Christian leadership is not for the lone wolf. The labor is too important when souls are in the balance, and all of us are simply too frail and shortsighted, with too much indwelling sin and too many blind spots, to go at it on our own.
Whatever the role, whether on the college campus, or in the inner city, or among an unreached people group, or in the local church, we desperately need each other in all of life, and especially in leadership. Christian leadership is a team sport, and in a post-Enlightenment society, still deeply affected by modernist individualism, the biblical model of plurality in leadership is a desperately needed corrective, and a powerfully redemptive grace.
Team leadership does not mean there is no “chief among equals”; it’s both inevitable and good among any group that one person eventually functions as the “senior” or the final buck-stopper — might as well name that and make it plain. But the clear model in the New Testament is team leadership in the local church — plurality, we call it. “Without exception,” says Gregg Allison, “every time the New Testament mentions the government of a particular church, the leadership structure is a plurality of elders” (Sojourners and Strangers, 293).
Before providing a dozen additional benefits of plurality in leadership, here is a headlining principle: We are wiser together. “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22). “By wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory” (Proverbs 24:6).
The vast majority of decisions we face in life each day are not clearly laid out in biblical do’s and don’ts. The way we learn to do “what is good and acceptable and perfect” is by being “transformed by the renewal of your minds, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God” (Romans 12:2). We don’t live life following a list. Rather, God remakes us from the inside into increasingly new people, and as we’re “renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Ephesians 4:23), we exercise wisdom as we “try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10). As we are “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9), we learn to “approve what is excellent” (Philippians 1:10).
Plurality in leadership, then, is the corporate manifestation of such sobermindedness, sanctified level-headedness. The toughest decisions we face in leadership are not clear do’s and don’ts. And in leadership, the messes multiply, and the decisions become more difficult. What we desperately need is to exercise a collective wisdom stemming from God’s remaking of us, not just individually but together. We need to supplement each other’s judgment, and seek to discern together God’s path for the ministry we lead. Which is why one of the first characteristics required of elders in the church is “sober-mindedness” (1 Timothy 3:2).
A Dozen More Gifts
When we have carefully guarded the door to leadership on the way in, and we know each other well enough to confirm we’re walking together in the light, then we can exercise great trust in the team’s sense of direction. We are significantly wiser together than alone.
Of course, there are drawbacks to plurality in leadership. Even though it’s more likely that an individual will be led astray, whole groups have been deceived and corrupted. And as Alexander Strauch concedes, “Team leadership in a church family can be painfully slow and terribly aggravating” (Biblical Eldership, 44). That’s true. But on the whole, the benefits of leading together far outweigh going at it alone.
Here, then, are a dozen more benefits, among others, to supplement the truth that we indeed are wiser together. (These are not meant to heap discouragement on those who are in singular leadership situations and would love to be surrounded by fellows but have none. Rather, we hope they will give you incentive to keep praying for, and investing in the lives of, future teammates in ministry.)
1. More Strengths, Fewer Weaknesses
Plurality in leadership means rounding out our giftings with the talents of others, and pooling our complementary gifts to do the work more effectively. God gives “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Romans 12:6). Even among leaders, there are varieties of gifts, service, and activities (1 Corinthians 12:4–6). Leadership is better when together we are “good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).
And as we pool our strengths, we make up for our deficiencies. Leading together covers many of our weaknesses. In a team setting, our individual lapses in judgment cause less damage, if any; other voices can speak up and point in another direction. It’s okay to be imperfect; others can see our blind spots and bring correction. And leading together can guard against domineering tendencies in individual leaders, as peers stand alongside to sharpen and challenge them.
2. Healthier Teaching
It’s good for individual teachers to make their provocative points, have their well-placed hyperboles, and exhibit their own winsome quirks and idiosyncrasies. But when they’re alone over the long haul, they can introduce wobbles and imbalances into local church life. Any group with only one teacher will become painfully like that leader if you give it enough time.
At the heart of Christian leadership is speaking God’s words (Hebrews 13:7). So pastors and elders must be skillful in teaching (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9). And it’s just as important to have a plurality of elders in public teaching as it is in private meetings and decisions. Also, when there is a team of qualified teacher-leaders, they can teach in various settings. In this way, there are multiple significant influences on the people. No one teacher has all the gifts, and all the balance, that a healthy, vibrant community needs.
3. Lightening the Workload
Pastoral leadership can be very demanding. Not only is there the proactive labors of preparation and delivery of public teaching, and the long meetings to make mind-bending decisions, but also the intensive reactive ministry of responding to needs in the flock. When we lead together, we share the heavy load that shepherding can be at times. When we divide the labor and distribute the weight of ministry, we make everyday life more livable for leaders and protect them from exhaustion and burn out.
4. Being Pastored and Accountable
Plurality in leadership also provides essential care and accountability. When the church’s most public leader has peers who can speak into his life, and hold him to the fire, there is less room for subtly taking advantage of privilege and making self-serving decisions. And for every Christian shepherd, our more fundamental identity is being one of the sheep (Luke 10:20). Pastors need to be pastored. We all need to be held accountable and have some structure for being called out if we get off track, as well as led proactively into greener pastures.
5. More Safety Together
Often in Christian leadership, we encounter situations that seem far beyond us as individuals. We simply don’t know what to do, or what counsel to give. We’re confused and torn; we feel stuck.
Leading together not only makes us wiser together when many options are on the table, but also helps us to move carefully forward, one step at a time, into a situation in which we’re not even sure there’s one good option. As Proverbs 11:14 says, “in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
6. More Support from the Church
Because elders are first and foremost sheep, not shepherds, they are “of the people.” This office is different than that of Apostle, as those who represent the Chief Shepherd in a more significant sense. We might say that while the apostles are “of God,” the elders are “of the people.”
The elders are from the people, and among the people, and having a plurality of elders among the people helps to create congregational support for decisions, before and after the fact. A single leader is not able to influence and win support and deal with individual circumstances nearly so strongly as a team working together.
7. Less Sting from Unjust Criticism
Flying solo in leadership means all the sting lands squarely on the lone wolf. But when we lead as a team, and make and own decisions as a team, we’re less exposed to unjust criticism for those decisions. We still feel the sting, but not nearly so sharply as when we take it together. Which connects, then, to our ability to encourage one another in difficulty.
8. More Encouragement in Difficulty
All leadership in a fallen world involves difficulty sooner than later. It’s just a matter of time. And perhaps all the more in Christian leadership, because so much is at stake, and because there is a genuine Enemy with schemes against us.
Trials will come, but when we lead together, we’re in much better condition to walk in those trials without losing hope. Together, we strengthen each other to continue truly, deeply, continually rejoicing, even as we experience great sorrow. Having peers in leadership proves to be a priceless encouragement in trouble.
9. More Stable in Transition
Transition comes to every leadership team if the organization is healthy and survives for much duration of time. In particular, when the senior leader transitions, whether to retirement or some other vocation, the plurality contributes greatly to stability during change.
10. More Sanctifying
Not only is there the collective wisdom, but leading together makes us better as individuals. Shared leadership is more sanctifying than leading alone. Leading together, says Strauch,
exposes our impatience with one another, our stubborn pride, our bull-headedness, our selfish immaturity, our domineering disposition, our lack of love and understanding of one another, and our prayerlessness. It also shows us how underdeveloped and immature we really are in humility, brotherly love, and true servant spirit. (114)
Leading together makes each of us better. “Iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17).
11. Greater Joy Together
Leading together also brings greater joy than going at it alone. “It is much more satisfying . . . to pastor as a team than to be a lone-wolf shepherd” (Jeremie Rinne, Church Elders, 95). While at times it may feel easier to make all the calls yourself, the joy of leading together, with all its attendant difficulties, far surpasses the simplicity of being the king of the hill.
12. Together Under the Chief
Finally, and most significantly, working as a team of undershepherds should remind us continually that there is only one “chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4). We undershepherds are plural, but there is a singular great “Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25), only one “great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20). He is the one with shoulders broad enough to role all our burdens for the flock onto him (1 Peter 5:7). He is the one who has promised that he will build his church (Matthew 16:18) and that his gospel will go to all the nations (Matthew 24:14) through the church (Ephesians 1:22; 3:21).
The reality of plurality reminds us that we are not the lone leader of Christ’s church. He is.