It’s been thirteen years since we planted a church with a plurality of pastors. Over those years our plurality has taken many different forms. In the beginning it looked like two co-pastors shepherding and leading a church plant side-by-side. Five years later, when we merged with a 100 year-old Baptist church, it looked like a multi-generational plurality of six qualified men (three from each church). Today it looks like 10 co-pastor/elders (half of which are employed by the church and half of which are not) made up of men from a range of different generations, ethnicities, and backgrounds.
Regardless of the different forms it has taken, each of these seasons has one thing in common: I wouldn’t want to do it any other way. The gift of plurality is one of the greatest joys I have had in ministry. It is also one of the most significant blessings. Pastoring with a plurality of co-pastors has encouraged me when I’ve felt down, slowed me when I wanted to go too fast, spurred me on when I wanted to give up, corrected me when I was wrong, and forgiven me when I needed it.
Too often pastors feel isolated and alone. They long for a brotherhood that understands their struggles and can help bear their burdens. But the pastorate was never designed to be lonely. God said in the very beginning that “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). It was true in the Garden of Eden and it’s true in the local church. When we are called to ministry, we are called to it together. As Jeramie Rinne puts it: “Shepherding is possible because it is supposed to be a team sport.”
Every mention of pastors/elders in the New Testament always refers to them in the plural. There’s not even a whiff of the concept of a single pastor shepherding the local church alone. This is because God creates us for relationships, calls us into relationships, and protects us and sustains us through relationships. Pastors are no different. The problem is that we can operate with a faulty definition of what it means to be a pastor in a local church. For plurality to be a blessing to church leaders, we must be clear on what we are a plurality of.
More than a Governing Board
Somewhere along the way, American churches adopted a corporate structure for their leadership. We imported the concept of a governing board (like a board of directors) who oversaw and evaluated the performance of the senior pastor (like a CEO). We labelled it with biblical terminology and called this governing board “the elders.”
As a result, many pastors serve in tension with their “elders.” The governing board doesn’t truly understand the nature of the pastor’s ministry and their priorities can head in different directions. This kind of plurality doesn’t provide the support pastors crave. It often leaves them very isolated.
Scripture uses the term elder (presbuteros) interchangeably with the term overseer (episcope). Both are used in reference to the office of the shepherd-pastor. Pastors are elders and elders are pastors. The Bible doesn’t describe a pastor and a board of directors, who do different jobs and often find themselves at odds. The Bible describes multiple pastor/elders who shepherd the church together. When a plurality of both vocational and non-vocational pastor/elders lead the local church together, isolation is replaced with the joy of unity.
This kind of beautiful leadership community only thrives if the pastors/elders are all spiritually qualified (without exception). God has made it explicitly clear that those who lead and shepherd the church must have the character to do so well (1 Tim 3; Titus 1; 1 Pet 5).
When all the pastor/elders of a local church are biblically qualified it lays the ground for a healthy brotherhood that can genuinely support one another, care for the flock, and lead the church with integrity. Plurality alone is not the answer. A plurality of unqualified co-pastors leads to isolation and frustration. But a plurality of biblically qualified men leads to community and joy.
Plurality also thrives when the shepherding of the local church is not delegated to one man (a senior pastor) or even to a subset of pastors (the vocational or “staff” pastors). If pastors are elders and elders are pastors then all of the pastor/elders ought to be personally engaged in the shepherding of the body. Of course this will look different for different men with different gifts or capacities. But we all know a shepherd isn’t really a shepherd if he doesn’t ever spend time with the sheep.
When a plurality of men co-shepherd together they share the joys of seeing God’s work in people’s hearts. But they also share the burdens of involvement in people’s messy lives. They bear the weight of caring for the church together, knowing that it is a weight that would crush any one of them alone. They don’t just lead the church together or oversee the organization of the church together, they shepherd together. And they pray for people together, they weep over people together, they rejoice over people together, and they seek God for wisdom and guidance together.
Being called to pastoral ministry is to be called together. Whenever a young aspiring elder shares with me that he believes he is called to pastoral ministry there are two questions I ask him. Those questions are “To whom?” and “With whom?” While being called to be trained for pastoral ministry may be vague and undefined, when God calls you to actually be a pastor, it means he is calling you to care for specific people. To answer the call to pastoral ministry means answering the question “to whom?”
But, as we’ve been discussing, that is not the only question. If the call to pastor is a call together then we must also ask the question “with whom?” Who are you called to pastor with? If God has designed his church to be cared for by a plurality of under-shepherds, then who are the fellow brothers he is calling you to come alongside of? In unique circumstances (like pioneering-type ministries) you may be called to raise up fellow pastors yourself. But a far more common experience for pastors, and even church planters, ought to be that of being called together.
Pastoring doesn’t have to be lonely and isolating. In fact, it’s not supposed to be. The road forward begins with us rethinking our expectations of pastors (and of ourselves as pastors) and allowing our expectations to be shaped by the picture we see painted in Scripture. Paul wasn’t called alone. Peter wasn’t called alone. The elders in Ephesus weren’t called alone and neither were those in Thessalonica. You’re not called alone either. You’re called together.