for the pride-crucifying, humility-cultivating power of team leadership.
Harvey, like many of us, has seen and heard a lifetime’s worth of pastoral shipwrecks in recent years. Some of these leaders were formally peerless in their churches and ministries, but many others had fellow pastor-elders in name, and functionally little accountability, operating with special privileges and a long leash. In the end, too often one man was at the helm, when it could have been a team, and in time, the church, its witness, and the pastor himself came to suffer because it.
“When difficulties arise, do the elders suspect themselves first, not others, and serve others first, not themselves?”
“All Christian community tests our humility,” Harvey writes, “but being part of a leadership team is like sitting for the bar exam” (127). Then he observes, “Humility must be learned over time as individuals both suspect themselves first, not others, and serve others first, not themselves.” Suspect self first. Serve others first. That’s insightful, and a watershed of good leadership in the church: When difficulties arise, do the elders suspect themselves first, not others, and serve others first, not themselves? And what will determine which way the pastors will go?
“Humility is the oil that lubricates the engine of plurality,” writes Harvey. “If you want to know the foundational secret that lies beneath great teams, meetings marked by unity, personal elder care, and lovingly accountable relationships, it’s this: humility” (98).
How Plurality Humbles
Unlike the world’s vision of leadership as self-actualization and the accrual of privilege, a Christian vision of leadership has God, not self, at the center. Pastor-elders are not in it to build their own sense of confidence and self-worth. Rather, their calling is to make additional sacrifices, to bear extra burdens and costs, to point our fellow church members Godward in Christ.
Our need for humility grows the more we are surrounded by other people, especially when yoked in a calling to lead together. While humility is first and foremost a creaturely virtue in relation to our Creator, many of the great texts on humility come in the context of community (Philippians 1:27–2:5; Ephesians 4:1–3; 1 Peter 5:5–7).
Consider four ways, among many others, that team leadership humbles us.
1. Teams expose selfish desires and unholy ambitions.
The apostles warn us of the dangers of “selfish ambition” (Greek eritheia). James writes, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16; also James 3:14). Paul lists selfish ambition as one of “the works of the flesh” alongside “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, . . . dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19–21; also 2 Corinthians 12:20; Philippians 1:17; 2:3).
“Selfish ambition,” or “self-seeking” (Romans 2:8), is tragic in any human, and any Christian, and all the more in Christian leaders. And it is a special threat for lone rangers. Who will smell it out, and can challenge it, even in its subtle forms? Teammates. Men who are peers, of the same standing and similar perspective, and can tell when directions and decisions are self-seeking, rather than church-seeking.
There is often a fine line between putting self forward and the willingness to serve in visible, celebrated positions of leadership. Good pluralities (teams not just in name but in function) tend to expose such selfish desires and unholy ambitions and challenge them before they become deep-seated. As Harvey writes,
If you’re new to working with a team, you’ll soon see how often plurality uncovers and forces you to deal with the heroic dreams and fleshly desires you have for ministry. . . . To serve as part of a healthy elder plurality, a pastor must know his role, be willing to come under authority, learn humility, traffic in nuances that are neither black nor white, and be willing to think about his gifts and position through the lens of what serves the church rather than his personal agenda. Leading in community puts us under the spotlight. (29–30)
2. Teams encourage the right kind of disagreement.
Disagreements are inevitable in the church, and in every sphere of life. The question is not if they will come, but when and how. Healthy teams encourage the right kind of disagreements to happen early and often, in the context of trusting, regular relationships. Better to first hear the opposing perspective in private, from a brother and peer who manifestly loves you, than publicly, or from a tense call or letter, after a rash decision has been implemented.
It is humbling to hear a brother you admire and respect disagree with you. Then, it’s additionally humbling to realize you were short-sighted, or wrong, and to admit it. Leadership pluralities encourage healthy disagreement, in the right time and context.
3. Teams show us the joy of not doing it all.
It’s one thing to admit, as a leader, that you’re human and can’t do it all (in theory); it is another to go about your daily and weekly work as if you can indeed do it all. Teams play out that humbling truth before our eyes, moving it from theory to reality in our own heads and hearts.
For team leadership to thrive over time, writes Harvey, “Each man must believe that he needs the other men.” And seeing our need for each other, lived out before our own eyes, serves to dispel pretenses in us that we deserve the credit for ministry successes.
4. Teams try our patience, and produce better results.
Team leadership is typically not efficient, but it is effective — which is how God wants his church to be led.
“Team leadership is typically not efficient, but it is effective — which is how God wants his church to be led.”
When the “senior pastor” is essentially the church’s CEO, decisions and next actions can happen very fast. Teamwork, on the other hand, takes time. We need to synch schedules, have conversations, provide rationale, answer objections, write drafts, add appropriate nuances. Team leadership is typically not efficient.
But apparently, God isn’t all that interested in efficiency in local-church leadership. Which is worth pondering carefully in our day, when other organizations in society emphasize efficiency, not without good reasons. Yet not so with the church. The clear, unified testimony in the New Testament to plurality of leadership in the local church signals that Christ is more interested in effectiveness than efficiency in his body. Again, Harvey writes,
God loves unity, so he calls us to a team — a place where we must humbly persevere with 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. (99)
Harder, and Better
Teamwork in ministry is a precious gift. Surely, thousands of solo pastors around the world long for fellow elders and do not yet have them. May God be pleased to answer their prayers and steady their hands. There is grace too for a lonely calling.
Those of us who do enjoy the priceless gift of teammates, it can be all too easy to take them for granted. Team leadership is not always easy. Often it doesn’t feel efficient. Fellow leaders can feel inconvenient. At times, it may seem like leading alone would be better.
But leading together challenges and chastens our pride. It costs us personal comforts and convenience, but the gains for the church, and for our own long-term joy, far surpass the discomforts.