A number of years ago I was approached to evaluate the concept of a co-pastor model for a local church. Having just lost its founding pastor due to a severe family illness, this relatively small church (less than 300 members) faced a moment of decision. It had two young, highly skilled assistant pastors. Neither one was quite ready to take over the lead pastor position.
Many members were concerned about the leadership void. Some suggested hiring a new senior pastor. Others lobbied for one of the assistants to take over. Both of the assistant pastors wanted to work together as a team. They presented the idea to the church’s governing board of lay leaders.
It didn’t go over well. The board struggled with the co-pastor idea because it was so foreign to everything they had ever experienced. These leaders were used to top-down management of a church, and they just couldn’t see how anything else would work.
One of the men told me that he didn’t see a lot of basis for a co-pastor model in the Scripture. I responded by saying the same could be said for many other things that have become sacred cows in America’s churches. Much of how we do church today has been influenced by pagan practices more than Scripture. That is not to say that these things are necessarily bad. But we must be careful to realize that just because something has been the tradition for a long time doesn’t make it a divinely inspired practice.
Looking to Scripture, you will find support for a variety of leadership structures. This includes single leaders, delegated leadership, management by a counsel or board of leaders, official/appointed leaders, and impromptu leadership arising from a moment of crisis. I thought about this issue of leadership structures in churches as I read the cover story from the latest issue of Leadership Journal (www.leadershipjournal.net).
The cover story focused on The Next Level (TNL) Church in Colorado. It uses a four-member pastor team approach to leadership. TNL decided on its current approach after the former senior pastor cracked under the pressure of running a large church with thousands in attendance each week.
Here are some insights from the interview. No names are used to keep with the concept of all four pastors working together as a teams. Direct quotations are in “”.
- The senior pastor model can put a lot of pressure on one person unless there is adequate delegation and release to other leaders.
- “There is something systematically unhealthy about becoming dependent upon a single leader.”
- Team leadership spreads around the responsibilities, which means the show will go on even if a crisis event impacts one leader.
- Team environments can create an atmosphere where pastors feel free to bounce around ideas and really explore new ways to do things.
- The concept of team leadership doesn’t seem as strange in other countries. But our rugged individualism in Amercia makes it difficult for some people to implement.
- The co-pastor/team approach is not for every church. Each local fellowship must decided what fits best. There should be room to try new structures as seems best to fit each individual situation.
- At TNL, each pastor oversees a specific ministry area. They make large decisions together.
- According to the article, a big reason why TNL’s leadership structure works is that the pastors are truly friends who enjoy serving together. Their teamwork model reflects the more collaborative culture that exists especially among younger people today.
- “No structure is perfect. If you change the structures, you’re just trading liabilities. The liabilities that go with the team structure suit our culture, and they suit our personalities.” This quote captures a key point that there is no perfect system because all will involve imperfect people. The key is to recognize the holes in your approach and to go about fixing them.
- Having different leaders up front doing ministry can be a plus and minus. Some people want only one person on stage most of the team. They like the consistentancy of the same face every week. The nice thing about having multiple leaders who teach or do stage ministry is that different people will connect with various communication styles.
- “Culturally, we also like to worship celebrities. We all have a little paparazzi in us that we bring to church.” A team approach gets across the point that the value of a local church is much more than just one dynamic speaker.
- Leaders can be free to focus on their specialties without having to have an opinion on everything. In the senior pastor models, the top leader tends to be asked about every little detail.
- “Our team structure demands healthy relationships and health communication. Without those we cannot get the job done.” Sadly, healthy communication is one of the things that is lacking in many churches around the country.
- Leadership teams must have chemistry. This is not something that you can force, and it should get stronger over time.
- “Most structures don’t allow lead pastors to take a back seat.” One of the major reasons for this is that lower level pastors don’t want to take risks that will get them in trouble with the boss. And senior pastors don’t do enough to release and communicate with their subordinates.
- One of the liabilities the team approach is that it takes a lot longer to make decisions. The good part is that you have a number of voices to vet ideas.
What do you think? Could a team/co-pastor model ever work in your local church?