The Best Church Leader Is a Team

Plurality. It’s a weighty word that reminds us that ideas have consequences. By plurality, I’m talking about shared leadership. It’s a way of referencing the consequential idea that leadership in the New Testament was a team enterprise, not one man’s genius. Thus, when leaders acted, it was together as a ruling body (Acts 13:1–3; 15:22–23).

Leading. Together. As one. That’s plurality. Pretty simple stuff.

“The quality of our plurality determines the health of our church.”

It is simple, but not inconsequential. In my recent book, I proposed that the quality of our plurality determines the health of our church. Nothing too radical. I just meant that an eldership is a microcosm of the church. When elders share their leadership and life together, the church thrives. As the plurality goes, so goes the church.

And as I’ve been pondering that proposition, another consequential idea has surfaced as a beautiful implication: Where pluralities are strong, joy in ministry runs deep. What’s the connection between a healthy leadership plurality and joy in ministry?

1. The Joy of Becoming a Team

Some men plant churches and slide into a plurality of elders through a slow and measured process. Not effortless, mind you, but these men have time on their side. The manuals by Strauch, Dever, or maybe Bannerman are companions to help guide their way. Others, like me, inherit a plurality almost overnight through a church crisis where my most attractive quality was that I was the only guy left to take the role.

Right away, I discovered that having a plurality of elders is not synonymous with having a team of elders. Our shared values, mutual respect, relational history, network affiliation, and constitutional responsibility did not magically make us into a band of brothers. For many, a plurality is nothing more than the names that appear in incorporating documents or under the “Elders” tab on the church website. But a team is different. It’s a leadership community that breeds the kind of culture where doing ministry together is joyful.

Recently, Christianity Today commemorated the passing of the remarkable Billy Graham. While Graham was more evangelist than elder, he understood the importance of leading as a team. One contributor cited it as a defining mark of Billy Graham’s ministry:

I learned from Graham to build your ministry on a team. He knew this, and he built a core team that was with him fifty years. Everybody on the team brought strengths to the table. When you build an effective team, you hire people who compensate for your weaknesses and who mobilize or reinforce your strengths, because nobody can be good at everything.

Here’s a statement you can trust in any church: Wherever two or more leaders are gathered, a culture will emerge. Sometimes that culture is marked by rivalry and self-protection and competing agendas; but when this culture fosters a healthy team and stronger church, ministry becomes a sweet experience.

2. The Joy of Unity

“When elders share leadership and life together, the church thrives. As the plurality goes, so goes the church.”

Some people call it ministry silos — roles where the workers are often disconnected and the work feels like you’re manning an outpost on Pluto. Cut off from meaningful unity, expectations plummet. Ministry becomes pragmatic — a means to use my gifts, a path to satisfy my call, or just a way to pay the bills.

The apostle Paul knew this. That’s what he was getting at when he asked the Philippians to “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2). Paul knew that the Philippians’ agreement was a crucial component to the completion (or satisfaction) of his joy. His words remind us of a principle often true of pluralities: The greater the unity among the workers, the deeper their joy in the work.

There is a beauty when strong and diversely gifted people unite to serve the church. It’s a faint glimmer, a dim reflection of the triune God — coequal persons, distinct roles in creation and salvation, but always united in their delight for one another and all they accomplish together.

Diverse persons finding joy in agreement. That’s a healthy plurality.

But here’s the tricky part: preserving joyful unity in the midst of disagreement is healthy plurality too. Some assume that disagreement or dissent undermines the team and will always clog the flow of joy. But that common fallacy confuses dissent with disrespect or disloyalty. Humble leaders have healthy debates that uphold the law of love. And when they are able to disagree agreeably, this actually works to improve the unity and depth of the team. A healthy plurality must understand that mindless uniformity among the elders weakens the church. Healthy leadership is to comprehend that a misguided deference to the loudest voice or a naïve admiration of the lead pastor makes agreement superficial, even dangerous.

One can wish for a robust plurality that inhabits the delicate space between agreement and dissent, but it doesn’t come by wishing. Real unity requires something from everyone. “Being of the same mind” and “having the same love” requires a lot of work, but it also delivers deep joy.

3. The Joy of Care

“Wherever two or more leaders are gathered, a culture will emerge.”

God loves elders, and he wants their souls to be nurtured and tended. So, he supplies sufficient grace to convert pluralities into teams. This happens when each man realizes they need the other men. They must experience and model Paul’s analogy of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12–27), which assumes the principle: To grow, I need your help.

When a team identity begins to form, the care of each member becomes even more important. As care flows, delight grows.

In a world where almost anything can be professionalized and outsourced, it’s easy for pastors to farm out their care for one another by finding the primary help for their souls outside of the eldership — sometimes even outside of the church. This is not a subtle attack on professional counselors, coaching, or parachurch ministries. I serve on the board of a counseling ministry and have benefitted from both counseling and coaching from outside of my local eldership. But those services must always supplement the care from the local church, and never replace it.

According to Jesus, it’s our love for one another, not our productivity and performance, that marks us out as distinct from the world (John 13:34–35). An elder plurality only experiences this joyful distinction when the shepherds are caring for one another as they are caring for the sheep.

Oh, and I believe deeply in the need for lead pastors, provided it’s understood that his role derives its warrant from the authority of the elders. So plurality adds another brain-teasing twist by asking coequal leaders to submit to another coequal leader whom they have empowered to lead.

Indispensable Ingredient

“The greater the unity among your church leaders, the deeper their joy in the ministry.”

Of all the ways God could organize local church leadership, why plurality? It is not about simplicity, ease, or efficiency. When one considers all of the polity options God could have chosen for governing churches, it’s easy to see that he gave the church a plural leadership with a different set of goals in mind. But I believe God chose plurality because he loves humility.

“This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:2)

If I’m right, God chose this method of church governance because, to work well, plurality requires what God values. Humility, contrition, word-trembling leadership — these are the kind of leaders to whom God looks. It’s no surprise to discover that these are also the values he requires for an effective plurality.

God values both the ends and the means. He not only wants the mission to be accomplished, but God wants to see churches that flourish and last. Because humility remains an indispensable ingredient towards securing that future, God created plurality. Then he blesses our feeble and faltering attempts to faithfully practice it.